Several months ago I was having dinner with my close friend and his family when a conversation about Beyond Meat burgers came up. I was surprised by how strong an opinion his mother had on the subject, considering she wasn’t plant-based herself. “All those fake burgers are so bad for you!” she exclaimed. “I thought being vegan was supposed to be about being healthy. People shouldn’t be eating all that processed stuff!” I took this as an opportunity to discuss her perceptions around vegan meat alternatives, and thought I would share some of what was discussed with you here!
Friend or Faux?
The ‘goodness’ of vegan meats has been an ongoing discussion both within and without the vegan community for several years, especially now that vegan meats have become so mainstream. Everywhere from McDonald’s to your local Walmart now carries plant-based meat and dairy alternatives, with almost all fast-food chains now carrying a plant-based protein option of some kind.
While many veggies and omnivores alike are excited about this rapid growth in options and popularity, there are also some common criticisms around both the products and their proliferation, most particularly around fast food vegan options and processed veg meats sold at groceries stores like veggie bacon, burgers and chicken nuggets.
Like most topics that deal with decisions that are deeply personal, political, and situationally based, tackling the arguments for and against vegan meat alternatives requires a nuanced approach. Some criticisms of vegan meats and their rapid growth in popularity have valid points that warrant further discussion (for example, concerns about the healthiness of these options or the moral implications of purchasing vegan products from a non-vegan food chain). I also feel some are misguided or ignore some of the many reasons why people choose vegan meat options.
These criticisms warrant a broader discussion than we can manage today, as we want to focus on some of the ways vegan meat alternatives benefit people looking to reduce their meat consumption, ultimately benefitting the vegan movement!
Here at the TVA, we choose to support and promote vegan meat alternatives for several reasons – I’ve explained some of them below.
Why are vegan meats useful for those looking to reduce or eliminate meat from their diets?
It is important to remember that simply being able to go to a grocery store, with a variety of affordable produce options like fresh fruits and veggies, and being able to choose what food you consume is a privilege not everyone has.
While vegan meats are currently more expensive than animal meat (though it looks like that might change sooner than expected!), fast-food vegan options are still more affordable than going grocery shopping for many low-income households. When fast food is all you can afford sometimes, plant-based options give people some degree of ownership over the types of foods they choose to consume.
As well, for many marginalized communities living in ‘food deserts‘, or folks living in rural areas looking to go vegan with limited options, your local fast-food chains or corner stores might be your best or even primary options for food in general. Shouldn’t people with limited food choices still have options that reflect their ethics/values?
The more vegan products that are promoted to the public, the more normal eating these foods becomes. Being able to try something like KFC’s new Plant-Based Chicken Sandwich makes experimenting with plant-based options fun, interesting and non-threatening for staunch meat-lovers. It also introduces the concept of meat-free eating to a wider audience that might not be reached with traditional messaging. Plus, they tend to be crowdpleasers for parties and ease the social awkwardness of omnivorous get-togethers!
Traveling to a not very veg-friendly city where some of your only vegan restaurant options are a Beyond Meat burger? Are you in a hurry to eat at lunch and can’t go further than your mall’s food court? Do you have little or no time or energy to cook due to your current life circumstances?
Knowing you have some veggie burgers you can fry up at home for a quick and filling meal for your family if you get home late from work, or that you can order Odd Burger to arrive at your home the same time you do, makes life so much easier for folks with limited time or capacity to cook who still want to adhere to their plant-based diet.
Higher demand for vegan options also means that when at a non-vegan restaurant, you can still have a filling and delicious main course (long gone are the days of ‘I’ll just order fries!’)
These options help people transition to a vegan diet
When choosing new products or recipes, people are more likely to choose options that are familiar to them, that they know they like. For people new to vegan cooking, or even cooking in general, having familiar imitation meat makes it easier to simply sub in one product for another in recipes you already know, rather than having to spend time and resources learning new recipes from scratch.
As well, having faux meats that look, smell and taste like the real deal can help relieve cravings and backsliding amongst new and seasoned vegans alike!
They are still the better option than eating meat
Choosing vegan meats vs. animal-based meats is still the far better choice when it comes to reducing harm to farmed animals; for example, a recent report by World Animal Protection (WAP) found that vegan fast food options saved 600,000+ lives in 2021.
Plant-based meats also take a significantly lower toll on the environment compared to animal agriculture. Research from the Good Food Institute (GFI) has found that plant-based meats use 47 percent–99 percent less land, emit 30%–90% less greenhouse gas, use 72%–99% less water and cause 51%–91% less aquatic nutrient pollution than conventional meat.
They also don’t require the use of antibiotics, a public health concern that has come into sharp focus in the aftermath of COVID-19.
They taste good!
Finally, it’s also important to acknowledge that these options are delicious and enjoyable! Being vegan in today’s world is more fun and easy than ever, and being able to indulge in the occasional treat at your favorite fast-food place is something vegans can and should be allowed to enjoy the same as anyone else!
At the end of the day, it’s valid if you have vegan meat every day, and it’s valid if you choose to avoid these products and fast food plant-based options altogether. There are many reasons why someone might choose to consume or not consume these products. We’re here to support folks choosing a plant-based diet in whatever way works best for them!