Serious Eats

The Vegan Experience, Day 5: Say No To Faux

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[Photograph: Robyn Lee

Note: For the four weeks between January 14th and February 11th, I'm adopting a completely vegan lifestyle. Every weekday I'll be updating my progress with a diary entry and a recipe. For past posts, check here!

Day 5: Wednesday

Breakfast: Toasted oatmeal with almonds, pumpkin seeds, and cranberries. Toast with avocado and beans.
Lunch: Coconut Lentil Soup with Habañero-Cilantro Gremolata (stay tuned for the recipe!)
Dinner: Japanese at Kajitsu in the East Village (incredible, stay tuned for a full review)

I can't stand faux meat. I just can't abide by the stuff. I understand the appeal, and it's precisely because veganism is a diet of moral rationale that mock meats exist. Folks don't want to eat animals because it automatically implies exploitation, yet they grew up with delicious bacon and don't want to give it up. It's a trade-off that some people are willing to make, yet deep down (or even just below the surface), I think pretty much every vegan knows that no matter how great those new soy-burger patties are, they'll never compare to the real thing in flavor. My question is, why even bother?

Before I rant a bit, I want to clarify some definitions here. When I say "faux meat," I'm not referring to the many wonderful protein-rich processed foods which are used in ancient cuisines around the world. I adore tofu—can't get enough of the stuff when it's well made. I like tempeh, the traditional Indonesian product of whole fermented soy beans. I even dig the occasionally chunk of fu, a wheat gluten product commonly used in Japanese shojin (Buddhist vegetarian) cuisine. I'm also not talking about things like veggie burgers that actually taste like veggies (see that tasty looking creation at the top of the page).

No, what I'm talking about here is things like Tofu-Pups. Tofurkey. Veggie burgers intended to taste like meat, not vegetables. Mock duck. Seitan. Fakin' Bacon, and the like. Why do I dislike these products so much? Because I believe in the end, they actually do more harm than good to the vegetarian and vegan movement. Here are a few, off-the-cuff thoughts (feel free to chime in—I'm sure you have your own opinions on the matter!):

Faux Meat Invites Comparison

Faux meats by definition invite comparison. They actively make you think, "Does this thing I'm eating really taste like a bacon cheeseburger?" Fact of the matter is, vegan "meat" is never going to taste like real meat. Even the best is still a shadow of the real deal, something that must be settled for, not picked. Where I come from, mediocrity is not something that should be tolerated. I'm not happy with what I'm eating unless my food is the best it can possibly be. This pretty much precludes mock meats from my diet.

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Which would you rather eat?

Shouldn't we be eating vegetables because we love vegetables?

In a similar vein, faux meats remind vegans and vegetarians of what they are missing. Every slice of Fakin' Bacon is telling you, "Haha, you wish you could eat bacon. I'm the closest you're gonna get, so get used to it!" There must be a couple of people out there (vegan or otherwise) who truly prefer the flavor of mock meat products over the real deal, but for the most part, the praise you hear for mock meat comes in the form of, "It's surprisingly delicious!" or, "Not bad for tofu!"

Faux Meats Are Bad For The Environment

To me, the ultimate irony is that in choosing faux meats, you're making the choice to eat processed, packaged foods that are not only not as tasty, but are arguably worse for the environment in the long run. Studies on the environmental impact of packaged mock meats vs. real meats have turned up results that indicate that in many cases, not only does it take as much energy to produce fake meat than the real deal, but that some of the side-effects of production can be even worse. The disposal of hexane, a pollutant used to remove fats from soy beans, for example, or the massive amount of packaging involved. A four pack of veggie burgers involves a cardboard box along with four individual plastic sleeves, compared to the single tray that a package of ground beef comes in (even less if you buy it in a paper package from the butcher or grind it yourself).

Cutting animals out of our diet also disrupts natural soil cycles: pasture grazing animals consume plants that humans can't digest and convert nitrogen to a form that can then be fixed by bacteria into ammonium, which in turn helps plants grow. With fewer animals in this process, we have to rely more heavily on petroleum-based fertilizers. An all-plant diet for everyone on the planet without the aid of ruminant animals is a monstrously difficult if not outright impossible goal to achieve.

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Smart vegans would then counter that you don't need to actually kill the animals that you're using to fertilize your lands, and they'd be right. Still, exploiting an animal to fertilize your land is against the basic tenets of veganism. By many accounts, a burger made from truly pasture-raised cattle that actively enrich the earth they graze on is the most environmentally sound choice to make.

I do want to make clear that I'm not in any way insinuating that all veganism is worse for the environment than omnivorism. Clearly it's not. Packaged meat-based foods (of which we consume a massive amount in fast food joints and ready-to-eat meals) are an order of magnitude worse, but my point is that it's easy to fall into the trap of assuming that by going vegan, you are automatically easing your strain on the natural world. Not necessarily so.

Of course, to bring this up is to conflate two issues: Vegans are not necessarily environmentalists, they are simply people who do not want to physically harm animals. But veganism and environmentalism tend to go hand in hand—you won't find too many vegans driving SUVs. And of course, one could also make the argument that by harming the environment, you're hurting animals in the long run anyway.

Even politics has its say in the mock meat arena. For instance, when looking at soy-based mock meat products, unless the product is specifically labeled as being produced without GMOs (genetically modified organisms), then it almost certainly is, whether it be GMO soy, corn, or otherwise. Folks who don't want to throw their dollar at the Monsantos and other seed giants of the world ought to think twice about buying those soy patties.

The Good Side of Faux Meat

There are some pretty good arguments to be made for faux meats. For many newly minted vegans, they're merely a transitional food. Something to keep on their plates until they can transition slowly into a completely whole-food based diet. As I've talked about a few times, veganism is more than a dietary choice, it's a moral one. So for many folks, the moral imperative of not harming animals is strong enough to make them settle for a slice or two of Tofurky on their Thanksgiving table.

Faux meats can also make vegans and vegetarians feel a little bit less like outsiders. I've got a couple of vegetarian friends who show up to meat-centric cook-outs toting their own veggie burgers to be placed on the grill alongside everyone else's. It doesn't bother anyone, and they get to hang out and make use of the toppings bar just like everyone else.

For some short-term vegans, such as those abstaining from animal products during Lent, faux meats can be a valuable crutch to help them get through the process, though to be honest, I can't imagine that yeast-extract-flavored disks of soy protein were exactly what God had in mind.

I'm most likely going to try out a few vegan food alternatives at some point during this experiment in the name of science, but after having thought through the pros and cons, I think for the most part I'll completely abstain from them.

I KNOW people have got some strong opinions on this matter, for or against. Let's hear'em!

P.S. Mom: still holding steady at 174.

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Managing Editor of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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