Some forty years ago, while staying with friends in Minnesota, I was served soybean “bacon” strips, prepared in a microwave by the hostess, who has long pursued a healthy diet, including a reduction in the consumption of meats and other animal-based products.
The fake bacon strips, sporting whitish stripes meant to resemble the layers of fat in the real stuff, were gawdawful. They looked like, and tasted, like styrofoam.
The experience convinced me that if anyone pretends to be a vegetarian they should do it honestly, without the crutch of artificial meat-like concoctions. “Tofu turkey” at Thanksgiving? No, thank you.
Then, about two weeks ago, on a lark, we picked up a box of frozen “Beyond Burger” plant-based burger patties at Costco. They are made from all-natural plant products, albeit considerably manipulated, so even vegans can eat them.
|Brave new foods.|
We expected a sequel to the soy bacon debacle, but were surprised that, when nestled in a hamburger bun, along with thin onion and pickle slices, a squirt or two of ketchup or mustard, and salt and pepper, these fake burgers looked, cooked and tasted amazingly—almost freakishly—similar to the real stuff.
In a blind test, I bet most people could not tell the difference.
In the pursuit of “realism,” another plant-based brand of burgers adds soy leghemoglobin, a reddish substance found naturally in the roots of soy plants, and meant to resemble the “bleeding” of a medium-rare burger. Yum.
But what are the nutritional, environmental or humane reasons to jump on the bandwagon of fake foods, even if they taste the same as their real counterparts? It’s complicated.
It turns out that the faux burgers offer surprisingly little nutritional benefits, over the old-fashioned 80-percent-lean beef hamburgers. The amounts of protein, fat, sodium, carbohydrates and fiber are pretty much the same, though the fake burgers have considerably more sodium. The choice is whether you prefer to get those nutrients from real meat, or from a man-made creation.
Plant-based burgers don’t help with your daily requirements for vegetables, either. You still need to eat your broccoli, or that awful okra.
Environmentally, however, meat-replacement foods could make a contribution, though the calculations get complicated. Meat production is environmentally costly, when you figure the amount of land needed to raise cattle, and the feed, plus the surprisingly high production of methane and other gases by cows, mostly as a result of belching, and to a lesser extent, farting, all of which contribute to greenhouse gases. It turns out that cows burp and fart, a lot. The production of plants to make the fake foods, though, also has environmental costs.
The humane question is the one that resonates with me the most, though not enough to make me a vegetarian. I sympathize with Mr. Rogers, a long-time vegetarian, who said, “I don’t want to eat anything that had a mother.”
“Factory farms,” and the modern industrial production of food from animals, are exhaustively documented horror shows, not only for the suffering inflicted on animals but also the promiscuous use of hormones, antibiotics and other nasties in the process.
|Be nice to us, eh?|
Next time you pick up a turkey or chicken breast, pause to consider the conditions under which such monstrously large piece of chicken came into being. Does a one-pound-plus chicken breast come from a normal chicken, or what did someone do get it to that size?
In the U.S. and Europe, the animal welfare movement has gained some ground in improving conditions for raising animals and the humane slaughtering of chickens, cattle and pigs, but I doubt it has had much of an impact in Mexico.
So let me put all these concerns on the table and consider them a bit longer. We still have time to consider the pros and cons: There are four “Beyond Burger” thingies still left in the freezer—whatever they are made of. They actually tasted pretty good.