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Vegan Fake Meat Products: Defeating or Defending the Point of a Vegetarian Diet?

"Have you tried Gardein?" She said with big eyes.
"No." I said.
"Oh my gosh, you have to try them!" She grabbed my arm as if this were a life or death situation.
I pulled back, "I'm not a big fan of the fake meat products." I said. Even though I knew very well that I had 2 boxes of Trader Joe's vegan soy nuggets (obvious "chicken nugget" impersonators) at home in my freezer. I ate them, but unenthusiastically at best. Veg-meat just wasn't my thing.

But a lot has changed in the past few years, as veg-meat products are better than ever. And with every food I add to my diet, the questioning begins: Are vegan fake meat products defeating or defending the point of a vegan or vegetarian diet? Let's discuss. (This is a long post, but a worthy conversation to begin)..

A while back, a non-vegan friend asked me, "What's the point of fake meat? I tried it and it doesn't taste like meat. It's awful in fact." I'd sit there with a blank look on my face. I kinda agreed. The "fake meat products" from say, five-ten years ago, kinda sucked.

Vegan Fake Meat 2010.
But now, in the past year even, vegan "meat" protein products have evolved into high-quality-ingredient taste-bud bliss. There's the Field Roast Grain Meat Co. sausages. It's a safe bet that I have a pile of the Spicy Chipotle flavor in my fridge on any given day. And now Gardein has an entire shopping-cart-overflowing line of fake meat products that are 100% vegan and filled with more than just soy protein, water and flavoring. Gardein uses soy, wheat and pea proteins as well as 'ancient grains' that include quinoa and kamut. All non-GMO, aka 'identity-preserved' soy protein.

I'm kinda in love with Gardein products right now. And I'm not alone. Everyone from Oprah, Ellen and even TMZ's Harvey Levin are tweeting and chatting about them. Even I was skeptical, but my view of fake meat changed when I bit into my first Gardein vegan Classic Buffalo Wing. The Gardein chick'n products look like real chicken, and maybe, taste like it. But you know what they say about "tastes like chicken". Lots of things do! So really, does chicken really taste like chicken?

Frozen Gardein Products:
Chick'n vs. Chicken Taste. In Jonathan Saffron Foer's "Eating Animals" book, he reminds us that most of what we know as the "chicken taste" isn't actually the taste of chicken flesh. Most meat products are injected with so much water, flavored "broths" and other "salty flavors" as JSF says, that what we call a 'chicken' taste may actually be due to the flavors that are injected into the meat.

(JSF quotes one Consumer Reports study finding that "chicken and turkey may be ballooned with 10 to 30 percent of their weight as broth, flavoring or water." -page 131)

And that flavor may be more than you bargained for. Why? Well the chicken is infused with (and I'm guessing flavor influenced by) what JSF calls, "fecal soup".

Infused Chicken. Let's get real for just a few paragraphs. On pages 130-31 of "Eating Animals" JSF references how the slaughtered chickens get dunked into a common tank of cold chill water (instead of air chilling). The liquid is basically filled with "filth and bacteria" and nicknamed "fecal soup". The contaminated liquid is absorbed into the chicken and thus, fecal soup flavoring ensues. 11% of the liquid is allowed in each chicken by USDA, United States Department of Agriculture, laws. Hmm, natural flavoring I guess.

Not fun stuff to think about if you're not vegetarian, right? Did I gross you out yet? I hope not. Keep reading. No more nasty images, I promise. Well OK, there's a few in the next paragraph, but after that I'm done.

Tastes Like Chick'n. I still faintly remember the taste of chicken from my childhood. It wasn't a bad taste. It was good in fact. But it was the little surprises that came with my meat that sent my mind spinning. The strange blue veins I'd find in my chicken breast, the odd fat clumps in my chicken nuggets, the overly fatty chewy chunk of my steak and the blueish black flesh marbling in my chicken soup chicken. Dark meat. White meat. Veins. Translucent valves, skins and wriggly things in and on my meat. By the age of twelve I was pretty much suspect to wondering: what am I eating? And why did I just pull a vein out of my sandwich?

