The Guardian view on meat substitutes: guts without the gore

In the developed world we should take heart from people’s willingness to try new, vegan foodstuffs – and from the success of the companies that make them


Diet is among lifestyle changes urgently needed if developed nations are to have a hope of meeting targets for reduced carbon emissions.’ Photograph: Seth Perlman/AP

The Seventh-day Adventist church in the US adheres historically to vegetarianism, in large part to the teachings of a co-founder of the church – Ellen G White – who advocated for meat-free diet habits following a prophetic vision. Mrs White apparently thought eating animal flesh would “excite and strengthen the lower passions” and had “the tendency to deaden the moral powers”. For almost a decade from the late 19th century a slice of America was marketed and brought up on meat substitutes such as Nuteena, a peanut-based loaf, along with Wham, Tuno, FriChick and Big Franks. While there has always been a market for growing numbers of vegetarians and vegans worldwide, the cause of meat-free diets has been given in recent years a rocket boost, not by religion but by reason.

Diet is among lifestyle changes urgently needed if developed nations are to have a hope of meeting targets for reduced carbon emissions, a must to halt global heating. Every environmentalist and a great many ordinary people – including plenty of non-vegetarians – know that grains, vegetables and pulses including soya ought to soon form a far larger share of the typical western diet than they do at present. Industrialised agriculture and livestock farming are massively carbon-intensive activities. While the UN estimates they cause 23% of global emissions, critics believe this is an underestimate and the true total is far higher.

Last week KFC (formerly Kentucky Fried Chicken) became the latest fast food giant to announce that it is working on new products based on meat substitutes: in this case, “Beyond Fried Chicken”, a vegan nugget developed in partnership with California-based company Beyond Meat. Following Burger King’s launch this year of the meat-free Whopper, with ingredients supplied by Beyond Meat’s main competitor, Impossible Foods, the KFC announcement confirms what was already clear: there is real momentum, and money, behind the growth of plant-based alternatives to meat.

Veganism in the UK is nothing new. But for some people it is changing our food landscape too fast. Last year the bakery chain Greggs faced criticism for selling a vegan sausage roll filled with meat-free Quorn. When a row between food writer Selene Nelson and Waitrose magazine editor William Sitwell exploded into headlines after Mr Sitwell sent such a rude reply to a proposal for a vegan recipe series, he resigned. It is ridiculous to treat shoppers for pastry snacks as warriors in a culture war.

The structural shifts required to address the climate crisis will not be made in bakeries. The countries that drove the global rise in the consumption of animal products in the past are not the ones that will do so in future. But that doesn’t mean the rich world can go on eating beef and lamb with impunity, any more than we can continue to fly around the world without thinking about the harm that air traffic entails. Instead, we should take heart from the instances in which behaviour change is a message that consumers are willing to consider (the reduction in plastic bag use is another). Greggs’ shares jumped more than 13% between February and March this year, and the company is working on a vegan version of its steak bake. Bring it on.

Will Impossible Burgers be the norm for Gen Z?


The Impossible Burger, a vegan burger with heme harvested from soybean roots to look, feel, and taste like beef, as prepared by Hell’s Kitchen in Downtown Minneapolis, MN. Photo via Tony Webster under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

In one of those interchangeable American office parks, where oceans of blacktop pool around lowrise grey-on-grey buildings, a gaggle of kids in white lab coats gathered to apply temporary burger tattoos, conduct mini science experiments, and await the arrival of a radically transformed food system.

The backs of those lab coats were decorated with the initials IF standing for “Impossible Foods,” the eight-year-old startup working to replace all animal meat with its plant-based alternatives.

The kids went from table to table under big white tents in the parking lot behind company headquarters. There was a station where they could try and guess the flavor of jelly beans while wearing nose plugs (it’s almost impossible), and another where they could make little wind turbines out of paper. The vibe was more grade-school science fair than Silicon Valley bacchanal, despite the fact that the company is flush with cash.

Investors are clawing and shoving for the opportunity to throw money at young alternative-meat companies. Impossible just raised $300 million in its fifth time going back to the money well. Another veggie-burger maker, Beyond Meat, saw its stock price increase more than 600 percent since it first went on sale in MayDel Taco, Carl’s Jr., and T.G.I. Friday’s are selling Beyond Meat products, while White Castle, Burger King, and Qdoba are offering Impossible burgers — and the company can’t make enough to keep up with demand. Things seem a little frothy: Is this a faux-meat bubble?

Impossible Foods’ kid-centric event was perfectly crafted to quash fears that America’s enthusiasm for its burgers is just a flash in the pan. The company organized the party to herald a set of survey findings showing that young people are more likely than past generations to seek out meat alternatives. The report attempts to dispel any bubble fears in the very first line: “Plant-based meat is the hottest trend of 2019 — but it isn’t a passing fad.” MORE