In the future, we were promised flying cars and fake meat. While the flying car part hasn’t panned out, fake meat appears poised to make inroads in Americans’ lives, particularly through fast foods. And in the process, it could end up being a big deal for the planet.
In the past week alone, Del Taco debuted its Beyond Meat taco and Burger King announced it would expand its Impossible Whopper to every location by the end of the year. That’s on top of other big name fast food brands beefing up their beefless options in past year, including White Castle and Carls Jr., which in turn is cranking up pressure on McDonald’s to get on board the plant-based burger train. Beyond Meat also recently announced its plans for an IPO with a projected valuation of $1.5 billion, meaning the fake meat market is still on the up and up.
Climate-wise, fake meat is basically a no-brainer. Animal agriculture is responsible for roughly 15 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, of which beef is about 40 percent. Walter Willet, a physician at Harvard I talked to for a series on sustainable eating, likened it to “using coal as your energy source. There’s a huge inefficiency.” Plant-based meats, which are derived from pea protein and in the Impossible Burger’s case, soy root-derived blood, offer a more efficient pathway to getting something akin to a beefy taste without beefy emissions. According to Beyond Meat’s IPO, its burgers produce 90 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions and use 99 percent less water, 93 percent less land, and 46 percent less energy.
The classic fast food burger might just be the perfect vehicle for these substitutes. After all, it isn’t exactly something to be savored. If you’re like me, it’s something you shove in your face with reckless abandon. And if the anonymity of fast food makes it the ideal way to get Americans on board with a meatless burger, it might also be the best way to introduce a more climate-friendly form of eating.
Of course, these alternatives do have to hold up taste-wise even if the bar is somewhat low. To find out if a few of the latest ones do, we dispatched io9's Germaine Lussier to try Del Taco’s newest creation. I drew burger duty at White Castle. Our goal was simple: try the meat and fake meat options and decide which was better.
Del Taco’s Beyond Meat taco is a buck more than the $1.49 regular meat taco. Lussier told me there was “more care” put into the Beyond Meat taco’s presentation. Flavor-wise, they’re a bit different.
“They’re the same on the initial bite but the meat on the end gives you a beef and grease taste while the Beyond [taco] gives you almost a black bean or garlic taste,” Lussier told me over Slack. “You can absolutely tell, but they’re both really good and the Beyond almost has a fresher taste.”
In his scientific estimation, Lussier felt like the plant-based meat taco could be “two percent” closer to real meat. He said he would order it again.
As for me, I hit up my local White Castle after the gym with a sense of preemptive repentance. The beef slider was thin, like a dried flower pressed between two dictionaries. It being barely there meant the main flavor was the slick of American cheese on top of the patty, which honestly was fine because I would inject American cheese into my veins if I could. In comparison, the Impossible slider was a thick hunk of fake meat. It was just as salty as its beef counterpart and a lot more greasy, which serves as a reminder that while these burgs are better for the planet, they are not necessarily better for your health.
Like Lussier, I felt like the Impossible slider was 98 percent of the way there to real meat. The big difference was less flavor and more texture. It was just a little less resistant to my incisors. But 98 percent is good enough for me to definitely order it again. The thicker patty alone is worth it since it felt like more of a meal.
It was also a dollar more than its beefy counterpart, which of course raises the question of if the plant-based meats are worth the extra buck. And that honestly depends on how much you value that real meat taste and texture vs. the carbon emissions it took to create it. If you are concerned about carbon and still love beef, there are other ways to reduce your carbon footprint (the biggest being advocating for structural changes to our whole economy).
For an increasing number of Americans, though, fake meat is likely to become a more available option. Still, there are some caveats to bear in mind. For one, plant-based “meat” still a tiny nibble of the $1 trillion meat market. And Beyond Meat said in its IPO that it could never attain profitability. So, maybe it’s not the best investment at $25 per share. It might be worth spending that on a dozen fake meat sliders instead.