Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality
Drizzled in Fake Blood
By David G. Young
Washington, DC, May 7, 2019 --
While Americans obsess about making vegetables taste like meat, Indians carry on making vegetables taste delicious.
When Burger King announced plans to sell meatless Impossible Whoppers to restaurants nationwide, it was the beginning of a big week for the fake meat industry.1 Competitor Beyond Meat completed the biggest IPO in years last week, and saw a surge in share price that brought its market capitalization to $3.9 billion.2
Impressive as that is, consider that Beyond Meat lost money both of the past two years, and had revenues of only $56 million for the first 9 months of 2018.3 This is utterly insignificant compared with the $10 billion in revenue that Tyson Foods, America's largest beef producer, generated in a single quarter last year.4 Tyson's revenues are a whopping 535 times higher than Beyond Meat, yet Tyson's market cap of $22 billion is only 6 times higher than its meatless competitor.
To justify its stock price, Beyond Meat's shareholders would have to expect not just future profits, but a near-term explosion of revenue of nearly 100 times. That's just not going to happen.
Finances are not the only craziness going around in the industry. Just read how Impossible Foods makes their fake meat. They start with run of the mill veggie patty ingredients including potatoes and coconut fat, but then things get strange. They put genetically engineered yeast into big vats to make mass quantities of a blood-like protein called leghemoglobin, so they can make their fake meat actually ooze out fake blood.5 Good grief!
All this craziness is a response to America's strange obsession with meat. American diets are extreme by world standards. Its people eat more than their own weight in meat each year -- an average of 120 kilograms per person.6 And while there is plenty of anecdotal reports of rising vegetarianism, especially amongst the coastal elites, numbers don't back this up as a nationwide trend. Research shows only about 5 percent of Americans report themselves as vegetarian, a number that has remained largely unchanged for two decades.7
If Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods to be big successful companies, they must go beyond this 5 percent to a broader market. The unsustainability of American lifestyles might help -- the planet just can't support people eating more than their own weight in meat each year. One way or another, Americans will eventually have to replace lots of the meat they eat with vegetable-based alternatives.
But here's the kicker -- if Americans are going to replace much of the meat in their diets with vegetables, why do those vegetables have to taste like meat? Are Americans aware that there actually delicious vegetable dishes that taste like, well, vegetables?
Consider the country on the opposite end of the meat-eating rankings from the United States: India. There, people eat only 4.4 kilograms of meat each year -- 25 times less than Americans.8
Research show that just 20 percent of Indians are strict vegetarians, with the rest enjoying a rich diet that happens to include very little meat.9 They've been doing this for thousands of years, making up new recipes all that time, yet somehow they have managed to avoid ingredients drizzled in fake blood.
In northern India, one of the most popular savory snacks from street vendors is called "chat". It features dough balls fried in ghee, often mixed with chick peas, spices, and drizzled in yogurt. A more southern Indian dish, masala dosa, features a crispy lentil pancake (also made with ghee) stuffed with tomatoes, spices and potatoes. Nutritionally, both are roughly equivalent to an Impossible Whopper with cheese.
Truth be told, I haven't yet tried the Impossible Whopper, as it is currently available only in St. Louis. But unless that sandwich is way, way better than the standard Whopper it tries to simulate, I can say with confidence that I far prefer its Indian cousins. Those dishes have complex flavors and textures that no fake hamburger (no real hamburger even) can ever achieve. And this is from a Nebraska-born meat eater who thoroughly enjoys real hamburgers now and then.
If Americans want to cut down on the meat in their diets, they'd be wise to overcome their juvenile appetite for fake hamburgers and learn to enjoy more sophisticated cuisines that are meatless by design. Taking that advice won't help boost the inflated share prices of companies like Beyond Meat, but it might help put American diets on a path to long-term sustainability -- and give them tastier things to eat along the way.
Shut Up and Eat, April 17. 2012
4. Google Finance, Tyson Foods, Inc, May 7, 2019
5. Medium, How GMOs Can Save Civilization (and Probably Already Have), March 16, 2018
6. The Telegraph, Revealed: The World's Most Vegetarian Country, March 26, 2018
8 The Telegraph, Ibid.
9. BBC, The Myth of the Indian Vegetarian Nation, April 4, 2018