Plant-based meat and the knock-down, drag-out fight for the American diet
On April 21, 1977, National Food Day, microbiologist Michael Jacobson and his gang of provocateurs at the upstart Center for Science in the Public Interest scored a coup: hosting a vegetarian dinner at the White House. Their goal was to call attention to “the declining quality of the American diet and its effect on public health.”
Six years earlier, Jacobson had launched the center and began doing battle with the overlords of what he called the “Standard American Diet.”
It was a time of global food shortages, rising food prices, and growing concern over industrial agriculture and the deluge of highly processed foods that flooded the country in the decades after World War II. With National Food Day, Jacobson had organized a “national day of action” that featured protests, concerts, fasts, teach-ins, and the unveiling of the “Terrible 10,” a list of foods — from Wonder Bread and Coca-Cola to bacon and beef — that “epitomize everything wrong with the American food system.”
This was food’s loud and controversial coming-out party as a political issue, designed to place our diet alongside Watergate, civil rights, and the women’s movement as an issue worthy of national attention. The country was fracturing politically and culturally, and suddenly what we ate was part of that larger divide.
Dinner at the White House was Jacobson’s pièce de résistance, conveying establishment credibility to the cause. The meat and dairy industries howled in protest. Wray Finney, president of the National Cattlemen’s Association, sent President Jimmy Carter — a Democrat — a “stinging” telegram, calling the meatless menu “bizarre.” Keith Sebelius, a Kansas Republican in Congress, introduced a resolution that branded the dinner a “discriminatory endorsement of … food faddism,” and urged Carter to reconsider.
The president and first lady ultimately skipped the event. But some 40 people, including the secretary of agriculture, a few members of Congress, and members of the White House staff, showed up to nibble on broccoli-nut casserole, slurp black bean soup, sip apple juice, and talk nutrition in the Roosevelt Room. And if the menu itself weren’t statement enough, the food was prepared by Sikhs from Golden Temple Conscious Cookery.
Jacobson went on to become the most visible food activist in the country, taking on everything from trans fats to the soda industry — he once sent 170 rotten teeth to federal regulators to protest ads for sugary snacks aimed at kids — and earning the title, among his critics, of the “Ayatollah of Food.”
Forty years later, Jacobson has retired, and vegetarianism still hasn’t caught on. The percentage of Americans who identify as vegetarian, around 5 or 6 percent, has remained static over the past 20 years. It’s hardly a surprise. Meat dominated the American diet from the start. In her 1832 travelogue, Domestic Manners of the Americans, the English novelist Fanny Trollope (Anthony’s mom) notes: “They consume an extraordinary quantity of bacon. Ham and beaf-steaks [sic] appear morning, noon, and night.”
Yet we continue to fight over meat — how much we eat; what it’s doing to our health and to the health of the planet; and, of late, whether “burgers” made of plant protein that taste, look, and feel a lot like the real thing should be greeted as a dietary savior or part of another liberal plot to deny Americans their Big Macs.
The burgers, from Silicon Valley-backed startups Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, are turning up on menus from fancy New York bistros to Burger King. The companies got early funding from tech titans (Twitter co-founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone for Beyond Meat; Bill Gates for both Impossible and Beyond) and a roster of elite venture capital firms.
And no wonder. Here was a food play that made sense in the Valley: a never-before-seen product made with the latest technology that had the potential to disrupt meat production, one of the world’s biggest environmental threats.
Unlike most investments in traditional agriculture, this one had a considerable upside. Beyond Meat’s May IPO was easily the most successful of the year, its stock rising nearly 600 percent by the end of August; Impossible attracted celebrity investors such as Jay-Z and Serena Williams, and is headed for its own public offering. The two companies have products in grocery stores across the country, and retail sales are surging. Even the big meat companies are jumping in, lest they be outflanked in the new protein gold rush; Tyson was an early backer of Beyond Meat before it started its own line of plant-based products; and Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer, is launching a line of soy-based products.
But if these nouveau veggie burgers seem destined to take a bite out of our long-running meat fest, it’s worth noting that while Silicon Valley’s billions may have disrupted America’s most iconic sandwich, they have not disrupted the culture war about what it means to eat like a “real American.”
