As students at a school with such a large population of vegans and vegetarians, we are often exposed to an array of non-meat substitutes. These alternative meats are staples at most dining locations on campus, and even people who don’t abstain from meat have probably gotten a brief taste of life as an herbivore. Unfortunately, these “meats” often taste almost nothing like the products they are inspired by; even if they turn out to be good, it’s easy to point out the differences between what’s authentic and what’s not.
However, the California-based firm Beyond Meat recently developed a chicken strip substitute that allegedly tastes exactly like the real thing. If it sounds too good to be true, perhaps this bit of information will convince you otherwise: acclaimed New York Times food writer Mark Bittman confessed in a 2012 op-ed piece that “the chicken would have fooled me if I hadn’t known what it was.”
Founded by Ethan Brown, Beyond Meat cites its main goal as follows: “Our mission is to create mass-market solutions that perfectly replace animal protein with plant protein.” The company believes that its innovations have the potential to improve public health and human relationships with the environment. And if the company’s imitation chicken has the power to mislead Mark Bittman, maybe its goal for a more eco- and taste-conscious food industry isn’t so lofty after all.
Currently, this particular variety of Beyond Meat’s vegan products is only sold in the Whole Foods Markets of Northern California, though the company hopes to make its newest creation available across the country within the next year.
Since this version of fake chicken is such a convincing reminder of the real thing, one might expect a vegan or a vegetarian to be reluctant to give it a try. However, some view it as a pleasant change from more typical meatless options such as tofu.
“I don’t mind the development of non-meat chicken,” said Sarah Essner ’17, who has been a vegetarian for three years. “It’s actually nice to have that alternative when other protein options get boring.”
In addition to expanding the choices of those who are already vegetarian or vegan, this substitute chicken could also be useful for those who are thinking about making the switch to a plant-based diet.
“When I talk with most people about going vegan, they tell me that they’d miss the taste of meat too much,” said Fred Ayres ’17, who is a practicing vegan. “With these new products, more and more people will feel comfortable making the leap to vegetarianism or veganism. They can get all the benefits of meat without having to give up the taste.”
Though the product itself sounds promising from the standpoint of human and environmental well-being, concerns exist regarding the economic costs of such an ambitious endeavor.
“Although these new ‘meat’ products do solve some of the environmental problems created by animal husbandry, I am wary of the resource[s]… that laboratories will require to create them,” Ayres said. “Very likely, the same resources that one lab-grown burger or chicken breast would necessitate could grow an even larger amount of vegetables and grains.”
With so many factors to consider, it’s difficult to predict the sustainability of a product like ersatz chicken. However, the advancements made over the course of the next year could likely hint at the success, or failure, of Beyond Meat’s current business venture.