Analysis | Fake Meat’s Beyond Impossible Quest to Win Over Americans

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Not so long ago, alternative protein products like Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger promised to consign conventional beef, pork and chicken to the culinary dark ages. The companies’ stock prices soared, as did their market share. But consumers lost their appetite for fake meat in 2022, with the industry posting significant declines here in the US.

Divorcing Americans from their carnivorous habits has always been an uphill battle. For nearly two centuries, a colorful cast of eccentrics and entrepreneurs have pushed alternatives to meat only to see the real thing regain its place of pride on the nation’s tables. Until fake meat is indistinguishable from the real thing —  and poses no ethical dilemmas — we’re unlikely to see a change.

The problem arguably goes back to the colonial era, when Americans first became a nation of hardcore carnivores. While the typical European only ate meat two or three times a week in the 18th century, a visitor to Pennsylvania in 1750 observed that “even in the humblest or poorest houses, no meals are served without a meat course.”

In his history of our vexed relationship with animal flesh, Roger Horowitz concludes that White colonists probably ate around 200 pounds of meat per person each year — an astonishing amount for that era. As the historian Maureen Ogle has observed, “the average White colonial American ate more and more varied food, and especially more meat, than anyone on the planet.”

These trends only intensified after independence. By Horowitz’s estimate, even enslaved people in the South consumed upward of 150 pounds per person per year in the antebellum era. In 1841, one writer noted: “There are few things in the habits of Americans, which strike the foreign observer with more force, than the extravagant consumption of food — and more especially, of meat.”

But not everyone embraced their inner carnivore.  The itinerant Presbyterian preacher Sylvester Graham, citing Adam and Eve’s vegetarianism in the Garden of Eden, concluded that meat was sinful. In Graham’s gastronomical theology, meat was a temptation akin to sex or alcohol — something to be constrained at all costs.

Graham’s stance derived from his belief that the consumption of “flesh-meat” would increase the “relative power of the animal propensities, or the carnal influences on the operation of the understanding.” Translation: eat meat and you would start acting like an animal, which meant succumbing to sexual impulses.

By the 1850s, a growing number of reformers in the US associated with women’s rights, antislavery and other causes — the abolition of capital punishment, for example — also renounced eating meat. Many vegetarians, who embraced an individual diet free of violence and suffering, supported larger social movements that promised to accomplish the same end.

This was not a popular stance. As Adam Shprintzen has noted in his history of vegetarianism, this double shot of radicalism — renouncing meat eating while preaching social revolution — attracted intense hatred and mockery. So, too, did the beliefs of religious sects that eschewed meat, most notably the Seventh-day Adventists in the US.

Nonetheless, vegetarianism regained a popular following under Sylvester Graham’s spiritual successor, John Harvey Kellogg, a Seventh-day Adventist who would become one of the country’s first and most successful promoters of “wellness.” Like Graham, Kellogg was obsessed with self-regulation. He viewed sex with terror and spent much of his life finding some very creative ways to rein in unruly libidos. Like others in his faith, he began by renouncing alcohol and meat.

In 1876, Kellogg began promoting increasingly elaborate dietary theories at a health retreat located in Battle Creek, Michigan, which welcomed patients from around the world. It was here, in the kitchens of the “Sanitarium,” that Kellogg and his fellow ascetics developed a line of vegetarian breakfast foods, including corn flakes. But they also sought to mimic meat.

Kellogg, who believed that nuts were “the perfect analogue of meat,” made them the foundation of a new line of products. First came Nuttose, a mixture of nuts and grains. Protose, made from peanut butter, wheat gluten and cereal, arrived not long afterward. Long before Impossible Burger, Protose advertisements boasted: “Looks, smells and tastes like meat…”

The appeal of these new products lay in their promise of letting people enjoy a meat-eating experience without what this advertisement called meat’s “toxic effects.” One patient sampling fake meat at the Sanitarium declared that “it tastes like all the naughty things, but has the advantage of being digestible and wholesome.”

Kellogg’s efforts elevated fake meat to modest levels of respectability, but not much more. Kellogg’s fear that meat was an aphrodisiac — and fake meat the culinary equivalent of a cold shower — made the whole enterprise seem a little out-there.

Meat substitutes retained a niche following under the influence of fitness guru Benarr MacFadden, who channeled Kellogg’s ideas into “muscular vegetarianism” in the 1920s and beyond. Unlike Kellogg, MacFadden acknowledged, even celebrated, procreative sex. But he still counseled his followers to avoid meat for fear that it would “excite the sexual passions” (along with hot sauces, tea, coffee, sundry condiments and white flour).

Though these ideas enjoyed a modest popular following, eating meat, and lots of it, remained the norm. When war and economic hardship limited access to slaughtered animals, as it did during the World Wars and the Great Depression, some Americans turned to meat substitutes out of necessity. But they rarely did so with much enthusiasm, returning to the ways of the flesh once peace and prosperity returned.

Along the way, the meatpacking industry worked overtime to discredit America’s occasional flirtations with meat substitutes. When an international team of scientists announced in 1949 that they had devised a new form of fake meat made from unnamed vegetable proteins, the American Meat Institute issued a thundering denunciation that labeled the news as “ridiculous” and “just plain nonsense.”

By the 1970s, dire warnings of overpopulation and famine led many to believe that a meatless future was no longer a choice but a necessity. A new generation of free thinkers associated with the counterculture embraced the old meat substitutes and some new ones, too: Prosage, or fake sausage; Stripple, a kind of artificial bacon; Wham, ersatz ham; the somewhat unimaginatively named Beef-Like Loaf and Chicken-Like Loaf; and many more. Most of these new products featured texturized vegetable protein made from soybeans.

For a brief period, it looked as though fake meats would take over the world. Newspaper articles spoke breathlessly of a future of synthetic cuts of meat, offering glowing profiles of companies like Worthington Foods, a Seventh-day Adventist company that marketed many of the best-known products. Many of these could be had more cheaply than beef in an era of rising prices, further heightening their appeal.

But the boom proved fleeting. Speeding its demise was the film Soylent Green, which imagined an overpopulated dystopian future where people ate a meat substitute that was — spoiler alert — made from human corpses. By the late 1970s, the mania for meat substitutes had abated, with many big companies exiting the market as quickly as they entered. In 1977, the Wall Street Journal quoted a General Mills official as saying: “There might be a substantial market long term. But not now.”

But when? Though vegetarianism made modest gains in the intervening years, it has remained stuck at relatively low levels for the past two decades, despite growing evidence that eating less meat has significant health benefits. More distressing still, meat consumption has actually increased and is now at all-time highs, with Americans eating 264 pounds per person per year.

Perhaps we’ll see fake meat makers stage a comeback. But for now, the likelihood that either will displace conventional meat in the near term looks, well, beyond impossible.

More From Other Writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

• The Plant-Based Meat Movement Will Rise Again: Amanda Little

• Beyond Meat’s Pepsi Pact Awakens Animal Spirits: Sarah Halzack

• Don’t Let Dazzle Brands Deceive You: Ben Schott

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Stephen Mihm, a professor of history at the University of Georgia, is coauthor of “Crisis Economics: A Crash Course in the Future of Finance.”

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion

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