This recent piece from Jeremy Bernfeld at Harvest Public Media takes a look at food industry efforts to create products that cater to so-called flexitarians. As the story describes, “Some vegetarian food is getting a makeover. It’s being made to look, feel and taste more like meat. The industry is looking to latch on to a new group of eaters: ‘Flexitarians,’ health conscious, mostly young consumers who are cutting back on meat in their diets. Some cut out almost all meat, others cut out just a little. With over 44 percent of American eaters aged 18-29 choosing to eat a meatless meal at least once a week, according to market research firm Innova Insights, the strategy makes sense. If more people are looking to cut down on meat – but not give it up all together – create vegetarian products that taste like the food consumers are used to.” For more, check out the full story.
Over the last couple years, J and I have made occasional use of meat-substitutes including Tofurky peppered deli slices and several Gardein products, especially the crispy tenders. (Gardein’s award-winning packaging very much speaks to young adults accustomed to clean, modern design thanks to brands as varied as Apple, Ikea, and Target.) Like similar meat-based convenience foods, these products are, well, convenient! With a few accompaniments (e.g., bread, cheese, mustard, and lettuce or spinach make a nice Tofurky sandwich, and a little BBQ sauce is all the crispy tenders need), we just add a quick side or two (e.g., cut carrots, frozen veggies, canned baked beans) for a nearly instantaneous meal. Nevertheless, lately I’ve been thinking about limiting these vegan-friendly products in our diets for two reasons.
First, although low on the food chain, these are highly processed foods that are the result of clever food science rather than simple cooking with whole foods. As such, they violate two of the wise principles that Michael Pollan outlines in his book, In Defense of Food: “Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food,” and its related food rule, “Avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable, c) more than five in number, or that include d) high-fructose corn syrup.” That said, Tofurky’s main ingredients are wheat protein and organic tofu, with the rest of the list mostly comprehensible (e.g., garbanzo bean flour, cracked peppercorns, lemon juice from concentrate, onion, celery). That’s a heck of a lot better than, say, the so-called ground beef at Taco Bell, which in addition to items like beef, tomato powder, sugar, and soybean oil also includes disodium inosinate, disodium guanylate, and trehalose. (Say what?)
Second, most of these faux-meat products are made primarily with conventionally farmed rather than organic ingredients. Tofurky gets points for using organic tofu (and a couple non-GMO ingredients), but the rest are conventional. After water, the Gardein crispy tenders’ main ingredients are conventional soy and wheat byproducts, with just a few of the many other ingredients listed as organic. Small in number though they are, none of the ingredients in Upton’s seitan (another item we sometimes purchase) are organic. Similarly, none of the Boca burger varieties (including the couple made with non-GMO soy) contain a single organic ingredient.
So, while the food scientists may be after ways to create more appealing meat substitutes, I’m going to see if in our house we can we stick to things like organic legumes, whole grains, and tofu when we are looking for a substitute for local, pasture-raised meat. Thankfully, we can still turn to our locally made tofu walnut burgers when we need a quick and easy meal!
A friend (thanks, P!) recently brought to my attention A. G. Sulzberger‘s piece in The New York Times, under the absurd headline “Meatless in the Midwest: A Tale of Survival.” In it, he has a pity-party of one as he bemoans the difficulty in finding a satisfying vegetarian meal at Kansas City’s steakhouses and BBQ restaurants. (Duh.) The article would be insulting if if weren’t so dopey, though there is a kernel of truth there. Even in a foodie oasis like Madison, eating out can be tricky for vegetarians if you’re in the wrong place. (I’m looking at you, Applebee’s!) But Madison has oodles and oodles of dining options for vegetarians and vegans, not to mention locavores and conscientious omnivores. Rather than marshal a response of my own, I thought I’d share reactions from other folks who were more directly his target.
For example, here’s some of what writer and chef Amber Shea of Kansas City had to say (click here for her full post): “We certainly do have our share of barbecue restaurants and steakhouses…but to lament a lack of veg options at such establishments seems downright silly…. Whether you’re looking for a relaxing vegan brunch, a quick snack and soy latte, a meatless ethnic food feast, a stylish and date-worthy vegan dinner, or even veg bar food, you can get it, at dozens of non-vegan restaurants around the city. It’s shoddy reporting, in my eyes, to go to a meat-centric restaurant and then write an article (for the NY Times, no less!) about having to eat a salad. The assortment of restaurants in Kansas City that are veg-friendly is downright dizzying.”
And here’s an excerpt Sarah Baker Hansen’s reply (find her entire post here): “When I traveled the state working for Nebraska tourism it was challenging to eat. Sometimes there weren’t any good options. I ate a lot of grilled cheeses and some of them tasted more like a hamburger than they should have. Once, a lady told me the only meatless option at her restaurant was chicken strips. But I never had to sustain myself on iceberg lettuce alone, and nobody ever accused me of undermining the state’s economy. In Scottsbluff, I ate many wonderful meals at the Emporium Coffeehouse and Cafe, where I had my choice of a few meatless dishes. At guest ranches in the panhandle, I ate homemade meatless meals. I’ve had plenty of meat-free Mexican in central Nebraska. In Omaha and Lincoln, I have even more choices…. I agree with him that there are substantially more options for vegetarians in the big cities … [but his take on Omaha] rings snarky. It makes it seem like no one here takes vegetarianism or veganism seriously. That no one cares about it. That no restaurants offer much of anything for the people who don’t eat beef. And that’s simply not true.”
Lastly, fighting snark with snark, New York magazine put it this way, under the headline “A.G. Sulzberger Writes Note to Dad Asking If He Can Come Home Yet”: “Nope, nothing insufferable about writing a whole article in the newspaper your family owns about how miserable you are at being forced to eat iceberg lettuce.” Ouch.