Back when I was a bona-fide vegetarian, I used to make chickpea burgers from scratch. I'd create coconut bacon by combining coconut flakes, tamari, maple syrup and spices. This was mainly because I was trying to replace meat with plant-based foods that are high in protein, fibre and iron, such as beans, grains and beets. I was also a bit of a purist who wanted home-cooked meals rather than the mass-produced "veggie meats" in the grocery store.
Five years deep, my doctor told me my iron levels were low. Fearful of becoming anemic, I decided to eat meat occasionally. I remember the first time I added it back into my diet: I left the pork and beans until last and stared at it in its lonely corner on the plate. The fork hovered in front of my mouth for several long moments. When the deed was done, I felt like a hypocrite (and slightly ill).
These days, fast fixes for would-be carnivores are plentiful. The aisles of North American supermarkets are chock full of fancy, pricey brand-name meat alternatives, catering to vegetarians who want a little chew with their meals, and omnivores who want to cut back on eating meat. There are foods made of soy and others that are wheat-based. There are feel-good hashes of black beans, vegetables and grains, and newer, techy concoctions such as Quorn, which is based on mycoprotein, an ingredient containing Fusarium venenatum (a microfungus).
All of these products have a common goal: to satisfy consumer demands for nutrient-rich, plant-based medleys that come close to imitating the flesh of a once living, breathing animal.
There's been much experimentation, and, as of late, marketing of the results. Take Doomie's, the Los Angeles-based vegan junk food restaurant that debuted in Toronto last month. It serves a "Vegan Mac Daddy" (which comes in a cardboard box that's a parody of the McDonald's Big Mac one) that weighs over one pound. The fat stacks contain dollops of vegan mayonnaise, slices of soy cheese and two wheat- and soy-based patties spiced to mimic the taste of meat.
Doomie's is but one sign of a growing collective appetite for meaty vegan junk food. Vancouver's vegan Meet on Main serves cutlets breaded in coconut, and bacon made from the wheat product seitan.
Toronto's Hogtown Vegan is a diner, but for those who don't traffic in flesh.
And even avowed meat-lovers are becoming converts. A few weeks ago, chef David Chang – owner of the Momofuku restaurant chain and well-known fan of pork belly – posted a photo on his Instagram praising a burger made by California-based Impossible Foods.
"Today I tasted the future and it was vegan," read Chang's caption. "This burger was juicy/bloody and had real texture like beef. But more delicious and way better for the planet. I can't really comprehend its impact quite yet … but I think it might change the whole game."
The burger will appear in American restaurants this July. According to the Impossible Foods' website, a molecule called heme, which naturally occurs in both meat and plants, gives their burgers its "meaty flavour." Other ingredients include coconut oil and potato protein, as reported in Food & Wine last April.
Canada has its own company that is setting the bar high when it comes to plant-based meats. Gardein is a Vancouver company that makes frozen veggie meats – no-stress solutions for those wanting a meatless meal.
"The industry has improved tremendously, from veggie burgers that taste like cardboard or sawdust to products most people can't tell the difference," says Yves Potvin, founder and chief innovation officer of Gardein.
Their seven-grain tenders, fishless filets and crabless cakes are highly popular, according to Potvin, with the company growing about 35 per cent every year. "We're producing over 100,000 pounds of food per day right now," he says. "In 2009, we were selling in 1,000 stores. Now we're selling in over 22,000. So we've seen increased distribution, increased volume and shelf space."
When it comes to nutritional content, fake meats serve up pros and cons. Vancouver dietitian Vesanto Melina says that real meat counts as a whole food (unprocessed), and that most imitation meats are high in sodium and low in fibre. "But it doesn't have the cholesterol and generally the same level of saturated fat, the hormones," says Melina, author of Becoming Vegan, an instructional vegan diet guidebook. "It's generally a healthier product."
Many fake meat products are also good sources of protein and iron, Melina adds. Three of Gardein's meatless meatballs, for example, contain 20 per cent of daily values of iron and 15 grams of protein.
As an advocate of "plant-based diets," Melina says that while health is one of the top reasons people stop eating meat, their ethics are equally important. "People have their preferences depending on their values," she says. "There are items to fit these different tastes."
Unlike the faux Big Macs found at Doomie's, the first meat analogues introduced to North America were quite rudimentary. And each new development on the plant-based-protein front echoed the prevailing attitude of the times.
Take Nuttose and Protose, two products designed by John Harvey Kellogg – the co-inventor of cereal – in 1896 and 1900 respectively. Kellogg was a member of the Seventh-day Adventists, a Protestant sect that believed strongly in vegetarian and vegan diets. His inventions were in accordance with his unwavering faith.
Both products were made of ground peanuts, made into a mash with water and soy flour or wheat gluten then cooked into various forms. These fake meats were churned out by Kellogg's Battle Creek Sanitarium Food Company – its main customer base were visitors to the sanitarium, a health resort promoting alternative ways of living, where Kellogg experimented with mass-produced vegetarian cuisine.
Some of the ingredients Kellogg used in his recipes, such as soy products and wheat gluten, have long international histories of their own.
The most well-known in the West is probably tofu. Its key ingredient is, of course, soy milk, which is condensed and pressed into dense pearly-white slabs. The 2,000-year-old Chinese invention originally provided sustenance for those whose religions forbade them from eating meat, including Chinese and Japanese Buddhist monks, which could explain its dissemination to other locations.
There's also wheat gluten, which originated in China and was named "seitan" by the Japanese. It's derived by separating gluten from flour by washing it with water. The finished product has a texture resembling that of meat. Out of Indonesia comes tempeh, in which soybeans are fused together through fermentation.
While tofu is still a hard sell for some Western palates, Mr. Potvin says that meat eaters are buying into vegetarian-style meats: the consistency and flavour is a way to smooth the transition from one food group to the next. And that's why, he says, there's a window for growth within the industry. "More and more those products are accepted en masse, not just [by] vegetarians," he says.
Last weekend, I whipped up some pancakes with home fries and fruit on the side. I felt something was missing, though. Instead of frying up some bangers, I chose veggie sausages instead. There were no second thoughts and certainly no regrets.
An earlier version of this story referred to seitan as a soy product. It is in fact a wheat product.