What’s driving meatless mania?

NICK EICHER, HOST: It’s Thursday the 23rd of October, 2019. So glad you’ve chosen to listen to The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. First up, meatless meat.

Now, veggie burgers have been around for a long time. But plant-based meatiness has always been a niche market. Now, it’s going mainstream. Companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat and (my favorite) Incogmeato have started producing plant-based products that even carnivores find tasty. 

EICHER: Burger chains like White Castle and Red Robin jumped onboard with plant-based sliders and whoppers. In August, Burger King launched its Impossible Whopper nation-wide. Last month, McDonalds started testing a meatless burger in Canada.

WORLD Radio’s Anna Johansen reports now on what’s behind the fad.

AUDIO: Hi! Do you guys have the Impossible Whopper? 


JOHANSEN: Okay. Can I get one of those please?

ANNA JOHANSEN, REPORTER: The Impossible Whopper is supposed to be so much like meat, you can’t tell the difference.


It looks like meat, tastes like meat, smells like meat. But the main ingredient is soy protein.

MATT BALL: Companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, they decided we are going to tear down meat into its constituent parts.

Matt Ball works for the Good Food Institute. He’s a big fan of the new meatless products.

BALL: So if you take meat apart, you have amino acids and fatty acids and water and some minerals. And all these things can come from non-animal sources.

But there’s at least one thing in meat that plants don’t have.

BALL: Beef has actual blood in it. 

Impossible Foods wanted to replicate that part of the meat experience…without using actual blood. So they used heme instead. Heme is an iron-based element that carries oxygen in the bloodstream. But you can also find heme in the roots of soybeans. That’s how Impossible Foods creates that juiciness and meaty flavor.

Pam Popper is the executive director of Wellness Forum Health.

PAM POPPER: I’ve said to people half kidding, you know, obviously after this meal you see that I don’t live on acorns and tree bark. And isn’t that nice to know that you don’t have to do that in order to eat well?

She says the new products show just how much food culture has changed over the last 30 years.

POPPER: I remember going into restaurants and I would say I’m a vegetarian. They’d say, Oh, you’re a veterinarian. I mean, that’s how much people just didn’t even know anything about this. And look at how far we’ve come.

These days, vegetarianism is trendy, partly because people think it’s better for you. So when fast-food giant Burger King rolled out the Impossible Whopper, it generated a lot of buzz. But Sarah Fiedler doesn’t think it’s that revolutionary.

SARAH FIEDLER: It might feel like, Oh, this is just so different for Burger King. It’s really not, because they’re already working so much with…[8:58] these things that are highly sprayed and highly processed, they’re just formulating it into a different package to reach a different market.

Fiedler is a naturopathic doctor. She says a lot of vegetarians assume that if it doesn’t have meat, it must be healthy. But that’s not necessarily true.

FIEDLER: Rather than you counting calories, I want you to be counting chemicals that are in your food because that’s the much bigger health problem that we’re seeing. Whether you consider yourself a vegetarian, vegan, omnivore, carnivore, wherever you want to put yourself, it’s really about reducing the processed commercialized food.

Basically, if you want healthy food, Burger King still isn’t the best place to go.

But being more healthy isn’t the only reason people are going meatless. Matt Ball points to the findings of an Oklahoma State University study.

MATT BALL: 47 percent of people wanted to ban slaughterhouses. And two thirds had some discomfort with how animals are used in the food system.

As plant-based meat products get tastier, more people are choosing them for environmental reasons. Pam Popper explains.

POPPER: Eat this instead of the other, and then we’ll save the rainforest and, you know, we’ll have less destruction of land and we won’t be cruel to animals and we won’t destroy the environment because methane gas from factory farms is actually far worse than anything we’re doing with fuel. And I think there’s a whole population of people that would respond to that message, are responding to that message.

At this point, any environmental benefits are pretty nebulous—just like any potential health benefits. The companies producing meatless products have faced a lot of criticism. Too many additives and flavor enhancements. Too many genetically modified ingredients. The products are too heavily processed. They’re grilled on the same equipment as real meat.

Pam Popper thinks all that criticism is a little unfortunate.

POPPER: Companies that I think are trying to do things that are steps in the right direction are often met with hostility, it doesn’t certainly motivate other people to want to jump on board.

Popper hopes other companies will continue to experiment and someday come up with new and better plant-based innovations.

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Anna Johansen.

(Photo/Burger King)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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