Fake Meat Takes Over

Plant-based meat alternatives, or fake meat as I like to call them, have been around for forty years, but now they are poised to take over.

There are two compelling changes that will have U.S. consumers eating more fake meat than real meat within the next few years. The first is culinary. Only a dedicated foodie can tell the difference between the latest generation of fake meat and their real meat equivalents. The second is a matter of money. For the first time, fake meat costs less to make than meat.

There are many other reasons to prefer fake meat. The risks of disease are an order of magnitude smaller with fake meat. Real meat has an alarming tendency to carry parasites, bacteria, and brain-bending deformed proteins. Diseases are possible with plant-based products too but are far less likely.

The environmental impact of meat production is enormous. Animals raised for meat production in Canada alone eat more food than all the humans in North America and drink more water than all the humans in North and South America combined. Meat animals occupy more land than humans do, often at the expense of winderness habitat for other animals. Runoff from feed lots, where beef cattle gain weight rapidly by eating stale bread mixed with stale candy, has been implicated in one disease outbreak after another.

There are health consequences to eating meat too. Hormones, antibiotics, and other drugs fed to meat animals are carefully regulated because of their potential to harm human health. Animal fat and protein tends to have a clogging effect on the human body, raising the risk of all diseases of inflammation. Real meat is particularly implicated in some of the more painful forms of cancer.

Fake meat, as a heavily processed food, should still be considered junk food, the same as real meat. It is probably no more healthy in a nutritional sense than real meat. It has a higher risk of allergic reactions than real meat, especially when proteins from plants like peas are isolated and concentrated. But these are about all the complaints you will hear about it.

It is easy to find people who are skeptical about the ability of fake meat to displace real meat, but it is hard to find a precedent in which U.S. consumers preferred a more expensive, more dangerous food over something that is cheap, safe, convenient, and commonplace. On the other side, there are plenty of precedents that say that the newly inexpensive fake meat will take over most of the meat display space in the supermarket. Consider these:

For me, the ultimate argument in favor of fake meat is a matter of indifference. Most of the people who eat meat are the people who don’t care what they eat. They’ll eat whatever kind of food a cook puts in front of them. That won’t change just because a food is “fake” in some sense. After all, the “real food” era in American culture, when you expected that food was made from authentic food ingredients without the addition of chemicals, sweeteners, and artificial colors and flavors, ended a lifetime ago. We have blueberry muffins that don’t contain even one blueberry. Now that it’s a cost-cutting move to do the same thing with meat recipes, what’s to stop that from happening?

To be sure, there are dedicated meat eaters who will not accept a plant-based imitation steak made from peas and mushrooms. They’ll know the difference and they’ll insist on a real steak cut from a real dead cow.

But it is a matter of proportion. For every dedicated steak eater there are ten people content to eat burgers. A person who eats a bucket of clams on a seaside restaurant deck one summer evening will choose food based on the picture on the package for the next thirty days.

So, yes, there will continue to be real meat, but it will become a novelty item without most of us noticing. As one more point of reference, consider the hot dog. Once an all-American staple food, it is now eaten only on Independence Day. That’s a major cultural transition that happened with hardly any discussion about it. If next year, most of the hot dogs on the grill on the Fourth of July are made from fake meat, that is a change that will go by almost without mention too.

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