Plants Over Pork Chops: Innovations Lift the Alt-Meat Market

Alt-Meat 1.0 carried some of us along for centuries. Alt-Meat 2.0 could charm everybody else.

Happy National Fairy Tale Day, friends.

I miss reading books, including fairy tales, to my daughters. That evening ritual ended somewhere around a decade ago. I wish the last time I read a story aloud I understood it would be the last bedtime story. Now, I have no memory of that final evening of reading to a child. 

In addition to reading, I’d hatch elaborate tales off the top of my head, always involving Harry, the dog of my adolescence. We would go on adventures with Harry. 

As today is National Fairy Tale Day, maybe I’ll read one tonight. Hansel and Gretel.

In today’s Letter From the Forest I introduce a new feature, called Alt-Eats. With Alt-Eats, you’ll find a snappy review of one of the meat- and dairy-replacement products now flooding the market. Annie, who has been vegetarian since 9th grade, and me — I describe myself as “planty” — are the critics. 

In addition, you’ll find a dive into the alt-eats market, which is attracting big investments and R&D; and some environmental editorial excellence.

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One of the refrigerators in the new Whole Foods Market at Table Mesa Shopping Center. This was opening day, and the market had loads of alt-meats for sale.

Alt-Eats: Beyond Meat Italian Meatballs

Up until we discovered Beyond Meat’s Hot Italian Sausages, I found most alt-meats crappy. The burgers tasted off; I’d much prefer a homemade bean burger (still do) to the patties of ground-beef-looking stuff shaped into thin discs. Faux-chicken patties were bland and really just vehicles for deep-fried things. Tofu dogs were gross. 

I remember feeling extreme skepticism the first time I pan-fried a pair of Beyond Meat Italian Sausages, probably two years ago. The rest of the alt-meats sucked. Why should this one prevail? 

Prior to cooking the sausages, I slow-sauteed sliced onion and green pepper, until sweet and unctuous. A proper Italian sausage sandwich, in my opinion, doesn’t need more than sausage + onion + pepper.

I slid the sausages into one of those soft brioche hot dog buns from Whole Foods Market; the buns may be WFM’s most powerful triumph. Using tongs, I covered the top of the sausages with onions and peppers. 

One bite. Fennel and hot pepper, grease and snap. Sweet, soft onions and peppers. I found my first alt-meat success. The product is a masterpiece.

A few weeks ago I ran across a new Beyond Meat product: Italian meataballs. Given the wonders of the company’s Italian sausages, I picked up a package in a refrigerator. Eight bucks for 12 meatballs, which weighed just 10 ounces. That’s nearly $13 a pound. Ouch.

A few nights ago we warmed tomato sauce we made in the fall with tomatoes from Black Cat Organic Farm. We heated a cast-iron skillet, and placed the alt-meatballs in the dry pan — no oil, per the instructions. Soon, they began sizzling. I turned one and the bottom was crisp and caramelized — perfect. After about 10 minutes of moving meatballs around to char all sides, we were ready.

Hot spaghetti in a bowl. Tomato sauce on top. Meatballs decorating the beige-and-red mound.

“Too meaty!” says Annie upon her first bite. She hasn’t eaten meat for decades, but she remembers the flavor. “Also, I’m not tasting much in the way of Italian seasoning. Rather than an Italian meatball, it just tastes like a meatball. At least it’s versatile. Could be used in other cuisines.”

Day 2 of the Italian alt-balls involved me cooking them low and slow in a saucepan of tomato sauce. I wondered if the sauce would penetrate them.

I appreciated how the meatballs gained a pleasing crust after minutes in the pan. Beyond Meat nailed that part of the texture equation. Unfortunately, the meat within the crust was too chewy; a good Italian meatball is light and slightly crumbly rather than taffy-like. In fact, the interiors were so dense that sauce didn’t penetrate the balls the next day, after I reheated them for about an hour in hot tomato sauce.

As a planty person who occasionally eats the flesh of dead animals, I didn’t find them too “meaty.” But Annie was right about the seasoning. Too meh. 

I think they stand as a decent attempt. For meat lovers hunting for alternatives, these indeed seem … meaty. With louder seasoning and a lighter texture, they’ve got potential.

Either way, these alt-balls are too expensive.

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Plant-Based Meat (Finally) Eats Into Animal Market By Nailing Flavor, Texture

Just five years ago the meat problem seemed intractable.

People love eating meat, me included until I rejected it last year. We experience not only sustenance but immense pleasure pulling strips of charred pork from ribs with our teeth, biting into a mustard-slathered bratwurst and savoring the crunch of deep-fried chicken wings.

But commercial meat production is the most environmentally devastating activity on the planet, destroying forests and waterways, demanding enormous amounts of fossil fuels and filling the atmosphere with methane.

I assumed meat lust never would recede, and that our mania for burgers and the rest of it would destroy us all.

It still might. But the alt-meat industry, just a baby in 2016, is maturing rapidly. Interested in marinating deeply in the alt-meat landscape? Click below. It’s quite the marinade.

Read Deep Dive into Alt-Meat Market


Grazing Alt-Meats Coverage

News coverage of the world of plant-based meat and dairy seems to grow in volume every few weeks. More and more reporters are attaching themselves to this burgeoning, and interesting, market sector.

Recent coverage includes:

Trends forecasting by Elysabeth Alfanos at Vegconomist. It’s an engaging and interesting read.

Nitty-gritty on the kinds of fermentation being leveraged to create alternative meats by the Institute of Food Technologists. Fascinating. 

More a resource than coverage, the nonprofit Good Food Institute revolves around plantech. The Institute and its site offer in-depth and sweeping savvy about alternative proteins. If the topic interests, the site is worth exploring.

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Plant Yourself

This recent Granta piece about an oil spill off the coast of Mauritius, the subtropical island country in the Indian Ocean, is a lush and disturbing read. Death Takes the Lagoon offers first-person reportage of the damage inflicted upon the island’s once-verdant ecosystem by the oil spill.