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Vegetarian ‘meat’ has become a reality

Is there a way to get vegetarians to eat ‘meat’ and still remain purely vegetarian even while they munch on a nice, juicy hamburger, cooked medium rare, with a little blood oozing onto the bun?

Yes, I know, it sounds completely crazy. But that, believe it or not, is pretty much the Holy Grail of the food industry.


Over the last year or so, vegetarian ‘meat’ has become a reality. From being featured in news shows as a ‘miracle product under development’, it has actually hit restaurants, supermarkets and fast food outlets.


   Last week, Burger King released figures that showed that its ‘Impossible Whopper’, made from vegetarian ‘beef’, had been successfully test-marketed in St. Louis. So successful had those tests been that the St. Louis outlets had outperformed the national average by 18.5 per cent in April.


   The Impossible Whopper is made from a plant-based substitute for beef created by a company called Impossible Foods. Riding the wave of Burger King’s success with the vegetarian Whopper, Impossible Foods has just raised another $300 million in funding. Its rival, Beyond Meat, which makes a similar product, is the favourite of investors. A Merrill Lynch analyst was quoted in the Financial Press as declaring that “these next generation plant-based alternatives are in a position to disrupt the meat category in a similar fashion that plant-based milks disrupted dairy, and energy drinks disrupted caffeinated beverages.”


   All over the US, financial analysts talk about ‘vegetarian meat’ as the Next Big Thing, on par with, say, Red Bull at its peak or almond or soy milk.


   At this stage, you may stop and wonder – as I did – what this so-called plant-based ‘meat’ is.


   Well, let’s first be clear about what it is not. We have all read about futuristic experiments where scientists ‘grow’ meat in laboratories and predict that this form of ‘meat’ will be the food of the coming decades.


   The Impossible Whopper and all the products flooding the market are not the results of those scientific developments. It is possible to make ‘meat’ that way by growing cells in laboratories. But those projects are at very early stages and will take a long time to create products that are ready for the market.


   But it is the reporting of such projects that has spurred interest in animal-free meats. Once upon a time, Americans were convinced that the very idea was a joke or an impossibility. Now, enough Americans are willing to concede that it can be done, which is why vegetarian ‘meats’ are flooding the US market.


   So, what is a plant-based meat?


   Well, think about our own experiments with plants that have a meaty taste. All over India, chefs have used jackfruit or kathal as a meat substitute. ITC Hotels makes a meaty-tasting kathal biryani for vegetarians at all its properties and a new delivery service sent me kathal rolls last month, here in Delhi, packaging them as a healthy alternative to all-meat rolls. In Washington DC, one of the fastest moving items on the menu at the new, super hot Punjab Grill is a vegan biryani made from jackfruit.


   The idea of trying to mimic the taste and texture of meat with vegetables is hardly new. The Chinese have been making mock meats from wheat gluten and other plant derivatives for centuries. These are made to look like duck or pork and cooked in the same general way. One theory is that these foods were created for the Buddhist fasting period, but they continue to be popular across the board today.


   All that the new generation of vegetarian meats does is to take the process a couple of steps forward with the aid of science. Those ‘meats’ are made from things like pea or wheat or potato protein. Beet juice is used for colour.


"Fake meat works for those who are concerned about the environment and believe that it is better for the earth if we slaughter less animals and eat more plants."

   Some of the new food companies extract heme, a component found in animal blood, from various plants (where it is also found) and add it to their meats. When the meats are cooked, the plant-based heme makes it seems as though the ‘meat’ is ‘bleeding’, a true meat characteristic that makes it look more like the real thing.


   When I heard about the fake meat boom, I had three questions.


   First: what does it taste like?


   Well, opinions vary but the consensus, even among those who like fake meat, is that it has textural limitations. You can’t really create a good fake steak. You can create fake keema, which you can use to make a hamburger patty.


   Does a hamburger made this way taste right? In my view, you have got to remember that the meat is actually the least important part of a fast food hamburger. What you really taste is not the meat but the bun, the sauces, the salad vegetables, etc.


   In that situation, a fake meat patty works nearly as well as the poor-quality real meat patties used by the fast food industry. Who can taste the damn thing anyway – real or fake?


   But put it in a real (not fast food but one with a large patty) hamburger, and I don’t think it works at all. I had an Impossible Burger in Singapore last week and I thought it was a complete waste of time.


   Two: Is the idea to make meat accessible to vegetarians? I don’t think so. At least, not to the vegetarians I know. Most of them have never eaten meat and while a few may have a mild curiosity about it, they are not like sweet lovers looking for a sugar substitute. They would much rather eat a tasty aloo or channa tikki than a bogus meat hamburger.


   Fake meat works for those who are concerned about the environment and believe that it is better for the earth if we slaughter less animals and eat more plants. Fake meat certainly meets that requirement. There have also been attempts to suggest that fake meat is healthier than real meat but so far, the evidence is mixed and at best, not very convincing.


   Three: will it work in India, one of the world’s largest vegetarian markets?


   This is the big one. Meatless meat has been tried before. In the 1970s and 1980s, it was sometimes said that soya chunks would replace meat but the soya products did not take off among vegetarians. Partly, this was because they tasted horrible and partly, it was because the idea conflicted with the basic reality of Indian vegetarianism: our vegetarians have a diet that is rich in tasty vegetarian dishes so they don’t long for meat. Most don’t miss it at all.


   There is another problem. Many hardcore Indian vegetarians are repulsed by the sight of meaty patties, which seem to be giving out blood. Even if you tell them that the patties are entirely vegetarian, they still won’t find them attractive. They don’t like the smell of meat, fake or real, and respond at an instinctive level.


   Yes, there will be some people who will try them out of curiosity. But I can’t see these people coming back again. It is significant that, as far as I know, the big fast food companies have no immediate plans to bring these meatless burgers to India. Even Burger King, which has the heft to push fake meat to every corner of the Indian market with its 193 stores, says that the Impossible Whopper is not on its list of product launches for India.


   Every time I tell people how disappointed I was with the taste of an Impossible Burger, I am told that this is a temporary disappointment. Each year, the fake meat companies create products that taste more and more like the real thing. Today, the Impossible Burger may not taste right. But two years from now, with its constant improvements, the Impossible company could well come up with fake meat that tastes more like actual meat.


   Would I still be so sceptical, then?


   It is a good point but given that a) a fake burger is not really healthier, b) it is not cheaper and c) I could just as well eat real meat, why would somebody like me want to eat bogus meat?


   For the sake of the environment?


   Maybe. But when it comes to the environment, I am still old-fashioned enough to believe that nature intended us to eat the bounty it provided. It did not require us to switch to fake foods made in industrial labs by scientists who are trying to make one of nature’s creations look like another one.


   Real is good. Fake is fake.



Posted On: 08 Jun 2019 01:40 PM
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