Real Vegan Food

A grillfull of fake vegan food.

A grillfull of fake vegan food.

It’s BBQ season and I enjoy grilling up a plethora of plant-based vegan sausages, burgers and meats. Inevitably though somebody will (not necessarily disparagingly) call this food “fake”. I usually jokingly quip with a correction like “Nope, it’s quite real, see?!” or something like “No, here’s a fake burger!” while chomping cartoonishly at an imaginary sandwich in my hand. But I understand the point, it’s trying to be something else. 1

For years companies have been rushing to meet the growing demand of people like myself who wished to have their burger and eat it too. They scoured the plant-based kingdom for ingredients that provided the taste and texture of the old familiar animal foods. These ingredients get processed, combined, boiled, dehydrated, fried, condensed, extruded, and (you get the point) otherwise tortured in a search for a better analogue (all for profit of course). 2 The meat versions have gotten pretty good. Dairy products, not so much. 3

But is guacamole made with peas still guacamole? 4 Is chocolate pudding made with avocado still pudding? But hey, I’m no purist when it comes to these things. Sometimes though, even I have a knee-jerk reaction to the bounds for which ingredients challenge the original meaning of the word. So maybe the wheat gluten burger IS fake. Make the pea protein cheese IS fake. Should we say instead make up ridiculous words like “chik’n” or “chreese”. Or maybe say “vegan cheese” or “vegan meat” further diminishing the word vegan to mean “not as tasty”?

But wait, there may be an solution. A solution that not only solves this quibbling conundrum, but brings about the vegan world 5 vegans have been fantasizing about. Recently things have been happening. They’ve been happening so low under the radar though that this revolution may arrive with a whimper and not the bang most would assume. Three words: real vegan food.

By that specifically, I mean there are efforts to make animal foods utilizing nature’s own biological technology 6 and cutting out the middle animal. Here are a few recent examples of people I’ve recently met who are working on such exciting projects:

New Harvest
New Harvest is a 10 year old non-profit with intents on making conventional meat production obsolete by any means including cultured meat.

Muufri
Muufri is a small business savvy startup with plans to make sustainable animal-free milk from the bottom up.

Real Vegan Cheese
Counter Culture Labs and BioCurious are two teams of biohackers and citizen scientists embarked on a project to make the first real vegan cheese by getting baker’s yeast to make milk proteins. 7

While the logistics of in vitro meat currently seem overwhelming real vegan cheese is apparently less so. Once we have vegan milk, cheese then can be made from the ground up employing age-old traditional methods. This  animal-free cheese then is a holistic natural product of nature identical in the most important ways. 8 Not only that, but we can customize it minimizing known health effects of allergies and intolerances. The body of scientific nutrition literature applies too so there will be less unknowns unlike the current slapdash plethora of untested amalgamations for which we are currently being subjected. 9 And all that just scratches the surface to the benefits real natural vegan food can bring.

How lucky that the one thing fake food makers have been having a helluva time trying to mock might be right under our microscopes?! A good vegan cheese is the holy grail for vegans and this goes beyond any dreams of plant-based versions. How short-sighted and uncreative is it to rely on the limiting toolset of plant-based materials? It’s time we grow up and leverage the cutting edge technological tools to create a more just future. The “vegan world” will not come as a result of will power and belabored kitchen endeavors. It will happen when technology provides a superior vegan product.

So to recap:

  • We don’t need 10 untested witches’ brews of reductionist animal product knock-offs made by companies that shame natural technology. 11
  • We don’t need to suffer hours of complicated concoctions that ultimately rely on our amnesia to convince ourselves they taste good.
  • We don’t need to limit ourselves with this obsession with “plant-based” materials.
  • We don’t need to build a new animal body factory every time we want to convert energy into delicious protein.
  • And we won’t need fake vegan foods any longer. 12

Footnotes:

