There is a quiet melancholy to lentil burgers. Their complete lack of interest in looking, feeling, or tasting like meat often comes off as resignation on the part of the manufacturers: we know it’s utilitarian, they seem to say, but at least now you’re finally eating your vegetables. Fake meat’s appeal, when it took centre stage on the UK supermarket scene around five years ago, seemed to be its proud refusal to compromise. Beyond Meat, Heck, Quorn, and others promised to respect consumers’ growing ethical and environmental concerns while offering glossy products that did spot-on impersonations of their animal counterparts. Now, though, with much of the initial hype subsiding and many meat substitute companies shrinking or folding due to decreased demand, we might wonder whether claims of beef’s eventual replacement by fake steak actually have any substance.
National identity and culture frame how we treat meat substitution as an issue. Tofu, for instance, is not a meat substitute but an alternative, with its own myriad forms in provincial and national cuisines from Sichuan to Java. Similarly, tempeh is not trying to trick you into thinking it’s halloumi; it’s doing its own thing. Vegetarianism is commonplace in North Indian states such as Gujarat, Punjab, and Rajasthan. The supremacy of animal meat in our diets and minds is culturally contingent, as is the demand in the UK for substitutes that can slip seamlessly into the place of preexisting food staples. Suella Braverman’s recent blustering about the “Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati” was phrased just so to prod at the lingering distrust in our national consciousness of those who won’t just shut up and have a Peperami. In this respect, we are a country with conservative palates.
Hence, when Greggs announced the arrival of their vegan sausage roll at the beginning of 2019, the nation swooned. It came just as Beyond Meat’s “burgers that bleed” rose to fame, the product now used by McDonalds for their McPlant burgers. The bleeding shtick, achieved with veins of beetroot juice running through the pea protein, remains the lurid limit of meat imitation, while the vegan sausage roll got its charm by not pushing it. They are paler, their insides slightly mushier, than the original. Then again, since sausage meat lacks flavour without herbs and seasoning, its plant-based peer passes the taste test quite casually. So despite the temptation for substitute brands to boast, say, “Now That’s A M… F… Burger” (the ellipses are Meatless Farm’s own), typically the more unassuming substitutes, sold as alternatives by omnivorous companies, have had the most staying power. Like Greggs, MacSween has never suggested their vegetarian haggis would supplant the standard one for the sake of the ice caps. They offer to sit alongside tradition, with a lentil burger’s humility, rather than subverting any savoury status quo.
Meanwhile, substitute brands themselves have continued to suffer. Worry about plant-based products being “ultra-processed”, their ingredients too many and multi-hyphenate, places them at a disadvantage when compared to the illusory but alluring pastoral simplicity of a British grass-fed cow. The climate crisis is slipping from people’s attention, and at the same time, the sustainability of a high-scale substitute industry is continually called into question. Then there’s the problem of price. So long as fake meat is more expensive than its real rival, it will never shake the charge of being relentlessly middle-class, and at most a fringe delicacy: an unsustainable model for an entire business. Unless these fears are addressed or circumvented, meat substitutes will likely remain a fad.
In the London restaurant scene, the idea of “nose-to-tail eating” has recently been taking grip. It resembles the meat substitute craze in what it promises: “devastatingly simple” food, using all of a slaughtered animal’s edible bits to reduce waste, to heed sustainability, and to treat the poor things with some respect. It will also face similar problems of scalability and terminal poshness. If our present food practices are to be improved, as they very well should be, then meat substitute companies must be more sly and savvy with their marketing, production, and principles. Ousting meat in the UK altogether might be a utopian fantasy, but shifting its cultural hegemony need not be.
Illustration by Calum Mayor