That became clear after liberals in Congress introduced the Green New Deal in the wake of the 2018 midterms. The resolution, designed to address climate change and economic inequality, says nothing about the environmental hazards of beef production. In fact, despite Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s late-night TV quip this year about how no one should be “eating a hamburger for breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” the Green New Deal says nothing about meat-eating or vegetarianism or any other kind of diet.
No matter. The right’s culture warriors picked up the cudgel and began swinging, and the plant burgers were guilty by association.
In February, GOP Rep. Rob Bishop, from Utah, munched a hamburger at a press conference, saying that such an act would be “illegal” if the Green New Deal became law. At a Michigan rally in March, President Trump said there would be “no more cows” if the Green New Deal were adopted; days earlier, Trump’s former adviser Sebastian Gorka had likened criticism of meat-eating to Stalinism.
Over the summer, the Center for Consumer Freedom ran full-page ads in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post slamming plant-based meat for its reliance on additives. And Rick Wiles, the creator of a Christian media outlet called TruNews that promotes conspiracy theories, described plant-based meat as a plot by “Luciferians” to “create a race of soulless creatures.”
Now the plant burgers are getting it from both sides, as a host of liberal voices are attacking their lengthy list of ingredients and use of genetically modified soy, and arguing that faux meat is actually worse for people and the planet than beef that is sustainably raised.
During CNN’s town hall on climate change earlier this month featuring the Democratic candidates for president, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren joined the culture-war fray, saying the fossil fuel industry was thrilled the nation was arguing about “cheeseburgers” and light bulbs rather than focusing on the industry’s ecological villainy.
It’s a contentious, if somewhat absurd, moment. Reducing meat production, and thus consumption, is a crucial part of the larger strategy for addressing climate change. And for the first time we have a burger substitute that is good enough that a lot of people are eager to at least try it. If Americans are ever going to eat less meat, this could be an important first step.
But the culture war matters. Vegetarianism, and even the idea of eating less meat, continues to languish on the dietary fringe in part because it was effectively tied by its critics to the culture of effete liberals. The perception persists of a diet that is weak, bland, and singularly unsatisfying — rabbit food. It’s no coincidence that “soy boy” is the far right’s au courant smear of men deemed lacking appropriate masculinity.
In August, Fox News hosts Lawrence Jones and Dan Bongino bro-ishly mocked a new UN report on climate change and land use that urged a reduction in meat consumption. “I don’t care because I want my meat and I believe that it was placed on here for us to eat,” Jones told viewers.
Plant-based meat currently accounts for just 2 percent of retail packaged meat sales; it also costs considerably more than ground beef. Despite what seems like daily media coverage of each new plant-based milestone, McDonald’s, Panera, and other significant players in the fast- and fast-casual space have thus far taken a wait-and-see approach. Meanwhile, Americans are digging in along deepening fault lines, taking sides on everything from Trump and immigration to Megan Rapinoe and drinking straws.
Under these circumstances, the meat fight that began 40 years ago clearly has the potential to create problems for the quest to make plant-based meat “the future of protein,” as Beyond Meat promises. Keep in mind that two decades after the establishment of national organic standards, organic food — which was similarly pilloried as “elitist” and too expensive — accounts for less than 6 percent of total food sales in the US.
The cultural divide over food actually began a decade before Michael Jacobson’s culinary insurrection at the White House, as an offshoot of the new environmental movement that took shape in the 1960s. Concerns about additives — preservatives, artificial colors, and flavors — as well as the chemicals used to grow food, gave rise to claims that the American diet was “poisoning” people. The term “plastic food” entered the activist lexicon, and soon there was a “countercuisine” that gave us organic gardens, co-ops, and lots of homemade granola and yogurt.
In 1971 (the same year Jacobson started his center), Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse — in Berkeley, of course — launching a movement around local, seasonal, and sustainably raised food that still echoes today. Waters modeled her menu on the simple country food she’d fallen in love with while living in France. But within a decade, Chez Panisse went from a raucous counterculture outpost to a food-world mecca, with Waters as the grande dame of virtuous eating.