  1. ALERT! Much of this post is satirical and tongue-in-cheek. I recommend reading all the way through straight and then checking footnotes if some of it is lost in the dryness.
  2. Ethical profit is fine by me!
  3. Understatement, even though many vegans will insist otherwise as “if you’ve only tried this certain brand or obscure recipe”. Nope, thanks, I’ve been around the vegan block enough to know better.
  4. Technically called “mockamole” but this one was particularly bad for the GMO avocado (hint, there aren’t any) rant at the end.
  5. Yes, that is the goal for vegans. Whatever that means.
  6. Otherwise known as “biotech”
  7. RealVeganCheese.org website, IndieGoGo campaign
  8. #GMOFAQ: Transferring genes from one species to another is neither unnatural nor dangerous | it is NOT junk, Michael Eisen
  9. I do not really believe new combinations of food ingredients need to be scientifically tested every time. That’s as ridiculous as saying the same for every genetically modified plant.
  10. What constitutes a “need” is another silly argument people use over GMOs. As in “We don’t need GMOs”. We need any and every viable solution particularly if it spares suffering and lives of animals. I do support and encourage fake vegan foods.
  11. Vegan food companies will cynically cater to anti-GMO fears simply to sell product. Example
  12. Again I must reiterate that I don’t find food shaming using subjective terms such as fake, real, good, bad, junk, natural, unnatural, processed, clean, etc to be helpful. I’m using these terms here satirically to make a point.

23 comments to Real Vegan Food

  • Sarah S.

    I like non-animal burgers. Even if they grow animal parts in a petri dish (or milk) that still skeeves me out righteously. I have been slipping and eating vegetarian a lot lately, but I still don’t really want to eat animal parts and I do so only out of convenience/laziness. What we REALLY need is vegan options to be as convenient as vegetarian ones… I think that’ll happen in time even without synthesizing animal foods.

  • Sarah, I like fake foods too! If I could make foods from a playdoh kit I’d eat that every day I swear! :) But then, the real stuff is undeniably tastier for me. But my vegan habits stem from the unfair use of animal bodies and so anything that could replace that for consumers is something I’m whole-heartedly for. This is going to a big win.

    Faked substitutes cannot compete in the current marketplace and relying only on building demand is shortsighted. When real animal foods are made without animals there will be no need for vegan or vegetarian options. It will all be the same and ubiquitous!

  • Toad

    All this silliness and “innovation” because people can’t change their dietary habits.

    And really, nature has already supplied us with meat without suffering its just that vegans aren’t interested due their dogma.

    • “And really, nature has already supplied us with meat without suffering…”

      How so Toad?

      • Toad

        Many animals, if not most, have no capacity to suffer. Clams, oysters, insects,etc and these could easily be harvested (and already are to some degree) for food. But people don’t just want meat, or animal based foods,they want beef, chicken, etc…..they want the foods they grew up with because apparently changing your dietary culture is too difficult to manage. And vegans have a dogmatic resistance to using anything that happens to come from the animal kingdom for, well, who knows why…..

        Are you really innovating when all you’re doing is trying to solve a culturally created problem? Shouldn’t cultural problems be, well, solved culturally? Of course that would be no fun, how will people make billions off that?

        • Ah right, yes! This isn’t totally off the radar, I do know at least one “bivalvegan” and Skeptical Vegan often brings this up as a solution for domestic obligate carnivores. But these examples are rare.

          The animal rights activists do understand it’s a cultural issue. This issue highlights the difference between them and the vegans (who often claim to be one and the same). When the rubber hits the road though vegans will be hesitant to get behind any solution that challenges their plant-based food dogma.

          But yes if suffering was the issue, a cultural shift to include other non-plant protein sources would be a viable solution. Getting people to eat insects (even if not vegan) would seem like a major undertaking but even getting people to adopt GE meat would likely require similar cultural hurdles. I would like to see all solutions explored sure. Hey and people could still make billions off alternative protein sources like the ones you’ve mentioned!

          • Toad

            Its largely “off the radar” and any vegan that eats bivalves isn’t considered a vegan despite bivalves not having the capacity to suffer. But bivalves are just part of a larger issue, namely, that there is no meaningful ethical demarcation between the animal kingdom and the other kingdoms.

