If you were a supermarket, where would you put a product that is engineered to taste like ground beef but is manufactured from pulverized plants?
The food scene is changing fast. Plant-based products have arrived, but they are anomalies. They don’t fit in the usual slots. It’s not the first time rapid change has disrupted our food supply and it probably won’t be the last, but each time a disruption occurs, our sense of normal needs adjusting. So I posed the question in a number of forums and here’s what came back.
The arrival of plant-based meat analogs evokes passion ranging from evangelical ecstasy to visceral derision.
For true believers, the promise of phasing out livestock production is an absolute good for our health, the planet, sustainability, and the welfare of animals. For traditional eaters, pastoral romantics, and regenerative farmers replacing real meat with fake meat is misguided. One particularly caustic commentator suggested putting the product in the pet food section because the texture of pulverized plants is the same as canned dog food.
The vegan/vegetarian section would be a logical place and that was the section I checked first. Nothing new. No faux burgers. Just the usual collection of traditional veggie burgers.
Meat analogs can’t go in the organic food section, at lease now yet. The first generation meat analogs don’t meet the USDA organic criteria. One brand proudly lists the use of two genetically engineered components.
If there were a section dedicated to sustainability, it would be a good place for meat analogs. Climate change activists believe red meat is bad for the planet and ruminants like beef and dairy cattle are a big contributor to global warming. Not everyone agrees however. The belief that red meat is a significant contributor to warming remains controversial.
Business decisions still get made based on many factors and it appears manufacturers have pushed hard to get their meat analogues into the meat department and that’s exactly where I found the package. Beyond Meat Burgers were right next to the grass-fed burgers in the frozen meat section.
Food 2.0 was the most creative response I received. As technology continues to disrupt the food section, supermarkets will respond as best they can. Food 2.0 is as good as any catch word to describe the brave new world of food tech that we have just entered. The FDA has cleared both major meat analog manufacturers for retail sale and that means a tsunami is about to hit the supermarket floor.
Many of my fellow dietitians have serious concerns about the healthiness of meat analogs because they are highly processed. It takes a lot of tinkering to get a plant to taste like ground beef. I share that concern but to date there’s no good evidence that ultra-processed foods are unhealthy. Lots of speculations and gut feelings but no hard evidence except for one study published this year which established a correlation between a diet of ultra-processed foods and weight gain.
So what should we do while we wait for more evidence?
Here’s my plan. No problem with a meat analog from time to time, but my gut isn’t used to high tech food and I see no reason to change right now. So for the time being, the proteins you will find on my plate will be lentils and chickpeas and 100% grass-fed beef.