Fairly or not, what made Jacobson and Waters heroes to some made them the embodiment of elitism and nanny-state overreach to others. The US food system, after all, was held up as the envy of the world. Our supermarkets, with their endless aisles and overflowing shelves, were touted as evidence of capitalism’s superiority to communism during the Cold War. The chemical-fueled productivity of the revered American farmer was pitted against the menace of Soviet collectivized agriculture.
In the prosperous post-war era, Americans embraced all manner of processed wonders — TV dinners, frozen pizza, dump-and-stir cake mixes — without much thought to how those products were made, or their nutritional deficiencies. These shortcuts not only made it easier for housewives to keep the family fed, but they were markers of modernity, of progress.
Then, all of a sudden it seemed, Jacobson, Waters, and their supporters were saying there was a “right” way to eat and a “wrong” way, and that the American food system could not be trusted. Over time, which side of that divide you were on evolved from a matter of personal and societal health to one of moral righteousness.
By 1977, when the first draft of what would become the federal government’s inaugural Dietary Guidelines was released, “processed food” had become a dirty word — even as the diet of most Americans was ever more dominated by it. In 1986, journalist Barbara Ehrenreich observed that two cultures were emerging in America: “Natural fiber vs. synthetic blends; hand-crafted wood cabinets vs. mass-produced maple; David’s Cookies vs. Mr. Donut.” Soon thereafter, Rush Limbaugh took to the airwaves to begin inveighing against latte-swilling, brie-eating elitists.
As the 21st century dawned, an obesity “epidemic” and mounting concern about climate change and animal welfare renewed and sharpened the argument about our dietary choices. In 2006, Michael Pollan published The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and the landscape shifted profoundly. What began as a series of detective stories about where our food comes from wound up crystallizing the moral, environmental, and public health issues around which a re-invigorated food movement coalesced. Pollan supplanted Waters and Jacobson as the nation’s dietary conscience, and he, too, became a political flashpoint.
The right’s media machine shouted back about the government and rich liberals telling the nation what to eat — “Mr. Pollan, it’s none of your business,” raged Limbaugh in 2009. “It’s none of [President] Obama’s business how anybody eats.” Meanwhile, fast food chains were cranking out huge, salt- and fat-filled burgers that seemed to mock the admonitions of the foodies: The Baconator. The Monster Thickburger. The Triple Whopper. The Double Down. The message was clear: This is America. We’ll eat whatever we goddamn want.
And what Americans wanted to eat, then and now, was meat. Last year, we ate an average of 219 pounds per person of beef, pork, poultry, veal, and lamb — four times the world average. Most of us eat meat every day.
The science isn’t settled, but research suggests that this carnivorous streak is hardwired into us as humans (bigger brains, an evolutionary leap); it is hardwired, too, into our culture as Americans, an aspirational touchstone of the land of plenty. Meat, associated with wealth and power for thousands of years — we “beef up,” but “veg out” — was abundant and relatively cheap here. So when poor immigrants landed on these shores, they could aspire to eat the meat that had always been beyond their means.
For decades, the main case for eating less meat was personal health, the fact that a meat-heavy diet has been shown to raise the risk of things like heart disease and cancer. We do eat less beef today than we did in the 1970s, thanks in part to those health concerns, but we replaced it with a lot more chicken, not vegetables.
Now though, the fight over meat is playing out against the existential backdrop of a warming planet. Despite the persistence of skeptics and denialists, nearly 70 percent of Americans say they are worried about climate change, up from just over 50 percent five years ago. Agriculture in general, and beef production specifically, play a significant role in exacerbating climate change. Agriculture contributed 9 percent of the total greenhouse-gas emissions in the US in 2017. And beef production, from carbon emissions to deforestation, has a greater environmental impact than any other food.
