Tastes like chicken? Meat-alternative products compete with the real deal

WASHINGTON — The demand for meat-alternative products is on the rise.

According to The New York Times, sales of plant- based “meat” products grew 8 percent from 2010 to 2012; NPR reports 110 new meat-substitute products were introduced in 2010 and 2011.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean more people are becoming vegetarians. Rather, more people are choosing to reduce the amount of meat they eat — sometimes by just one meal a week.

About 5 percent of U.S. adults are vegetarians, according to a 2012 Gallup poll. But a study in Vegetarian Times shows 22.8 million Americans follow a vegetarian-inclined diet.

“Whether they’re deciding to become 100 percent vegetarian, or, in a lot of cases, reduce the amount of meat that they’re eating, they’re choosing vegetarian options as a healthier and more humane way to eat,” says Erica Meier, executive director of Compassion Over Killing.

Campaigns such as Meat Free Monday have helped make semi-vegetarianism popular. Founded in 2009, the program, which has 843,010 supporters, highlights the environmental and economic benefits of eating less meat. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the livestock industry is responsible for about 18 percent of human-caused greenhouse gases, and the Agriculture Department expects pork, beef and veal prices to rise 6.5 to 7.5 percent this year.

“That’s [the companies’] ultimate goal: to make it healthier, to make it more sustainable, make it more humane and make it more affordable,” Meier says.


Companies such as Beyond Meat and Field Roast make and sell plant-based meat alternatives. (Courtesy DC Veg Fest)

Health conscious diners are also opting out of meat-heavy diets. The American Dietetic Association says a vegetarian diet can help prevent and treat chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, obesity and diabetes. And with 80 percent of antibiotics sold in the country given to animals, cautious consumers are looking for other sources of protein.

There are a growing number of options for those who want to cut down on meat, but not eliminate it from their diets — and those options have come a long way in the last 10 years, Meiers says.

Sure, dry and bland versions of veggie burgers can still be found on freezer shelves, but companies such as Beyond Meats, Field Roast and Tofurky, are making products more familiar to consumers’ taste buds.

“They replicate a little more of the flavors we’re used to and the textures that we’re used to,” Meiers says. “They have chicken strips that have even, according to an article in The New York Times, fooled Mark Bitman.”

In a taste test, the acclaimed food writer thought he was eating real chicken in a sandwich wrap, when in fact, he was eating a chicken substitute.

“Everything is the same, except the chicken that you might otherwise use is now a plant-based chicken, but you cook it the same, it tastes the same, the texture is very similar,” Meiers says.

That chicken product, from Beyond Meat, looks like chicken, shreds like chicken and, when flavored, tastes like chicken, yet it’s made with soy and pea protein. Hampton Creek, a San Francisco-based company, makes plant-based “eggs,” which it sells to food companies such as Ikea and General Mills.

But rather than market its products as “vegan,” Hampton Creek sells its plant- based mayonnaise and its dairy-free, cholesterol-free cookies as healthier, more sustainable and more affordable options.

“That’s [the new companies’] ultimate goal: to make it healthier, to make it more sustainable, make it more humane and make it more affordable,” Meiers says.

Want to try some of the newest meat-alternative products on the market? Dozens of food and restaurant vendors will be present at this year’s DC Veg Fest, taking place Saturday, Sept. 20 from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. at Yards Park. Many will hand out free samples of their food products; others will sell and serve up vegetarian meals.

Meiers says if you plan to check out the annual festival, “come hungry.”

“The whole goal of the event is to encourage vegetarians, vegans and meat- eaters, alike, to come out, have fun, try new foods and just explore the many benefits and joys of vegetarian eating.”

The New York Times’ Mark Bitman makes Beyond Meat chicken:

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