A Meaty Question

Fake Meat Faux Pas?

What's the deal with meat substitutes? I hear the question “if you’re vegan or vegetarian why would you want to eat something that tastes like meat?” coming from people with all different dietary practices, from omnivore through vegan. The obvious answer is that there is no one answer to that question. We can, however, take a look at some of the circumstances surrounding the creation of what we could loosely call the “fake meat industry,” and that might provide us a better context for at least understanding the many facets of the question posited. Origins Perhaps in an effort to persuade followers to adopt a vegetarian diet, or maybe to have an alternative to tofu, seventh century Buddhist monks created seitan when they discovered that by rinsing and kneading wheat flour they could create a food which was chewy in texture and would satisfy appetites, not to mention it being a welcome alternative protein to tofu. Also known as wheat gluten and sometimes called “Buddhas food,” flavorings such as soy sauce were then added to achieve umami (a pleasant savory character), which could be construed as being reminiscent of meats or other items high in naturally occurring inosinate and glutamates. Over the centuries in China and other parts of Asia, seitan has been used to host a wide variety of textures and flavors, some of them which emulate the experience of eating meat, some not. Mock duck, chicken, fish and other preparations became common, and other foods such as taro, yam, rice, beans, dried turnip and mushrooms are just a handful of the ingredients used to substitute meat on vegetarian tables. Some are even combined with soy and/or seitan to create additional texture. In North America, John Harvey Kellogg (yes, that Kellog) was perhaps the person who first marketed a meat substitute (in 1896), the peanut-based Nuttose, became popular in sanitariums. In 1933 the Seventh-day Adventists found Loma Linda foods which produced wheat-based meat substitutes. Fifty+ years later and you begin to find vegetables being formed into veggie burgers and soy into tofu dogs and roasts, all showing up on the shelves of food co-ops around the country.

Fast Forward Today, one can find meat substitute products on the shelves and menus of your corner supermarket or even fast food restaurant. Some of those are highly processed foods which contain copious amount of dubious ingredients, which are many times worse from a health perspective than their non-vegetarian/vegan counterparts. Other products and recipes, however, remain closer to the simpler origins of the meat substitute, just a handful of ingredients with seasonings. The Question So, why would people who profess to be vegan or vegetarian want to eat a meat substitute? Along with the obvious need for protein in their diet, it could be that it’s an integral part of a religious and cultural tradition, which could extend back over a millennium, or maybe they’re making a transition from eating meat to eating less or no meat, for health or other reasons. There’s also the simple possibility that they enjoy the taste experience of eating something that has a chewy texture and is pleasantly savory. And why would people who don’t choose to eat meat substitutes (vegan, vegetarian or otherwise) be inclined to criticize or even vilify those who do? I suppose there are as many answers to that as the first question.

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