More people say they’re trying to add meatless meals to their weekly routines (whether they’re actually doing it is hard to know). And for the first time, they have a growing array of decent (and, crucially, convenient) options. Historically, the various meat substitutes were reliably meh — tempeh; seitan; bland, grainy veggie burgers. No one really craved them. Now, in addition to the plant-based burgers, there are vegetarian meal kits and a number of fast-casual places, led by Sweetgreen, that have made healthier meals, including salad — salad, the symbol of all that is wanting about a vegetarian diet — cool.
I tried the Impossible Burger at a Cheesecake Factory in Washington, DC, comparing it side by side with the restaurant’s Old Fashioned Burger. Both came on a toasted brioche bun with the standard lettuce, tomato, pickle, and onion. The Impossible Burger was served with a “special sauce” (Thousand Island dressing), which I got on the side and slathered on each burger. Both burgers looked and felt, even smelled, more or less the same. Pinching a piece of “meat” from each for a taste test, however, I could easily tell the difference. The Impossible patty lacked the rich fattiness of beef. But beneath the stack of condiments, the distinction was far less apparent.
To be honest, neither burger was great, and I suspect the Impossible patty wouldn’t fare well against one made from the aged, grass-fed chuck I get at my butcher. But still, it’s hard to overstate how unique this product is in the history of meat substitutes.
There are reasons beyond taste to think the new plant burgers could dodge the worst of the culture clash over food. For one, they’re media and market darlings, at least for now. Barclays predicts the alt-meat market could hit $140 billion in the next decade. Hell, Glenn Beck was smitten after he mistook an Impossible Burger for a real one.
But the main reason they might survive the culture war is that the public narrative of these burgers is one of innovation and personal choice, the wisdom of the market — values that, we’ve long been told, are all-American. That has earned them praise from the conservative Federalist Society; and from Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who disputes the idea that beef production contributes to climate change but lauded Impossible Foods for its “innovation,” saying it was up to consumers to decide.
Even the writer Bill McKibben, a leading liberal voice on environmental issues, said via email that he doubts the culture war will have much impact because the “plant burgers are not … a way to ban people from eating meat — they’re a choice. And Americans love choices! Also, they taste good, and Americans like things that come on rolls and taste good!”
This market-based halo could, in theory, inoculate alt-meat against the nanny-state-run-amok fever dreams that helped doom recent government efforts to promote a healthier, more sustainable diet: Michelle Obama’s organic garden at the White House (after Donald Trump’s election, Ann Coulter tweeted: “I respectfully suggest a new name for Michelle’s White House vegetable garden: “Putting green.”); President Barack Obama’s stricter nutrition standards for school lunch; and bans on sweets brought to schools by parents to celebrate student birthdays (see, Palin, Sarah).
Rachel Konrad, chief communications officer for Impossible Foods, says the company isn’t worried about a potential culture war affecting its products, telling me via email that its burger “is definitely not the exclusive preference of coastal elites or people from either red or blue states,” and that there is “no political skew among our customers.” She points to the aforementioned praise from Glenn Beck, and insists that “meat eaters in America and around the world care about animal welfare, public health and the environment.”
Then she added, without prompting: “We specifically aim the product at meat eaters because our mission is to replace the use of animals as a food technology, by outperforming animal-based technology in delivering pleasure, nutrition and value to meat lovers.”
Whether or not Impossible has a culture war problem at the moment, statements like that are likely to invite one. It’s curious, given the political climate, why plant-based meat advocates are so vocal about their mission to do away with meat entirely. (Impossible even put a date on it, vowing to do so by 2035.)
Setting aside the very real question of whether it’s even possible, or desirable, why pick a fight when you don’t need to? Despite the partisan storm swirling around the Green New Deal and everything else, the new burgers are getting a pass, from some important quarters, simply because they’re seen as innovative, a matter of personal choice, rather than a mandate by the enemy. Why not just run with it? These days, you rarely lose in America when you hitch your wagon to “freedom,” even if you have ulterior motives.
Because when you start talking about taking stuff away from people — especially something as beloved and culturally important as meat — they tend to get emotional. And that emotion is fed by political partisanship. This isn’t conjecture; there is evidence of a political divide between carnivores and vegetarians.
