On the complexity of meat substitutes

Yesterday, I wrote about some of the thoughts I was having during a Vegetarian Global Food for Thought Meal (aptly-named, eh?!) about the place of meat-eating/vegetarianism in a global, environmental context. And today I’d like to follow up with some of those thoughts, reflecting a little on the kinds of thorny situations vegetarians sometimes get themselves into.

I guess it’s a little backwards for me to be writing about some of these challenges to the traditional views of vegetarianism before actually writing a post about my vegetarianism itself (it’s like when environmental historians try to undermine the idea of “nature” to people who aren’t environmentally-inclined in the first place*), but hopefully I will get back to the latter at some point and hopefully many of you are at least acquainted with the myriad reasons that a vegetarian diet often makes the most sense. (If not, read these 49 reasons** or Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Against Meat” essay as starting points).

Perhaps a good way to dive in to this larger topic of the complexity of vegetarianism is to take the humble Boca burger as our example. If someone were to offer me the choice between a Boca burger and a hamburger, it would at first seem like an easy decision. I’m a vegetarian; I take the Boca burger. 

But now let’s say that this particular hamburger is made from grass-fed, free-range beef from a small local farm right here in Wisconsin, from a cow who was raised by a farmer who I could meet and whose hand I could shake (farms like this abound in Wisconsin: Trautman Family Farm and Ruegsegger Farms are just two I know about. You can find similar farms in your area at Local Harvest or Eat Wild).

And then let’s dig into the Boca burger’s murky past to find that it, like the Catalina Dressing I wrote about earlier this week, is owned by Kraft, the largest food processor in the country. And although, as Aaron so assiduously pointed out in the comments here, Kraft is now longer owned by the former tobacco giant Phillip Morris (now known as Altria), it’s still a huge multi-national corporation with its hands in all sorts of shady dealings, like testing on animals, producing highly-processed foods, and marketing unhealthful food-like substances to children (think Kool-Aid, Oscar Mayer, Velveeta, Cheez Whiz, Cool Whip, Jell-O, Chips Ahoy!)***  Boca Burgers are also full of processed ingredients:

Water, Enriched Textured Soy Protein Concentrate Product (Contains Soy Protein Concentrate, Caramel Color, Ferrous Sulfate, Niacinamide, Zinc Oxide, Calcium Pantothenate, Thiamin Mononitrate [Vitamin B1], Pyridoxine Hydrochloride [Vitamin B6], Riboflavin [Vitamin B2], Folic Acid, Cyanocobalamin [Vitamin B12]), Wheat Gluten, Soy Protein Concentrate, Contains less than 2% of Methylcellulose, Salt, Dried Onions, Natural and Artificial Flavor (Non-meat), Yeast Extract, Sesame Oil, Hydrolyzed Wheat Protein, Disodium Guanylate, Disodium Inosinate.

…which means the energy that goes into each factory that pumps out each of those different ingredients, not to mention all the pesticides/fertilizers/herbicides that have to be used to grow the corn and soy from which most of those ingredients are derived, has got to be at sky-high levels. (For more on the questionable place of soy in our diets more broadly, in response to NB's request, check back next week!)

So, now when we look back at that hamburger and that Boca burger side-by-side, my resolve is starting to shake a little bit. Sure, I’m a vegetarian and don’t particularly want to bite into a beef burger, but that Boca burger is also starting to look decidedly unappetizing.

For those vegetarians who are motivated primarily by animal-rights concerns, the fact that the Boca burger is vegan and has no animal products will make it a sure win over the beef burger, since the latter clearly caused the death of at least one animal--that is, the cow from which the beef came.  But when you start to take into account the myriad other reasons that motivate my own vegetarianism--environmental arguments foremost among them, but also a desire to not support large food processors, to be healthy, and to more efficiently use the energy that comes from the sun through plant’s photosynthesis--it's no longer at all clear that these reasons come down on the side of the vegetarian Boca burger (when compared with this very particular sort of meat product, of course, which is still by far the exception to the rule of meat in America, most of which comes from industrial scale factory farms where animal suffering is the norm and nearby water sources are polluted by runoff and all kinds of antibiotics are injected into the meat and the animals are fed on corn pumped full of pesticides/fertilizers/herbicides).

