In Defense of Fake Meats

The inspiration for today’s meatless message came in the form of a friend’s recent comment, “I just don’t understand fake meats.” I thought about this a lot in the two weeks since he made this statement and I hope I have come up with a satisfactory answer to his perplexity.

The first thing to understand about meatless eating is that nobody ever stopped eating meat because it tastes bad. The case for eating meat goes something like this: it tastes delicious, we all grew up eating it, all our family traditions, celebrations and cherished memories centre on the stuff, it’s available everywhere and 99% of all cookbooks in the world contain imaginative ways to prepare it. Meat is doing just fine in the taste and tradition department. If that is where the comparison ended between meat and other options, there would be no Meatless Mondays.

The reasons for considering “fake” meats over “real” meats are very similar to the reasons for adopting MM in the first place: better health, environmental sustainability and animal welfare. Realistically, though, no one is saying that fake meats are a health food. They do contain fibre where meat doesn’t and they don’t contain saturated fat, which meat does (a lot).  Let me reiterate what I said last week about healthy eating: eat your vegetables, have an apple and stick to whole grains. But fake meats are basically an easy way to get us off our meat addiction in a safer, less impactful way which is similar in mouth feel and taste, allowing us to continue using our favourite recipes with easy substitutions. In a word, they're familiar. Think of them as the methadone of the food world.

And it’s not such a bad substitute these days. Here is a thought experiment for you: think of the best beef stew you’ve ever had in your life as a 10 out of 10. This was probably at a fancy restaurant. So any given beef stew you might make at home would be a 9 out of 10. Now let’s say you were to make a stew with fake beef in it. The sauce is the same; the vegetables are the same. Only the meat is different - mostly in the texture. So you might give this a 6 or a 7 out of 10, let’s assume.

What people seem to forget when they consider having a vegetarian beef stew instead of their old favourite is that their flavour experience doesn’t drop to a zero (0) by replacing the meat. It is the net difference between the 9 and the 7. They are only sacrificing 2 points on the enjoyment scale I just made up, and in exchange, we, the planet and the animals enjoy certain very important benefits.

And keep in mind the recipes, ingredients and production technology of meat substitutes have come a long way and they’ll continue to get better. To compare the first veggie dogs or TVP tacos we got 20 years ago with the stuff we get today is like comparing sawdust and freshly-baked artisan bread. We’ve come along way, baby.

I can see a day in the not-too-distant future that between lab-grown tissue and vegetable protein from legumes and whole grains there will be no need to confine, feed, water and slaughter 50 billion or maybe in the future 100 billion factory-farmed animals per year. That model only makes sense in a world with limitless resources and in a society that lets you externalize a large portion of your costs onto society at large.

Our society will have less and less tolerance for this approach going forward. Factory farms consider health care costs, land and water clean-up, the cost of subsidizing their feed grains, abominable working conditions and infectious agent outbreaks to be somebody else’s problem: ours, not theirs. If they charged us for the full range of meat’s many costs, it would be more like $35 per pound or more. Imagine the lonely meat counter employee with those prices in the window.

How about another thought experiment? Imagine that we had unexpected visitors from another planet and we explained the two concepts to them without the benefit of hundreds of years of cultural and culinary programming. They would look at us like we were idiots. Why is there even a question of whether to eat this tasty mix of chewy vegetable proteins or cut off this pig’s hindquarters and cook it up? After first feeding the pig enough food to feed a small village and giving him the whole town’s water supply to boot? This planet will be easier to take over than we thought.

Another friend of mine who is a rather religious fellow periodically abstains from eating meat for certain seasons of the church calendar, sometimes for a week at a time. He says he doesn’t like to eat fake meats at these times “because it’s not enough of a sacrifice.” He says he feels like he’s trying to find a loophole with the big guy and it doesn’t seem right.

As you know, most of my recipes don’t contain fake meats, but some do. If you’re finding it difficult to stay meatless one or however many days a week you’re trying for, they can be your loophole, letting you eat “meat” dishes with a clear conscience. Fake meats can make MM not that much of a sacrifice. With that in mind, I invite you to give this week’s recipe a try. It includes Gardein brand fake beef tips, which we consider to be the best. You can get them at most grocery stores, but try whatever brand you can find and see what the net difference is for you.

Please feel free to pass this on to anybody you think has trouble understanding fake meats. As always, new referrals to this blog are welcome and feel free to leave a comment with the results of your experiment. By making changes in what you eat, you are making a quantifiable difference and making yourself and your actions part of the solution. As always, I thank you for that.