Where’s the Beef?

Last weekend I tried the much talked about “Beyond Burger.” Here’s my unofficial and entirely subjective review.

It tastes OK. Let me explain. “OK” is a step above “fine.” “Fine” is what my wife and I say when the hard working server who has been friendly and courteous throughout our unremarkable meal asks how we liked the freezer burned entree and the cold mashed potatoes. We ate it because we were hungry and it wasn’t bad enough to send back, but we leave a good tip and say the meal was “fine.”

So yes, for my money the vegan burger is OK and I would buy it again to keep in the freezer for one of those quick lunches when nobody feels like cooking. The taste and texture are more reminiscent of meat than any of the soy or black bean based products I’ve tried, though its not going to fool even the most casual carnivore.

It’s expensive. Two small patties sized somewhere between small burger and large sausage patty cost about 6 bucks.

It has about the same calories and fat as beef, and a good dose of sodium. It’s not going to lower your cholesterol because it delivers a sizable amount of coconut oil in the ingredients. It does have a wee bit of fiber, whereas your typical hamburger has none.

Contrary to the marketing campaign promoting the burger, it’s not going to save the planet. Maybe it’s a step in the right direction. After all, an acre of peas (pea protein is the primary ingredient in the Beyond Burger) will feed a lot more people than a single cow on that acre (if that cow is living in Florida). In most of the beef producing parts of the world it takes multiple acres to sustain a cow.

The fledgling vegan burger industry claims to produce a much smaller carbon footprint than modern industrial beef production. There are studies which back up that claim. But the highly processed burgers are being marketed as the “best” thing you can do for the environment, which simply isn’t true. By the time you plant the peas, fertilize, harvest, transport and process the peas and then ship them to market, energy intensive activities which require fossil fuel to accomplish, the carbon footprint is going to be at least in the same zip code as beef. Add to that the energy required for the manufacture and transport of the 20 or so ingredients. Energy is also needed to recycle the paper used in the packaging, and the polypropylene used in the container derives from natural gas or the oil refining process. The amount of trash leftover from two small patties was notable.

Eating any form of processed food is certainly not the “best” thing we can do for the planet in our kitchens. Eating a plant dominant diet, as much as possible from local sources, or making black bean burgers at home, or buying locally produced grass fed beef, are all superior in terms of environmental impact and energy use to buying processed food.

For example, White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Georgia, commissioned a Life Cycle Assessment study of their sustainable beef production, which incidentally uses techniques much closer to those practiced by our ancestors. The study indicated that their beef production was actually carbon negative, which challenges the current narrative about beef production.

As for the recent excitement over the vegan burger industry, as a die hard supporter of free enterprise, I’ll have to admit that there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a clever product and a brilliant marketing campaign. If it’s a worthwhile product, the market will embrace it. If not, the market will move on to embrace something else. As always, buyer beware. Free enterprise is not guaranteed to be happy enterprise.

Now if you’re trying to be a vegetarian for health or spirit reasons and you’re still tempted by the food humans have consumed for 40,000 years, this could be your burger. It really does taste pretty good, and it is somewhat healthier than a lot of fast food. If you’re looking for a virtue burger to impress virtuous friends who aren’t really into numbers or thermodynamics, then this could be your burger too.

If you’re looking for a virtue burger and you would like to help pump up the stock of a virtue burger manufacturer, then this is definitely your burger.

My takeaway is that you can eat the Beyond Burger, if you can afford it, and feel some virtue, or you can eat locally produced grass fed beef, if you can afford it, and feel virtuous as well. Or you could eat what you want, keeping in mind that “virtue” is not a zero sum equation, and your virtue does not depend on someone else being less virtuous. Unfortunately that’s not how our culture is currently being programmed.

Alas, if only life could be that simple, but in the age of induced and aggravated partisanship, everything we do has to have some kind of political spin. Therefore, if you’re still determined to save the planet, I recommend waiting for the launch of the new “Soylent Solution.” It’s a great way to reduce carbon across the board. Soylent Red will be made from recycled Conservatives: Tastes great but tends to pack on the pounds and harden the arteries. Soylent Blue derives from recycled Liberals: Pretty tasty if you add enough hot sauce, but you’ll be starving by the next meal. My favorite is Soylent Gray, made from the recycled Boomer generation accused of destroying the planet. A word of warning, however. Soylent Gray contains a lot of preservatives.

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