In any case, there’s so much more to be said about all this,**** but these are some opening thoughts that I’d love to start a conversation about. What do you all of you--vegetarians and meat-eaters alike--think?  How to make these difficult decisions, and what to take as our overarching guidelines for making food choices?

*Perhaps more about that later as well, though if you’re interested in a short tidbit on that, here’s something I wrote a long time ago that inspired a blog that is no more. 
** Anyone know of a better quick overview than this?
*** Half of those aren’t even real words!
****And lots of people have said more. Michael Pollan, as always, has wise and good things to say, in case you want to read more:  his essay An Animal’s Place is really powerful and one of the first things that ever made me think I might consider eating certain kinds of meat someday, and this little Q&A from his website on Animal Welfare is also worth reading.


  1. Great post. From a practical standpoint, I'd say I solve the problem by almost always making my own "meat substitutes" from less objectionable ingredients. And by not relying on meat substitutes most of the time. (Caveat, I am only mostly vegetarian: I sometimes eat fish that are on the Monteray Bay Seafood Watch green list--though I know that's not a perfect source.)

    But given the choice you put up there, the hamburger is probably more environmentally sound in that instance. Back when I first stopped eating meat, I told myself that I would still eat it if traveling somewhere where vegetarianism was nearly impossible, or if I would seriously offend a host. And somewhere along the way I have come to feel that eating local, small farm meat (preferably where you have actually seen the farm) is fine. So I have never drawn hard line.

    But when it comes down to it-- even though I actually enjoy the smell, say, a the farmers market when that one stand always has bacon and sausage frying --I am not tempted to actually eat it. I think it has just been too long. So, partly it's habit. But actually, even though my primary *reasons* are environmental, I do find myself thinking of the animal and kind of giving myself a mental choice: live cow or steak? I'm going with the cow. I like animals. I've met cows. I want to have chickens one day, and knowing me, I'll name them. Can I eat a chicken I've named? I'm fine with people who can, but I couldn't. So, while rationally, I think eating meat you know you've raised humanely is good (and better than eating soy grown in a former rainforest), viscerally, I just can't do it.

    For most Americans, most of the time, though, it's not a matter of the ambiguous choice above. It's a matter of vast quantities of factory farmed meat versus eating more vegetables. So I feel that every minute individual food choice I make is less important than being out there as a visible (mostly) vegetarian person and make eating less meat look like a viable option to people who wouldn't otherwise have given it a thought. (Without doing *any* preaching.)

    Sorry for the extra-long, rambly comment!

  2. Megan, I love your comment, and agree with pretty much all of it! These thoughts perfectly sum up my response to the admittedly-artificial dilemma I posed above. Can I re-post your comment as its own post so that others will read it?

  3. I'll give an Alaska perspective, in hopes of providing a unique context for an important discussion like this:

    Alaska is a place where veganism, and, to a lesser extent, vegetarianism are wholly unsustainable food lifestyles, given the meat-generating capacity of the terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems of the state, the relatively little human pressure on these systems, and the inability of Alaska's climate to support the diverse kind of agriculture needed to sustain such meatless lifestyle.

    Alaskans, as a population, eat more than twice as much meat as the rest of America--a pound a person a day, and for good reason. Seventy-five percent of this meat is hunted-fished--whether that be moose or salmon, deer or halibut, caribou or crab--under the watchful eye of Alaska Fish and Game, a state agency that, for the most part, puts science above profits in its management decisions. This hunter-fisher lifestyle, moreover, generates and regenerates Alaska's subsistence cultures and, as important, recreates a connection for Alaskans between life and landscape.

    In our day to day lives, many of us hunter-fishers would pull salmon straight from local sound and rivers--salmon, mind you, which were preparing to spawn and were months if not weeks away from the end of their lives anyway--to be used for salmon bakes, salmon grills, salmon sushi, salmon burgers, salmon salad, salmon loaf, you get the picture. Others would pull moose roasts, deer straps, or caribou loins from deep freezers for use in everything from stews to soups. Important to me: all of this food lay outside the industrial system, is harvested in a sustainable way, and, often, is hunted with a reverence for the animal as prey.