Sorry, more gross imagery I know. But that's the truth. My important point is this: I didn't stop eating meat because of the taste. I stopped because of the questions. I had a lot of questions, and gosh darn it my pre-teen mind just couldn't eat pepperoni pizza with wondering what part of what animal that pepperoni came from. And really, eggs, what are they anyways mom and dad? So, ham and eggs is really what...huh? Yuck. Whiny adolescent voice, "My food, answers, please!"

OK, No more vein imagery. I promise.

Let's look at both sides of this "fake meat" issue. Is it defending or defeating the point of veganism and an animal-cruelty free lifestyle?

Defending the Point. So on some level, I think vegan fake meat products (even those called chik'n and beefless) are defending the point of veganism. True, they taste somewhat similar to the meat products they are impersonating. And most of the look spot on: vegan sausage and chick'n patties are pretty much the Madame Tussauds of the real-thing meat products. So the new "fake meat" is living up to it's name. Although with vegan meats: the saturated fat, hormones, preservatives, antibiotics (and cruelty) are missing from each bite. Bravo. Vegan diet success: amazing taste, better nutrition (and planet-friendly) facts.

Case #1: My Guy. My non-vegan husband adores Gardein products: the spicy Classic Buffalo Wings, Chick'n Filets, the Beefless Tips and Grain Crispy Tenders are his faves. He could probably live off of these for the rest of his life, in place of meat, if he had to. But for him, like most "sometimes vegans" it's really a matter of vegan food vs. temptation and convenience and real life.

For example, if we eat at a nice (non-vegan, but vegan friendly) NYC restaurant like Josie's or Craft, he's not going to be asking for a Gardein product - he will probably order salmon or another fish or on a very rare occasion a beef product (hoping it's grass fed or Kobe). I don't judge. Free country. I didn't marry him for his diet. Even though, believe me he eats and adores a high percentage of foods he would've never ever tried had it not been for my influence: tempeh, seitan and even foods like ginger-carrot-apple-cayenne juice and hummus. He is what I like to call a "most of the time" veg*n. And because he is married to moi, he eats delicious vegan food around 90% of the time. And now thanks to the Gardein and other yummy fake meat products, he gets a little more of that "manly eating" feeling after eating something called a "beefless tip" as opposed to a soybean burger, protein nugget or lentil loaf.

Gardein Buffalo Wings, in package:

Cooked Buffalo Wings:
Boys will Eat like Boys? A guy Chef friend of mine recently Facebook statused "I just finished eating a super manly pizza!" Later he said it was filled with pepperoni and sausage. I had to roll my eyes. Why is meat considered manly? Are "fake meat" products manly enough for you men out there? Or will boys simply always eat like boys? Is a steak, aka dead flesh of a cow, really all that manly anyways? Isn't eating heart-healthy, body-healthy and soul-healthy vegan food from whole grains, veggies and fruit the most sexy, manly thing ever?? I think so, but that's just me.

One downside to Gardein products in particular, is that they are quite expensive! I have gotten quite used to buying my $2 tempeh bars, $2 tofu blocks, $1 cans of beans, $2 bags of grains and such. Those proteins can fill an entire dinner for mere dollars. One pack of Gardein fake meat can cost anywhere from $4-$6 (my Whole Foods sells most Gardein products for $4.69).

That's cutting into my fruit and veggie dollars quite substantially. And I can easily get that same concentrated protein by eating whole foods: fruits, veggies, legumes and whole grains. So really, is the fake meat stuff just defeating the point of veganism??...

Defeating the Point. I'm vegan. I don't eat meat. Every person I tell this to looks at me in an intrigued manner and I hope they question it, think about it and look at their own dinner in a different light - especially once they hear my story and about the foods I eat.

"Ooh, what is that you have there for lunch Kathy?" a co-worker once said.
"Um, a quinoa salad over arugula and mache leaves - with tempeh cubes and roasted red pepper dressing. Raw cashews too. Coconut water to drink. Oh and some sprouted grain bread with Vegenaise." I replied. They looked at me dumbfounded. And the questions came hailing down on me like spring rain showers in April:

"What's quinoa?"
"What's Vegenaise?"
"What's sprouted grain bread?"
"Did you make that yourself"
"What's coconut water?"
"What's tempeh?"
"What's arugula? Why is that better than lettuce?"
"Is that healthy?"
"What's the recipe?"
"Why raw cashews instead of roasted and salted?"


And so the conversation starts. I like that.