            If the typical animal rights activist truly understood that it was a cultural issue then I think they would more commonly purpose cultural solutions But they don’t. They make very little effort to change the way people think about food at the cultural level and instead promote fake meat products which do exactly the opposite. Fake meats, lab meat, etc….all reinforce a meat based food culture and are by no means a nutritional requirement. But people follow the money and veganism, like other movements, has become just another way to turn a dollar.

        • unethical_vegan

          It takes a lot of plants to grow a smaller ammounts of insects. So insects are at best a not particularly tasty luxury. Moreover, I suspect that advances in plant-based food science will make insects and lab-grown flesh moot as a major source of more ethical high-protein food.

          Bivalves are at best a marginal food source. We are never going to feed even a tiny fraction of ~8 billion people with sessile bivalves without causing massive destruction to marine habitat (estuaries and intertidal areas).

          PS: I’ve also never been convinced by any of the arguments that bivalves have nutrients that cannot be obtained easily via vegan sources (e.g. algal or natural bacterial sources).

          • Toad

            You can feed insects with human waste products, agricultural waste (most of the biomass from commonly grown plants is not edible), wood/paper, etc so insects, contrary to what you suggest, could be far more than a “luxury”. And the taste…..well that’s cultural. Many cultures happily consume insect based dishes.

            I guess this depends on what you mean by “easily”. But I don’t think there are any plant based sources of heme-iron, which some can benefit from, and I wouldn’t call the creation of synthetic B12 “easy” but it appears to be nutritionally adequate.

            And there is no need to create “high protein food”, this is only a focus in the west because people can’t get past the food culture they grew up with. Plus, of course, its profitable for the food industry.

            • unethical_vegan

              There is no need to create high-protein foods. Heck, there is even a vegan version of soylent. Nevertheless, it’s no secret that veg*ns and imnivores *like* to eat high protein foods. And for all this talk of ethics schmethics and health schmealth the meat habit is *mostly* about about gustatory pleasure.

  • Toad

    Gustatory pleasure is culturally relative, the “meat habit” is about culture not what is more intrinsically more desirable to eat. As such when people “innovate” to create high protein foods all they are doing is catering to the whims of a particular culture…..no real problem has been solved.

    Focusing on the production of fake meat and other fake animal products reinforces the current dietary culture. I’ve yet to see any vegan advocate demonstrate that pushing these products is more effective than trying to change people’s cultural attitude about food. Its merely assumed that fake meats are a good thing, something that should be promoted. This is done, I think, because of the biases/desires of the people involved and that is where the $$ are. Go to any big vegan event and you’re bombarded with advertising for fake meats and similar products. Open many vegan pamphlets and you’ll again find advertisements for these products. Veganism has become, I think, just another way to promote and market products.

    • Veganism is ultimately a futile and clumsy tool for animal rights. I believe changing the ethical culture will be harder than changing the dietary culture but that’s my bias, I love eating meat and cheese. :)

      If you think vegans love animal analogues, you don’t know vegans. They often refer to such products as “transition foods”. The pamphlets and marketing you see are not aimed at vegans. Companies who make those products only rely on the vegan market to get them off the ground too. Nobody’s gonna make money catering strictly to vegans.

      • Toad

        “I believe changing the ethical culture will be harder than changing the dietary culture but that’s my bias, I love eating meat and cheese.”

        And if you grew up in another culture or adapted new traditions you’d love to eat another things. But the glorification of meat has ramifications, currently the developing world is dramatically increasing their consumption of meat largely due to its association with higher status nations.

        “If you think vegans love animal analogues, you don’t know vegans. They often refer to such products as “transition foods”. The pamphlets and marketing you see are not aimed at vegans. Companies who make those products only rely on the vegan market to get them off the ground too. Nobody’s gonna make money catering strictly to vegans.”

