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Activist Ashley Fruno of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) campaigns in Singapore in 2011 for a switch to a vegetarian diet. (AFP/Getty Images)

Getting Excited About Fake Meat

by Barbara J King
Mar 15, 2012

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For years, food writer Mark Bittman was repulsed by the plant-based fake meat he was offered, like flavorless hot dogs. Tofu and bean burgers were one thing, pretty good in fact, but the plant-for-meat substitutes? No go.

Now, after consuming soy-based fake chicken, Bittman has changed his mind. I can't wait to sample some of this stuff, because it's time to give fake meat of this kind (not lab meat grown with pig cells and horse serum) a chance.

"Really," writes Bittman, "would I rather eat cruelly raised, polluting, unhealthful chicken, or a plant product that's nutritionally similar or superior, good enough to fool me and requires no antibiotics, cutting off of heads or other nasty things?"

Those "nasty" things came home to me fully when I read Annie Potts' fabulous book Chicken. I had already known about basic chicken-slaughterhouse practices, but Potts' description of chicks undergoing "instantaneous fragmentation" by rotating knives was an eye-opener. Now, I eat some fish, and take some chicken soup when I'm ill, but otherwise I eat no chicken, beef, veal, or pork.

As the Bittman passage indicates, he sees an increase in human welfare as much as animal welfare arising from the eating of plant-based fake meat. He's right. The presence of drug-resistant bacteria in supermarket chickens (and other meat) has made headlines. For people affluent enough to have a choice in the matter, cutting down on meat consumption is one way to make a positive difference for the environment.

Sources of non-supermarket meat are available, such as animals raised free-range. So, will plant-based meat catch on in this country? Will Thanksgiving tables boast sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce and soy turkey?

I don't know. One argument against embracing fake meat that won't wash is the old line "we evolved as carnivores, and meat-eating is just natural for our species." Most of our ancestors ate meat; some of the early ones did not. Evolution, though, is all about change, not stasis.

Fueled by our innovating big brains, we are free to move beyond the constraints of our dietary past.

You can keep up with more of what Barbara is thinking on Twitter.

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