Now lets say I answer the "What's for lunch" question by saying, "Oh I have some Beefless Tips in my salad or a Crispy Tenders sandwich." Then do I say, "It's fake meat."

Fake meat? Why would a vegan want fake meat? Doesn't that defend the taste and usability factors of real meat and the entire factory farming industry? Doesn't that make the meat-eaters out there laugh at us and chuckle at their steak house dinners and say, "Haha have you heard of those poor vegans eating fake beef tips?! Why don't they just eat beef like the rest of us!? Crazy vegans"

OK, so I'm totally stereotyping the average meat-eater. But I just want to consider the mixed message that "fake meat" is sending to the world. Why does Gardein have to call them "Beefless Tips" and not "Purple-Blackish Soy Grain Pea Nuggets" or something. I'll tell you why: sales and marketing.

Most mainstream home-chefs wouldn't know what to do with a soy-grain-pea patty or quinoa nugget. But they sure know what to do with Crispy Tenders and Beefless Tips. So is Gardein simply marketing to the non-vegans out there? The vegan newbies as I like to call them? Maybe. But in my house, when I scream out to my husband, "Do you want some (Gardein) "Beefless Tips" tonight?" I get a strange shudder in my chest, it's the word beef that confuses my ears. I can't be alone.

Gardein: Guy Approved. Husband Approved. Kid Approved? Maybe..

Case #2: My Nephew.
My 4 year-old nephew, a newbie of vegan foods, loves tofu. But only if it's not mushy. The firm stuff. His mom recently gave up dairy and is trying to explore more vegan meals. Hallelujah. My nephew doesn't know much about the foods he is eating yet, but definitely knows what he likes and dislikes. Chicken nuggets: loves. So what about fake chicken nuggets? He'll eat both vegan chick'n and real chicken nuggets - but either way he'll call them "chicken nuggets". Glad he is eating vegan - but is the message going through? Are we sending mixed messages to kids, if you don't explain the difference between real meat and fake 'meat'? Or will all this simply wait until later on in life?

Fake meat, aka Gardein, aka Field Grain Meat Co. - I'm so in love, and kinda conflicted.

Pros

It's delicious.
It's easy.
It appeals to my non-vegan family and friends.
It's healthy.
It's delicious.
It's versatile.
Yum, Gardein spicy Buffalo Wings.
Its cruelty free, even if it has a confusing title.

Cons
It's expensive for vegan food.
I hate saying that I'm eating "chick'n and beefless" - even if it's vegan.
It confuses the public conversation about "meat".
It sends mixed messages about what vegans really want to eat (meat or cruelty free vegan food?)
It sends mixed messages about protein. Because, FYI, you can absolutely easily get enough protein from whole foods: grains, legumes, fruit and veggies.
It cuts into my fruit/veg/grain whole foods quota of my day's calories and shopping bill.
It is processed whole vegan foods as opposed to whole vegan foods.
It can become addicting. Encourages chefs to be lazy about exploring whole food-based vegan recipes, made from scratch.

What do you think? And how does this carry over to other fake food products like vegan cheese and vegan milk?

Are vegans just a bunch of sad copycats eating imitation, wannabe foods?

Of course not. I obviously don't think that at all. I love my vegan lifestyle. I eat the healthiest, life-affirming, feel-good foods on the planet.

But wait is soymilk simply fake milk? I don't think so. Isn't soymilk just "milk" from made from soybeans?

What about vegan cheese? Is it "fake" cheese? Is it defeating or defending the point of vegan food, for the same reasons as fake meat products?..

Defeating: takes away the point of eating non-animal product whole foods.
Defending: Proves that you don't need animal products to eat the many types of foods we love and use in recipes we have eaten everyday for hundreds of years. Recipes like pizza, hamburgers, milkshakes, fries, creamy soups, salads, beverages and more. All can now be "veganized" to some extent. Right? Defends a vegan lifestyle, right?

I'd love to hear what you think (vegans, newbies and non-vegans). Where do you stand on the "fake meat" "wannabe vegan foods" issue.

My final words: Right now, I really do love my vegan sausages, vegan cheese and vegan Buffalo Wings products. I crave them! If I'm out - you can find me at Whole Foods re-stocking my fridge. But I still think twice about the big picture of "fake meat".




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