Opinion by Richard Bleil
Burger King, to the best of my knowledge, started it. They introduced a product called “The Impossible Whopper”, a meatless patty that is, according to the ads, presumably indistinguishable from the beef patty used to make their traditional whopper. I seem to recall McDonalds jumping on the bandwagon and introducing several new vegan meat substitute menu items (didn’t they develop an entire menu based on it?). Today, I read an article where Tyson has just purchased a vegan shrimp company and plans to help drive the vegan meat movement forward.
Well, good for them. I haven’t tried any of these products yet (when I do, though, it is my intention to buy both the traditional and meatless versions so I can actually try them side-by-side) so I cannot speak to the authenticity of the claim that they are indistinguishable. And I understand and recognize that the US reliance on beef is too strong, leading to poor health and frankly ecological problems especially in the Amazon. So, great. This is good.
But, a word of caution.
See, this trend is hitting the market very quickly, and that always makes me nervous. Popular products that hit the market and take off so quickly tend to show problems further down the road. You might be thinking to yourself, “but it’s vegetable based, so how can it be bad?” Well, maybe, but what vegetables? And, what frightens me more is, what is added to MAKE it indistinguishable from beef?
I like this trend, I don’t have a problem with it, but I have also seen too many revolutionary products hit the market, take it over, only later to discover the damages they caused. The artificial sweetener Aspartame (found in NutraSweet) started with a single jawbreaker candy. It feels like overnight it was in every sugar free food on the market. The market was hungry for a new artificial sweetener. saccharine had recently been declared carcinogenic and was largely removed from the shelves, and the American sugar free consumer was hungry for a new artificial sweetener, just as today there is no really good meat alternative (my apologies to my vegetarian friends who introduced me to things like veggie hot dogs and burgers; I’m sorry, they are not the same as meat). As the America is becoming more aware of deforestation, there is a hunger for some kind of alternative that still fulfills our craving for meat. But when Aspartame suddenly took over the market, it became some years later that people began to realize that it causes health problems, including but not limited to braid damage. The problem is not the Aspartame per se, but rather America’s gluttonous nature. As we grew to enjoy it, some of us overindulged and its harmful side effects became known.
Olestra is another great example, albeit rather more comical than tragic. Olestra is a non-fat oil substitute, and was introduced into potato chips as a non-fattening version of the tasty treat. Again, some of us began to overindulge, and the side effects became known. Ironically, aspartame is still on the market today although it causes major health issues. Olestra products were pulled from the shelves and is no longer available, at all, because it caused…anal leakage. Yup, it leaked out of our butts, creating a big mess. And why not? It was non-fattening because our bodies couldn’t process it, so basically it passed through our digestive system, and our sphincters just weren’t designed to hold in lubricants. It was pulled completely from the shelves because, apparently, our vanity of showing anal leakage was stronger than our fear of losing our brains. I guess.
It’s not all food products either. Anti-bacterial products hit the market hard in the ’90’s. My sister had two boys who were, oh, about middle school aged at the time, and she went NUTS buying anti-bacterial products. I mean everything she could find. As a chemist, I warned her against doing so, pointing out the need to be exposed to germs, and the dangers of the “1%” of the germs that survived which could be expected to make a comeback. Today, people are realizing the importance of germs for a healthy immune system, and the childhood conditions that arise when children are not exposed.
I get how business works. If Burger King really did find a vegetarian based patty that tastes just like beef, they stand to corner a large part of the market, especially with vegetarians and vegans. So I understand why McDonalds and Tyson and probably a plethora of soon to be released companies and products need to get their piece of that pie. But the American consumers get to take on some of the blame as well. If it really is as good as they are saying, I’m sure it is safe to begin to slowly introduce it into diets. I hope it is as good as they say, and I hope that it is indeed safe, but before going in with both feet, let’s give it a little time before diving in head first. Sure, have it for a meal once every week or couple of weeks, and if it seems safe in a couple of years we can begin to increase its use, but please, be careful. It’s a new product, we still don’t know much about it, and although testing may show that it is safe for the market, it’s usually the long-term unofficial HUMAN testing that will show if it’s truly safe or not.