A study published in the journal Appetite in 2018 found that political conservatives were more likely to abandon a vegetarian diet, not only because they don’t care as much about animal welfare or environmental concerns, but also because they feel “socially unsupported in their endeavor.” In other words, in the workaday world of many conservatives, cutting meat from one’s diet is considered aberrant, and thus susceptible to the kind of attacks we saw earlier this year.
Research by Jayson Lusk, an economist at Purdue University who studies what we eat and why we eat it, shows that there also is a gap in demand for beef between conservatives and liberals, and that it’s growing. He worries that the further politicization of beef will lead to more polarized positions, rather than nuanced solutions to the climate and health problems associated with beef production and consumption.
“Most reasonable people would say they want to minimize the environmental and health impacts of meat,” he told me. “But how do we do that? As the debate becomes more polarized, it lacks nuance. One side advocates draconian policies” — like wiping out meat entirely — “and the other side says, ‘I’m going to eat all the meat I want,’ just to stick it to their opponents. If we get in our camps, we’re not going to think in a nuanced way about these complex issues.”
The example of Arby’s captures what the plant-based forces are up against. Ten years ago, the roast beef chain was circling the drain. But then it doubled down, with calculated humor, on its core product with the tagline, “We have the meats,” and products like the Meat Mountain, a $10 sandwich with two chicken tenders, roast turkey, ham, corned beef, smoked brisket, steak, roast beef, and pepper bacon. In 2015, the company launched a “vegetarian support hotline to ‘help’ our non-carnivorous friends who were feeling tempted.” It proved a winning strategy. In a fast food market struggling with labor costs, changing millennial tastes and mounting competition, Arby’s is gaining strength.
Then in July, in the midst of all the sniping about the future of meat, Arby’s announced the “marrot,” a carrot made from turkey, in what can only be described as a giant orange middle finger to all the hype over plant-based meat. You could almost hear millions of our fellow citizens crowing about “owning the libs.”
Getting people to abandon the foods they love is exceedingly difficult. That’s why the diet industry in this country is a Sisyphean boondoggle worth $66 billion. Such change is not, as Impossible Foods CEO Pat Brown suggested in an essay on Medium, akin to the transition from horses to automobiles, bumpy but inevitable. What we choose to eat is the most intimate, subjective decision we make. The foods that are normal in our lives are deeply tied to tradition and nostalgia, to celebration and comfort — to our sense of who we are and where we fit in the world. And if the effort to convince people to change their diet gets reduced to “coastal elites want to take away your freedom to eat a Big Mac,” that’s a problem.
Jacobson spent 45 years on the front lines of that national food fight. He had a lot of success, but when he takes stock of how far Americans have come, he sees a mixed bag.
“In the seventies, vegetarianism was looked at as kind of kooky,” he says (he’s not a vegetarian but hasn’t eaten red meat since around 1976). “Now it’s more of a mainstream idea, with all the actors and celebrities touting it. The overall numbers are still small, but you have to look at what’s happened to meat consumption: beef is way down; chicken and turkey have replaced it. Pork has remained pretty constant. Milk consumption is down. But fruit and vegetable consumption hasn’t changed in probably 30 years, despite all the blather about local produce, farmers’ markets, and supermarkets with big produce displays when you walk through the door.”
“People seem to be resistant to eating a healthier diet,” says Jacobson.
But the burgers from Impossible and Beyond, and whatever comes next, have the potential to spur an important shift in the American diet in a way that nothing before them could. The culture war, though, has the power to shape how people think about the choices they have, including whether to order a veggie burger or the real thing.
Jacobson is bullish on the new plant-based protein, but as another step toward a healthier, more sustainable diet — not as the death knell for meat. “We have this huge pipeline of people, and someone who is 20 years old and loves cheeseburgers is going to be eating them another 50 years,” he says. “They’re not going to give them up. But some others will. And overall, we’re eating less red meat. That’s a good thing.”
Brent Cunningham is executive editor of the Food & Environment Reporting Network, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization.
Magoz is an artist based in Malmö, Sweden. His work focuses on visual communication, problem solving, and minimalism.
Author: Brent Cunningham