        Yes, they often call them “transition foods”, yet years later they are still eating them. Most of the prominent vegan advocates (major exception being the health oriented ones) I’m aware of all actively consume and promote fake meats. The pamphlets are aimed at promoting veganism but you can find all the same marketing at vegan events which are aimed at vegans. Considering there are, from what I recall, millions of vegans in the US alone it would seem that its pretty easy to make money catering to this niche not to mention the overlap with vegetarians. But regardless of how the companies are using the vegan market in their overall marketing plans, veganism has become heavily inundated with their marketing efforts and veganism has largely become a commercial enterprise.

    • unethical_vegan

      Toad, gustatory pleasure is a mixture of nature and nurture. Most fake meats are simply calorie dense foods with fatty and salty umami flavors. There is no question that these flavors are inherently attractive to both human and non-human animals. In fact, the only thing I find irritating about vegan meats is that vegans market these foods as expensive luxuries when we should be trying to make them cheaper everyday replacements for animal meats.

      • Yep, and real vegan meat and dairy will only catch on if it’s just as tasty and costs the same if not cheaper.

      • Toad

        I never suggested that “gustatory pleasure” was solely rooted in cultural preferences, instead noting that there is a cultural component. There is certainly a question whether these flavors are “inherently attractive” and you’d have to do a cross cultural study to make any determination. The desirability of meat in western culture is based on far more than “gustatory pleasure” and, as such, a linear focus on “gustatory pleasure” is unlikely to be effective. As such, even if fake meat companies were able to create products comparable in “gustatory pleasure” you still have a huge cultural and marketing problem to bridge.

        In any case, the idea that fake meats are a good thing for veganism or for meat reduction in general is taken as an article of faith. Nobody, that I aware of, has even attempted to demonstrate that this position is even accurate. Yet the attitudes of folks supporting them, like Mr Crank, are rather glib. I find the position to be peculiar a priori, but also at odds with what you see in the market place. For example, almond milk is perhaps the most successful “mock” product yet its success seems to be rooted in the fact that it isn’t dairy, that its a natural product, and a successful marketing campaign not because some entrepreneur created a plant-based dairy protein, etc.

        • unethical_vegan

          I’d call tofu and seitan the most successful mock products.

          I don’t think we are disagreeing much. I’m just not hung up on the fact that many vegan products imitate meat texturally or visually. And I also don’t there is much *evidence* that eating modest amounts of processed foods is a big health/ethical no-no.

          • Toad

            I don’t get your comment about tofu and seitan. Tofu isn’t a mock animal product and seitan, while in some sense, a mock product isn’t popular at all with non-vegetarians.

            I’ve said nothing about the health aspect of fake meats, nor has anything I’ve said been based on being “hung up” on fake meats. You appear to be pigeonholing what I’ve said into some caricature….a common problem in this neck of the woods.

            • unethical_vegan

              “I don’t get your comment about tofu and seitan.”

              Both of these protein-rich foods have been used to create mock meats for hundreds of years (quite likely even a millenia or more). And when I refer to gustatory I mean both taste and texture.

              “I’ve said nothing about the health aspect of fake meats, nor has anything I’ve said been based on being “hung up” on fake meats.”

              My statements were personal rhetoric and not specifically directed at you. When I say that I am not hung up I mean that I simply don’t care whether mock meats end up looking and tasting *exactly* like genuine killed animal flesh. In fact, if sustainable vegan “carnism” were possible, I’d be a big fan.

              “You appear to be pigeonholing what I’ve said into some caricature.”

              Sorry about that. I guess I interpreted this statement as having a definite flavor of disapproval FWIW:

              “Yes, they often call them “transition foods”, yet years later they are still eating them.”

              Am I wrong?

              • Toad

                While tofu, or soy in general, may be found in some mock meat products today tofu is not, as traditionally consumed, a mock meat product. But neither seitan or tofu have been a success in the west, the average person does not purchase either and most western vegetarians seem to prefer mimicking meat based food traditions than following plant-based ones.

                I’ve clearly expressed “disapproval”, but none of it anything to do with being “hung up”. I made a particular argument and nothing you said in response addressed it….which isn’t surprising. The veg community is a broken record….

  • Dylan

    No not in real life. We frequent some of the same blogs though.

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