It’s a great source of irony that the veggie burger, a subverted form of the macho, all-American staple, is the first vegan dish to go truly mainstream. It’s true that oatmeal is available at any diner (often it’s the only vegan dish at diners, even with their voluminous menus) and that salads (hold the cheese!) are ubiquitous at restaurants, but neither of those is a particular victory for the vegan cause. The widespread inclusion of the veggie burger is a direct nod to the vegan and vegetarian movement. Vegans and vegetarians have power in choosing restaurants not only for themselves, but for their dining companions as well. If one vegan goes out to eat with a big group of omnivores, the vegan usually has the power of “the veto vote.” Most people, no matter their orientation towards veganism, are willing to go to a different restaurant to accommodate the dietary restrictions of their friends. “Veto vote” is a term that was popularized by the Vegetarian Resource Group in 2003 at their booth in the National Restaurant Association Show. With the rising profile of veganism, restaurateurs are taking heed of this advice. In general vegetarian food is cheaper to produce and increasingly popular as health-conscious omnivores look to reduce their meat consumption.
Like the traditional burger, the veggie burger is particularly utilitarian. It’s hard to imagine a meal that is at once so simple and so substantial as the classic burger and fries. Unlike the traditional burger patty, the veggie patty is endlessly diverse. There is no set recipe. Veggie burgers can be made from various combinations of black beans, chickpeas, lentils, soy products, grains, beets, mushrooms, peas and even potatoes. There are plenty of homemade recipes available. For those days when you just don’t want to cook, there are delicious store-bought options from Dr. Praeger’s, Amy’s Kitchen, Gardein, Boca, Morning Star Farms and others. And in restaurants, assuming that their patties aren’t store-bought, you will never eat the same veggie burger from two different places.
The most significant breakthrough in the veggie burger world came to a Boulder, Colorado Whole Foods in early 2016 and was sold out within an hour. The Beyond Meat Burger has the pink hue of raw meat, actually bleeds (albeit not blood, but beet juice), and has a texture that is disturbingly similar to raw meat. Food scientists worked wonders with pea protein isolate, oils, yeast and other ingredients. It’s even sold in the meat section. Traditional veggie burgers do not seem to be attempting to replicate meat faithfully. A normal veggie burger is functionally the same as a traditional burger, but is it’s own thing in terms of taste and texture. Notably most veggie burgers are not as firm as traditional burgers. You’ll know the downside of this well if you’ve ever had your burger squeeze out the sides of the bun as you’re eating it. In fact, vegans often need to be vigilant in checking ingredients lists because some brands enlist eggs as a binding agent to solve this problem.
As food science grows ever more sophisticated, the latest frontier is making a veggie burger that looks, feels and tastes like meat. In my experience, vegans and vegetarians are actually quite happy with the veggie burger market. The advantage to making a veggie burger that’s like the real thing is converting meat eaters, who are left with no excuse not to buy a veggie burger. If they can scratch the same itch with no corresponding role in animal suffering or environmental waste, then why not? By placing Beyond Meat burgers in the meat section, they are explicitly marketed to the omnivorous public—avoiding the trap of preaching to the converted. This strategy has turned heads and attracted wealthy backers like Bill Gates and Leonardo Di Caprio.
Although Beyond Meat may have gotten to market first, they are far from alone in the race to produce meat alternatives. Their closest competition is the Impossible Burger, debuting in July of 2016. Their formula involves coconut fat, ground wheat and potato protein, but this doesn’t begin to describe the work that went into producing the burger. It’s truly remarkable the effort and attention to detail required to produce a burger as similar to the real thing as possible. Scientists break down every imaginable aspect of beef and then replicate it with entirely different ingredients. Wired Magazine ran a profile of the Impossible burger that detailing the work that went into its creation.
There is one more competitor in this arena. Although their product has not debuted and if they’ve made a prototype of a burger, it has not yet gone public. There is no rush to market because their vision is the most ambitious of them all. After all, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. This is the approach of Uma Valeti, a cardiac surgeon, and Memphis Meats, the company he founded, which takes the ethos of the Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods one step further, by producing actual meat—from cultures, rather than live animals. Here at the Reasoned Vegan, we’ve discussed lab-grown meat and we think it’s an exciting step forward. Although it may technically not be vegan, we can find no reason to have ethical issues with it and are confident that cultured meat is in the spirit of veganism.
The veggie burger has endless variety, whether it be the store bought favorites, rescuing your dinner plans on a day when you have no time or energy to cook, or a gourmet treat to have at your favorite brunch place—or whether the veggie burger is happily distinct from its traditional beef cousin, an increasingly similar replication, or even an out-and-out genetic clone. In whatever form, the humble veggie burger is playing a larger and larger part in reducing meat consumption and bringing vegan and vegetarian diets to the mainstream.