The title question is being asked by Kate Bernot at The Takeout, and it’s a good one. Before anyone starts imagining a totally meatless future (speaking of horror shows), we should figure out why so many people are flocking to plant-based “meat” like the Impossible Whopper and its cousins. Since experts are quickly concluding that these products are no healthier for you (or for the environment) than their traditional animal-based counterparts, what’s the attraction making these offerings sustainable?
(Insert record scratch sound effect here.) Whoa! Hold on one second. Did someone just say that these “impossible” foods aren’t any better for you? Wasn’t that supposed to be the whole idea? As it turns out, they’re not. So the people peddling them had better figure out another market hook if they want their businesses to continue booming.
The latest “woke” take on vegan fast food, like the Impossible Whopper and Del Taco Beyond Meats tacos, is this: They’re not any healthier than the standard meat versions of those items. Outlets from NBC News to Fox Business to CNBC are all sounding the alarm that these menu items often contain roughly the same amount of calories than their beefy counterparts—and often pack in more sodium. But is health even the real reason customers are ordering these Impossible and Beyond options in the first place?
A July 2019 report from NPD Group found that 95% of the customers who order faux-meat fast food options aren’t strictly vegan or vegetarian. They’re people who do regularly eat meat—“flexatarian”, if you will—but perhaps are trying to reduce the percentage of red meat in their diets by incorporating more plant-based ingredients.
Read it for yourself. Here’s NBC News. “The Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat aren’t healthier. Fast food’s meatless marvels are just P.R.”
How about Fox Business? “Plant-based burgers may not be as healthy as you think.”
Let’s hear from Julieanna Hever, a plant-based dietician at CNBC: “They’re not much healthier than a meat-based burger. I’m concerned about the saturated fat levels as well as the excessive amounts of amino acids.”
The author offers up four possible reasons people are eating these laboratory experiments if we include the mistaken belief that they are healthier for you. But since you’re usually taking in the same amount of calories or more, plus more salt, that’s kind of out the window. Some may be doing it because it’s a novelty… something new and cool to talk about. They might also be doing it in the belief that it’s more friendly to the environment, or because of worries over animal welfare in the beef industry.
If those really are the main drivers of sales, this may turn out to be a fad that doesn’t last very long. If that many people were all that concerned about the impact of the cattle industry on the environment or the conditions the animals are raised under, beef sales would have plummeted long ago.
The only one that might stick is the stated reason the founders of these companies have been telling us all along. They want to drive the livestock industry out of business and get rid of the cows to save the planet. And if they can make the sale to enough of this emerging fast-food market, we might be in trouble. But somehow I don’t think so. Call me a starry-eyed optimist, but I think people will tire of the novelty quickly enough and realize that they miss eating good old reliable beef, just as nature intended.
Also, I suspect that more information will eventually get out to the general public about the “heme” that’s used in the manufacturing process and the other substances they produce. I’d be willing to bet that a lot of people eating these burgers are under the impression that “plant-based” just means it’s a new type of veggie burger. But that’s not what this is at all. These burgers are a mad scientist’s chemistry experiment running off the rails. And if all of you out there who are scarfing them down suddenly start growing tails in a couple of months, don’t say I didn’t try to warn you.