Photograph by David Parry/PA
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A burger made from Cultured Beef, which has been developed by Professor Mark Post of Maastricht University in the Netherlands.
Photograph by David Parry/PA

Do Meat Substitutes Count as Real Food?

Imagine you’re an internet billionaire. Now come back from your Hawaiian estate for a second—imagine you’re the kind of internet billionaire who wants to improve the food system and ensure accessibility to nutrient-rich foods for all well into the future.

Do you spend billions guiding people’s food tastes and demands toward existing sustainable foods? Or do you invest in creating more sustainable versions of currently craveable foods, to satisfy a population growing to 9 billion by 2050?

2014 has been a spectacular year for food technology, from RoboBees to drones changing the way you eat. But one of the most interesting, immediate, and controversial food technology issues is the pursuit of high-end substitutes for animal products, especially within the good food movement.

This isn’t your father’s faux meat—unless your father is Bill Gates, Jerry Yang, or Peter Thiel, all of whom have invested in animal-product substitutes. Advocates say that the foods replicate meat so closely, even dedicated carnivores can’t tell the difference. With a growing global demand for meat and rising prices, creating foods that taste like animal products, and have greater and controllable nutrient content, sounds like a potential solution.

Meat Substitutes: Can They Improve Diets?

But to paraphrase the professor and nutritionist Marion Nestle, when you start talking about nutrients, food gets very complicated. A varied diet of real foods will healthily support most human bodies. The wildly popular food journalist Michael Pollan famously suggested eating nothing with more than five ingredients and no ingredient your grandmother couldn’t recognize.

At its core, a meat substitute is a processed food; some say a heavily processed food. Even if it’s made from plants, those plants have been changed from their natural state—so much that it resembles meat. One of the most recognizable of the new generation of meat substitutes has many more than five ingredients, a few of which my grandmother would not recognize.

But Pollan also suggested eating “mostly plants,” putting him squarely in the camp of good-food people focused on improving quality of diets, rather than just on maintaining the current quantity. Mark Bittman, the New York Times food writer who recently penned the bestselling Vegan Before 6 on greater health through decreased animal-product consumption, claimed, “When I want to eat meat, I eat meat; I don’t eat something very much like meat.”

And with Bill Gates recently buying up 2,000 acres of Florida cropland through a subsidiary that now owns 100,000 acres suitable for farming, it seems like a good time to proactively ask: What is “real” food? Is it just about nutrients or do we expect our food to have a soulful quality not present in fake meat? How close to original state does a food have to be to count as “unprocessed?” Does intent matter—do people trust Bill Gates more than a faceless corporation because a Gates-approved food has the philanthropic goal of feeding a crowded world?

Meat Substitutes: Can They Stop Animal Mistreatment?

Most in the good-food movement would jump at the opportunity to stop the kind of animal mistreatment that is reported out of Concentrated Feeding Animal Operations (CAFOs). One way to do that is decreasing consumption of meat, and one way to decrease consumption of meat is through meat substitutes. But that enthusiasm diminishes with quotes like Ethan Brown’s of Beyond Meat to the TODAY show, about his product being called “fake” meat: “It is an assembly of amino acids, fats, and water that is just like what you get out of an animal, so in my view, it is meat.”

But it’s not meat. Yet it’s not fake either. Looking at other “substitutes,” so many overeat fake sugars because substitutes don’t generally satisfy, or scarf a whole box of fat-free cookies when perhaps a couple of real butter cookies would have been sufficient. As famed Chef Emily Lucchetti notes, there are few overweight pastry chefs, because pastry chefs eat real sugar and butter and don’t have to stuff themselves with substitutes.

Accessibility to real, naturally nutrient-rich foods is important, because if people can’t access these foods then they can’t buy them. And if they can’t buy them, then we will no longer have any sort of food system, let alone a good food system.