Beyond Meat: The Future of Protein?

NOTE: This post is a departure from my usual content. It’s a bit of a product review, but also a discussion of why food manufacturers feel the need to make plant-based foods taste like meat. Can’t plant-based proteins just taste like plants? And isn’t the ingredient list on these products a little too artificial?

Beyond Meat Burger
The Beyond Meat Burger

As a former vegetarian, I remember the days when the term “vegetarian” was non-existent on restaurant menus. The best I could hope for was cheese nachos or salad, although neither were guaranteed to be meat-free. Menus didn’t always indicate the presence of meat, so strong was the belief that everyone wanted loads of chicken on their tortilla chips or bacon garnishing their bowl of vegetables. (That last one actually happened to me. Imagine my shock when I was assured by a server that the salad I ordered had no meat, only to see it arrive piled with bacon. The problem was so bad that I actually wrote to the head office of a chain restaurant, asking them to include all meat ingredients in their menus’ meal descriptions.)

How things have changed! Where once I struggled to find meat-free meals, there are now entire restaurants devoted not only to vegetarianism, but to veganism, serving things like cashew cheese, “chickn,” and mushroom “bacon.” (I say this not to ridicule them. I’ve been to a couple of these places and the food is actually delicious.) Quinoa is suddenly everywhere. And there’s even a new spin on that old standby, the veggie burger.

Which brings me to the Beyond Meat burger, the so-called “future of protein.” But first, a look back to the veggie burger as I have experienced it. These things have been around for a while. You can read about their origins here, but I started noticing them in the mid-90s or so (I think.)  From that point on, they became the default vegetarian option on menus otherwise laden with meat. I’ve sampled too many to count, but the good ones were decidedly rare. Most were soy-based, resulting in a thick block of a burger, often high in sodium, and always, for me, heartburn-inducing. Others were bean-based and sometimes included random vegetables like corn and peas, which did nothing to enhance their visual appeal. Where soy-based burgers were decidedly solid, early bean-based burgers were less so, and tended to fall apart, revealing all the vegetables and beans within. 

None of these burgers looked or tasted like meat. And I never quite grasped why they should. If you are eating a burger made of vegetables and beans, shouldn’t it taste like vegetables and beans? Beef burgers may be the default in some cultures, but why do veggie burgers have to meet their standard for taste and texture? No one demands that a chicken burger taste like beef or a portobello mushroom burger resemble ground chuck, so why the urgency to transform a veggie burger into “meat”?

I didn’t understand it then and I don’t now, though I am no longer a vegetarian, having decided  after more than 20 years of meat-free living that I needed more protein in my diet. I now eat fish and poultry, but no red meat; that’s a bridge too far. After so long eating plants for protein, the redness of red meat makes me queasy. Or maybe it’s residual trauma from a class trip to an abattoir when I was in grade 8. Either way, I don’t eat the stuff.

There is a name for people like me, because of course there is. I am, according to current trends, a “flexitarian.” But the vegetarian in me is not completely gone. I still love eating vegetarian food and will often choose meat-free meals when dining out. I also ensure we have at least one vegetarian dinner a week in our home. In short, I am thrilled to see the ascendance of vegetarian foods. But I’m still puzzled by this impulse for “meat.” To me, a vegetarian burger is just a vehicle for delivering a bunch of nutrients in a single food item. I don’t need the texture and taste of meat. I just want a veggie plant-based burger that tastes good. And, sorry to say, but the Beyond Meat burger ain’t it. 

While many vegans and vegetarians will buy it, the Beyond Meat burger is designed to appeal to non-vegetarians as well. (And anyone with celiac disease since it is also gluten-free.) Beyond Meat’s mission is to inspire everyone–vegetarian or not–to consume less meat, whether for their own health or the health of the planet. It’s a laudable goal and if it helps drive down meat consumption, great. I just wish it tasted better.*

The Beyond Meat burger is made primarily of “pea protein isolate.” Its fans claim it tastes like meat and looks like it too, thanks to pomegranate and beet extracts that imbue it with a pinky-red, beef-like colour. It definitely bears a resemblance to meat, but the taste, well, that is something else.  

Like the veggie burgers of yore, the Beyond Meat burger gave me heartburn almost immediately. It has a nondescript but decidedly artificial flavour and leaves a very unpleasant aftertaste. It might look like ground beef, but it tastes like it is made of  Snapea Crisps (or Harvest Crisps, as they are now known.) I serve these crisps in my school snack program and have never been a fan. Having them in burger form does not appeal to me. 

Beyond Meat isn’t the only plant-based burger to fail the taste test. The President’s Choice Undeniable burger tastes much like Beyond Meat, albeit without the meat-like texture. And neither appear to contain any actual plants, which is a bit troubling. Maybe this is what’s meant by the “future of protein”–little actual food, just extracts and isolates, bound together with canola and coconut oils and potato starch. 

There is no denying that these burgers provide a lot of protein and iron, but we need to dispense with the fiction that they taste like meat and the fallacy that they even need to. If the future of protein is, indeed, plant-based foods, let’s accept that they will taste like plants, not animals. And let’s strive for something made of whole foods, not just lab-created essences of food. “Meat” is okay once in a while, but these new plant-based burgers have 30% of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of saturated fat; more than 20% RDA is considered “high,” according to the US FDA. Their ingredients may be good for the planet, but when it comes to saturated fat, these burgers are not necessarily great for people.

For my part, I will stick with bean or quinoa burgers, store-bought or homemade. They have less protein than the new pea isolate burgers, but they contain actual beans and grains, the fibre and flavour that comes with them, and virtually no saturated fat. For those with dietary restrictions, many of these are vegan and gluten-free, or can be made that way at home.  

*As an aside, I heard from a flexitarian friend that the Beyond Sausage product is pretty good. Sausage is not something I enjoy, whether made of meat or “meat,” so I’ll have to take her word for it. 

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