How Meatless Meat Is Altering American Culture

Image courtesy of Burger King.

Image courtesy of Burger King.

The meat department’s undergoing a transformation at the moment. Where once beef ruled the roost, there are now a number of upstart brands offering cutting-edge, plant-based options. With these products changing the way Americans eat, will they create a cruelty-free culture, too?

While mainstays like Morning Star and Tofurkey have been around for decades, the meatless market’s expanding, and evolving, at a rapid pace. No longer are vegetarian options just reconstituted soy beans. Brands today are blending nature and science to create extremely realistic meatless meat. 

Impossible Foods is one of the largest emerging brands. Founded in 2011, it’s plant-based, meat-like “beef” has absolutely blown up: it’s served at over 5,000 restaurants, including upscale or niche spots like Umami Burger and The Counter, and biggies like White Castle and Burger King, while their new sausage is served at Little Caesars. 

Beyond Meat also turns plants into meat-like products, and profit: Founded in 2009, the company’s IPO last year valued it at $4 billion – the largest since 2008 —, and it’s launched collaborations with well-known outposts like Dunkin Donuts, TGI Fridays, and A&W. 

Meanwhile, other brands are going one step beyond plants by growing actual meat from biological cells. Memphis Meats describes their process as a “tiny farm” without the land waste, the water waste, or the blood-letting. Though Memphis Meats still has challenges — they still rely on “fetal-bovine serum,” which comes from actual animals — they’re making great progress and will make more thanks to Tyson Foods’ recent investment.  

And over in the Netherlands, Meatable is developing a similar product, only they’ve figured out a way to do it without the fetal-bovine serum. Through scientific magic, they’ve developed cells that can grow into either muscle or fat cells, creating a complete burger on their own, no serum needed. 

These innovations are still years away from commercialization, but they’re already upending the sector — Beyond Meat is already being sold in the butcher’s case, for example —and conventional meat producers are fighting back. Meat-aligned lobbyists successfully petitioned Missouri, Mississippi, and Arkansas lawmakers to restrict the use of “meat” to only products “derived from harvested production livestock or poultry,” and they’re waging similar battles in 21 other states, while the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association is doing so on the federal level.

Image courtesy Dmitry Lobanov/Shutterstock.

Image courtesy Dmitry Lobanov/Shutterstock.

There is good reason for conventional meat producers to be worried about meatless meat. As the New York Times recently reported, the non-dairy milk sector was once niche; now it’s 13% of the market. While meatless meat’s only 1% of the market today, there’s no doubt it’s numbers will rise. According to Fauna Analytics, 66% of Americans were willing to try lab-grown meat; 53% would use it as replacement to conventional meat; and 46% said they would buy meatless meats on the regular, all of which points to the evolution of Americans’ diets.

Though we’re still eating more meat per capita, and remain the world’s largest meat consumers over all, we’re diversifying our habits: beef consumption has dropped in recent years, while poultry and fish have grown as more people learn how diet impacts health. In fact, a Johns Hopkins University study found that 40% of people who avoid meat do so for their health. Others, 12%, do so for ecological reasons, like the facts that one cow requires 11,000 gallons of water from birth to beef or that livestock contributes to 14-18% of the world’s carbon emissions.

But the most intriguing number from that study is that another 12% of people said they eschew meat to save animal lives, a detail that brings us to the question at hand: Will meatless meat alter American culture?

Image courtesy of ComicSans/Shutterstock.

Image courtesy of ComicSans/Shutterstock.

Humans have a long history of trying to dominate nature. It’s in our DNA, bred in us from eons of hunting for survival, and this urge was amplified and encouraged in the United States. We were told this New World’s seemingly boundless bounty and resources were there for the taking. The frontier, the source of our expansion and wealth, was seen as something we had to tame. We were told we had a right and indeed an obligation to bring the chaotic wilds to order, to conquer it and the animals within. It was Manifest Destiny. With so much bounty, there was no forethought toward conservation, and laying waste and moving on became part of our nation’s M.O.

This conquer-and-kill mindset was perpetuated well after we put the frontier in the proverbial rear view: recreational hunting clubs arose in the 1890s, as Industrial Revolution created a nostalgia for rustic adventures; and the post-War American dream was reared on barbecue-centric holidays and daily burgers from fast food joints. Eating meat became a part of being a red-blooded American. But now many of those same fast food joints are serving meatless meat, and they’re selling like hot cakes: MarketWatch reported that fast food moved 228 million plant-based meals last year, up 10% from 2017.

That said, Impossible Burger, Beyond Meat and others’ respective moves into the fast food realm puts them at the core of American culture. They are now in a position to raise consciousness and to educate consumers about both their ecological advantages – meatless options produce less waste, use less water, use less land, and studies show that current levels of meat consumption will 100% destroy the world and reducing meat is the “single biggest way” to reduce one’s ecological impact. — and their ethical ones, too, like that meatless options could save 25 million animal lives each day in America and 9 billion globally each year.

By showing Americans we can have our “beef” and eat it too, sans the murder, perhaps these brands can breed more respect for our fellow beasts. This could foster a culture that cares more for both the planet and the animals with which we share it. Maybe cows, chickens, goats, and the rest will be as valued as dogs, cats, and even iguanas: as living beings. And if that happens, perhaps the United States, still the most culturally influential nation on the planet, will set the pace for the world at large, leading by example into a future with less meat and more – well, future.

Then again, maybe meatless meat is just a passing fad; maybe Western culture will revolt against alternative meats. Arby’s has already taken a shot across the bow with their “marrot,” a turkey carrot — “If we can make meat from plants, why can’t we make plants from meat?” read the aggressive press release. — and Chipotle’s resisting plant-based options because it claims its ingredients are already better than “processed” vegetables. Will others follow their lead in resisting change, or will Burger King’s strategy come out on top?

Only time will tell, but if people don’t change their ways, that time will run out, too.

Image courtesy smereka/Shutterstock.

Image courtesy smereka/Shutterstock.