Nadia Berenstein wants you to know that she is not a market researcher.
But that doesn’t make the James Beard Award-Winning flavor historian any less of an authority on the plant-based food market. Mostly vegetarian herself, Berenstein has also been studying the world of synthetic flavors—both natural and artificial—and why we buy them for years.
And when it comes to flavor technology, no field is more exciting than meat substitutes.
While meat substitutes have been widely accepted and celebrated in Asia for hundreds of years, there’s a good reason they took so long to catch on in America:
“In the late 19th century, nutritional science validated the importance of protein in human diets. So meat got culturally associated with masculine strength… even as nutritionists were saying, ‘You can also eat beans! Beans are also protein!’ It became very hard to shake this cultural idea of meat being this food that not only produces a strong body but produces a strong nation.”
That said, every popular idea has its skeptics.
Over the course of the 20th century, meat substitutes were championed by everyone from John Harvey Kellogg to Henry Ford, but generally for specific, utilitarian reasons. Jehovah’s Witnesses and other religious groups, soldiers, and counterculture activists all ate “murderless meat” regularly, but the idea of ditching animal products didn’t catch on with consumers at large. Berenstein says this is because, in the wake of the Great Depression and two World Wars, people associated “not having meat with either poverty or emergencies like wartime.”
Even General Mills got involved in the plant-based meat game in the 1970s.
Bontrae, an early meat substitute, failed to take off
Still, middle-class Americans weren’t about to opt into eating WWII delicacies like “soy loaf” when they could have pot roast:
“The culture wasn’t ready for it. I think what’s really interesting [about plant-based foods] now is that the flavor technology has advanced a great deal. Not just in the development of proteins—not just soy protein but also things like pea protein—and flavor additives and modifiers to address some of the residual taste problems that tend to be associated with those ingredients. Especially a sort of bitterness or a cardboardy flavor.”
When it comes to heavily engineered foods like Beyond Meat, Impossible Burger, and lab-grown meat, more research means a better product.
However, Berenstein thinks the recent explosion of this market is “also due to an incredible cultural shift.” Not only do modern consumers not think of fake meat as inherently inferior, but, “Vegan and plant-based foods are one of the areas where people are more willing to experiment with new food technologies.”
She wants to be clear: “I don’t think anybody should deceive themselves that these aren’t processed foods. They are processed foods. The thing is, processed food can mean a lot of different things.”
If the goal is saving the planet from climate change and reducing animal suffering by eating something that “can actually fool someone who regularly eats meat,” she thinks that trumps, “the nostalgic ideal of ‘all-natural’ foods—whatever ‘all-natural’ means. The new world of plant-based cuisine is a triumph of food technology.”
Berenstein is not arguing that industrialized food systems are inherently sustainable, but that prioritizing the development of new vegetable products will substantially lessen our negative impact on the planet.
Plus, with new technology comes new foods to try: “I think there’s something exciting about trying new things. Especially lately—and this started before coronavirus—there’s this new spirit of food adventuring and food novelty. Expanding your palate is cool.”
She’s currently pregnant with her first child. While she never said this directly, there was a palpable sense of excitement in Berenstein’s tone at the idea that her kid will grow up in a world full of so many new school lunch possibilities—maybe even one that eventually eliminates unethical meat production entirely.
If we eat less meat, we can treat the animals we do eat with more dignity
One thing is certain, the pace of new science in this field is outstripping Berenstein’s ability to keep up with it. At present, the global plant-based meat market is worth $4.3 billion globally. A quick Google search brings up a bevy of articles about gigantic new processing plants designed to drive costs down and Belgian labs developing cultured animal fat, not to mention the recent approval of lab-grown chicken in Singapore. By 2025, the valuation of this market is expected to double.
Major fast-food brands like McDonald’s and Taco Bell are soon to offer new meat alternatives, jumping on a trend already present at chains like Burger King and Dunkin. More than anything else, Berenstein predicts that this presence in chains will, “have a massive effect on the business of meat production. It could mean that consumers who care about the ethical treatment of animals could have more of a say in animal agriculture and CAFOs… That’s the part of the meat economy that can be knocked out… I think that could be really transformational.”
I think we can all agree that any future that gives us both better meat and better vegan products is one to look forward to. And when it comes to “flavor quality and technology,” Berenstein thinks, “it’s pretty much there.”
Who knows, maybe cheap meat will be a thing of the past in her child’s America.
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