By Sam Koch
Before coming to Berkeley, I had always been a choosy eater. Choosy, in this case, refers to the many times I would go out with my friends to eat and order chicken strips off the kids menu because I found chicken strips perfectly satisfying and saw no reason to complicate that. Among the reasons for my choice to become a vegetarian was the desire to force myself out of my food “comfort zone” – some sort of meat and a side of rice or pasta from Café 3 – and expand the variety of foods, particularly veggies, which I ate. In addition, I could be comforted with knowing I was withdrawing my support from an industry that does not hesitate to abuse animals, release toxic pesticides into neighboring ecosystems, and emit excessive greenhouse gases.
Becoming a vegetarian meant opening myself up to unfamiliar vegetables and provided me with a sense of consciousness and responsibility for what I ate. But unexpectedly, becoming a vegetarian also meant becoming a target for “meat replacement options” such as veggie burgers, tofurkey, and fakin’ bacon.
After recently devouring a “chix” patty burger at the newly opened Saturn Café at Allston and Oxford, I realized I knew very little about these products—food items meant to replace meat. Although the patty I had just consumed was likely created with much more care than I could find in a pre-packaged product, I decided to explore “meat alternative” products. I wondered about their ingredients, their manufacturers, and wanted to determine whether or not their incorporation into my diet would be consistent with the parameters that now guide my eating. I optimistically set out hoping to find out whether or not some pre-packaged patties could be manufactured without any alarming ingredients in a manner that was environmentally conscious by, at best, a local distributor.
I faced some initial apprehensions about the feasibility of including these items in the realm of “acceptable” for my consumption during my subsequent outing to the supermarket. The first red light I encountered was the concentration of these products at one end of the frozen food aisle. But, being a busy college student, pre-packaged patties, if up to my standards, might be fantastically convenient.
If I am to co-opt some of Michael Pollan’s Food Rules, I found the packaging, in particular the health claims optimistically showcased on said packaging, cause for concern.
Regardless of brand, the meat substitute items I was facing off with in the freezer aisle attempted to posit themselves in the marketplace in a specific manner. They called to me, “high in protein,” “higher in fiber,” “all natural ingredients,” “lower in fat.” Most of all, these claims seemed to cater the paradigms of the American diet—eat lots of protein, avoid fats, and consume whole grains. Unfortunately for the marketing department that wrote these claims, these paradigms no longer rule my diet.
My optimism dwindling, I turned to the ingredient lists hoping these products could redeem themselves. I must have looked like a fool standing halfway in a freezer studying the packages of half a dozen “meat alternatives”, but my apprehensions about the packaged food in the freezer aisle were not quelled by the presence of maldextrose and other corn derivatives, autolyzed yeast, and “natural flavors from non-meat sources,”—even in the same product that had assured me, “There are no unimportant ingredients. If it’s in here, then it’s got a role to play.”
This claim, meant to assure me of the product’s quality, amplified my concern that there was a disconnect between what I wanted from these products and what they had to offer.
My last-ditch attempt at finding a positive quality with which I could regain some respect for these products yielded unsatisfying results. Distributed from locations such as Westport, Connecticut and Battle Creek Missouri, these products decimated my hope that—after hopelessly failing all of my other tests—these products might come from a local distributor.
At this point, I accepted that the engineers of these products and I didn’t see eye to eye. I had naively ventured into the frozen product aisle searching for something I could call food. The meat substitutes I found were clearly for a different type of consumer—one fixated on health and less concerned with the externalities of the industrial food system.
I couldn’t justify to myself consuming “natural flavors from non-meat sources”, in something meant to replace and vaguely taste like meat, nonetheless, when I am perfectly content with the absence of meat and made-to-taste-like-meat products from my diet.
The disappointment from my supermarket adventure was an unsettling dose of reality. I had to confront what I had sensed coming all along—my food options are restricted by the mismatch between my priorities and the priorities of the food system. In searching for a shortcut to eating in a more healthful and sustainable manner, I had found that there was no shortcut. I have to reluctantly accept that I’ll have to invest the time make my own veggie burgers—if I so desire a veggie burger—rather than microwaving one that was “good enough.” But the extra effort is sure to make my meal exponentially more rewarding.