    And yet: our vegetarian/vegan friends insist on tofu from Oregon, beans from California, Lentils from Washington--all of which are shipped via freight from the warehouses of Seattle that act as lifelines for Alaskans who insist on subscribing to foodways extant in the lower 48.

    The ecological conditions of Alaska make it impossible to grow any of the essential vegetable-based proteins that make up the diets of those who don't eat meat. If the goal is environmental health and economic, social, and ecological sustainability, I guess I'm not sure how the argument for a meatless diet works in Alaska.

  4. This is a great post! But here is the part that I am not sure about. You write, "Boca Burgers are also full of processed ingredients ... which means the energy that goes into each factory..., not to mention all the pesticides/fertilizers/herbicides that have to be used to grow the corn and soy from which most of those ingredients are derived, has got to be at sky-high levels."

    I don't really know how the details shake out here (so feel free to explain why I'm wrong), but it seems possible that even if each factory as a whole uses a lot of energy, the energy per burger could still be quite low. Perhaps the processed-food industry benefits from an economy of scale, not just in monetary terms, but in energy terms.

    My other thought is that the demand for Boca burgers is not really what's driving us to produce so much corn and soy. Therefore, if you didn't eat the Boca burger, it's likely that virtually identical quantities of pesticides and fertilizers would still be applied to the corn and soy fields. However, if you didn't eat the beef burger, you might have a larger causal influence over whether a particular cow in Wisconsin produces methane gas while munching on resources that could be used for growing vegetables. But I could be totally wrong about this.

  5. I count myself lucky in the sense that I've never really had to face this dilemma, since about 99% of my time spent as a vegetarian/vegan has been spent outside of the US. Here in Korea, aside from tofu, meat substitutes are pretty rare. They've been growing in popularity over the past few months, but I've never even been tempted to buy them; my transition from omnivore to vegan was at the same a transition from processed foods to whole ones, albeit unintentionally. Without thinking about it too hard, indeed, perhaps because I'm not inclined to think about it too hard, I'm able to get all the fat and protein I need by crushing up some peanuts and adding them to my pastas, or by adding seeds to my salads, by cooking beans with rice or adding lentils to soups. It's such a nice feeling to open a cabinet and see that the only thing with more than one ingredient is a bottle of mixed herbs!

  6. I'm grappling with issues regarding meat right now as I increasingly study and practice Buddhism - so, from the perspective of not causing suffering. Regardless, I have a TOFU question: I've heard that tofu is actually very bad for the body, in that it actually saps nutrients from us (or something like that). I'm not clear on the details, but the source was a friend I greatly respect who works at Community Pharmacy. Perhaps, this is fodder for another blog post?!

  7. Meridith! Funny you should mention...another friend of mine also asked for a post on the soy question, so I've got one in the works for this very week! Stay tuned.

  8. I've been thinking about this sort of issue a lot lately and in this case, I have to go with the grass-fed beef. I'll admit that although I don't eat a ton of meat, I'm not and never have been a vegetarian. I have been debating how to make my eating less environmentally harmful (and less cruel to the cows) lately though and I've decided to focus on expanding my local eating from my vege CSA to eating as much local and seasonal veges, fruits, and meat as possible (hopefully all on the meat). Michael Pollen's work has been the major influence pushing me in that direction, so maybe if I were reading something else I would think otherwise. There are obviously compromises in that decision as there are with all but the most extreme eating options (and I love that your post highlights the virtues and compromises of both of these options), but I think it comes closest to capturing/balancing my environmental, economic, animal welfare, and sustainability goals.

    You are also right, of course, that this is an artificial choice for many/most Americans. However, I think in Madison it is less so (and I'm very grateful of that). Not only are the farmers market and CSAs full of local (organic if you want) produce and animals, but there are also a fair number of restaurants that serve local produce and local, friendly meat.

  9. A good addition this conversation: http://motherjones.com/environment/2010/07/is-vegetarian-diet-green


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