I recently came across an article about plant-based fake meat (“beyond burger”, “impossible burger” etc) titled After Billions in Investment, Plant-Based Meat is a Branding Catastrophe. It makes some fair points about how the fake-meat companies thought that merely having reasonably plausible fake meat was enough and have utterly failed to market it. However, it strikes me that it misses a bigger problem with regard to marketing fake meat: their target market is mostly into natural food.
When it comes to people who have extra money to spend on food, they don’t generally think that the big problem we have in our food these days is that it’s too real.
There’s a further issue that fake meat doesn’t solve any actual problems. Well, that’s not quite true. It does make it easier for burger places to have a vegetarian option when mostly meat eaters and a vegetarian want to go to a burger restaurant. But that’s about it.
Now, I say this as someone who is about halfway to being carnivorous (on an average day meat makes up half to three quarters of what I eat): if you want to eat vegetarian food, there are plenty of tasty ways of doing that which don’t taste like meat.
The big problem with eating vegetarian food, though, is its nutrient content. I know that there have been endless decades of propaganda about how many vitamins there are in vegetables, but it’s way easier to get most of the nutrients you need, and without absurd amounts of starch, by eating meat. It’s best, of course, to eat a varied diet because that will ensure that one doesn’t miss out on anything for too long, but especially in terms of macro-nutrients, getting a large amount of protein which has a good balance of amino acids without getting a ton of carbohydrates at the same time is just a ton of work. If your diet isn’t going to be primarily composed of nuts (tree nuts and peanuts) you’re going to have to rely quite heavily on processed proteins. In practice, that means eating a ton of soybean-based foods. It’s not hard for that to get old, fast.
Fake hamburgers don’t actually solve this problem. While they do taste a fair amount like meat, they don’t have the nutrients of meat, and while our bodies can be fooled some of the time—especially by sugar—our bodies are actually really good at figuring out what nutrients and micro-nutrients are in foods and making us want them or not want them according to what we need. Soy protein and coconut oil don’t acquire all of the other stuff that’s in animal muscle just because one adds in some plant-based heme which is normally one of the easiest ways to detect that we’re eating red meat.
Which brings me back to the marketing issue: the sort of people who would normally form the market for fake meat are the sort of people who shop at whole foods. But fake meat is not a whole food. Fake meat is a heavily processed laboratory product. It’s not a healthier way to eat soybeans and coconut oil, and if you really want to base your diet on soybeans, you’re probably better off learning how to do it with tofu, which as a fermented food has all sorts of nutrients in it that the original soybeans don’t.
(Fun fact: in the cultures that tofu originates in, it’s not a replacement for meat but often a complement to it, being put in the same dishes at the same time.)