Beyond Meat

No, I didn’t go vegan or Soylent (which is made from people, so ick).

A&W Canada (which is entirely independent of the American chain with the same name, and which, unlike its American namesake, has a corporate stance on improved animal welfare with third party verification in its supply chain) has been making a bit marketing push this summer with the introduction of its “Beyond Meat Burger”.

They already have a vegetable burger called the “Veggie Deluxe”, but A&W partnered with Beyond Meat to produce a burger that’s “plant-based”. Beyond Meat is a food processor which fabricates plant protein meat substitutes, and goes out of its way to tout itself as the future of protein. That’s a great slogan, except that the future of protein is more likely edible insects for a whole whack of reasons, including sustainability, higher protein content per gram and a better essential amino acid match/content.

The burger is getting a lot of buzz: there’s a very slick television ad campaign, their marketing team is doing interviews, and pretty much every single A&W outlet that has a flattop has a banner. My understanding is that there’s significant interest in spite of the $6.99 (+ 5% GST and 9.975% PST Chez Nous) asking price. That’s one spicy ball of plant extract.

What I’m hearing though, is that people want to do it because they’ll eat less meat (okay) and that it’s healthier (uh, no) because the Beyond Meat Burger is entirely plant-based (wtf?) and therefore better for the environment (???).

[this is my soapbox part]

Now I don’t hate vegetables. When I was last in Taiwan I very happily ate pretty much all of the vegan options which were available to me, and if you look at the Instagram feed, there’s a lot of vegetation in there, though part of it is that Aux Trouvailles gourmandes de Fanny (my favorite supplier) is currently in full production. Vegan militants I can do without., but I don’t need to get into that again.

I do have an issue with the term “plant-based”. It is being heavily pushed by the food processing industry, and is whole-heartedly embraced by vegetarians and some vegans because it’s obviously meat-free (true), has a perceived superior environmental footprint (not proven), and is a perceived healthier dietary option for humans (also not proven). I’d say yes to all three points if speaking about vegetarianism or veganism paired with produce arising from organic/sustainable farming practices, but “plant-based foods” are industrially-transformed. Some of these products are minimally transformed, and others, well… it takes a lot of chemical processing to make things like cellulose and horse chestnuts digestible.

Let’s just say that if you’re the type to complain about molecular gastronomy ruining cuisine, you’d probably be better off avoiding plant-based items.

Minimal transformation (ie “cooking”) does effectively tick off all three checkpoints, but significant industrial transformation doesn’t. It takes a lot of effort to artificially create an acceptable copy of anything, and information on energy use, industrial waste and environmental pollution from large-scale operations for the industrial transformation of plants isn’t quite so open. We have also seen how highly-processed foodstuffs can be nutritionally poor and physiologically detrimental (ie. significant increase in diabetes, obesity and metabolic syndrome in association with the rise in the consumption of the North American diet).

[I’m done with the soapbox]

Anyway, the Beyond Meat Burger looks like this:

This is obviously a promo photo if the little stickers didn’t already give it away. I have personally never seen one in the wild, but I can pretty much guarantee that no fast food chain in Canada (much less the US) produces a product that looks like its promotional photos. The only place I’m aware of where the real in-person product looks exactly like (and often better) than the photo is Japan.

Looks okay for a staged photo, though I can immediately see that the patty is industrially produced. If you’re interested in food photography and styling, Dolores Custer has a good book on the subject. Spoiler: the food post-photos is often no longer safe for consumption.

A&W is very careful with its marketing and explicitly states only that the Beyond Meat Burger is “juicy, satisfying and everything a burger should be”.

The Burger is definitely not vegan because it’s dressed with mayonnaise (surprise! mayonnaise contains eggs). A&W also makes no claims that this is a vegetarian option, as they disclose that the single grill setup in restaurants mean that Beyond Meat Burger patties are cooked on the same grill as beef, bacon, and eggs and may come into contact with these ingredients. I’m thinking they more likely do come in contact because there’s only so much real estate and there’s no way to completely clean off a grill during service.

And as for the nutritional content,

  Mama Burger Teen Burger Veggie Deluxe Beyond Meat Burger
Serving size (g) 165 239 233 231
Calories (kcal) 400 500 420 500
Total fat (g) 19 26 15 29
Saturated fat (g) 7 11 4 5
Cholesterol (mg) 50 70 20 5
Sodium (mg) 850 1220 1410 1110
Carbohydrates (g) 38 41 57 40
Sugar (g) 7 8 8 8
Fibre (g) 1 1 6 3
Protein (g) 20 25 16 22

Mama Burger/Teen Burger/Veggie Deluxe source (this is a PDF). Beyond Meat Burger source. Note to whatever occasional American reader(s) actually viewing this: the table refers to menu items only available in Canadian A&W outlets.

The new burger actually compares similarly to the Teen Burger, and the Mama Burger is technically “slightly healthier” as an option, as it’s lower in calories, total fat, sodium and carbohydrates. The Veggie Deluxe? Not an option if you have CHF or are hypertensive, but at least it doesn’t have thrice the fat.

Now you could get the Beyond Meat Burger with its lettuce-wrapped option, which would drop the calories down to 340 kcal and the total fat to 26 g, but it somehow also drops its protein content to 17 g while it’s doing the other things. It also loses the “everything a burger should be” part.

So apart from that lettuce bun alternative, the Beyond Meat Burger stays true to its official marketing message, and its implied healthier, better for the environment mantra is being automagically applied by people particularly receptive to the “plant-based” marketing mantra.

I’m not writing this to slam A&W Canada. I happen to like their onion rings, their root beer has no HFCS, and the Baby Burger with onion rings was my go-to late night meal at YYZ. Unlike their sad sack American cousin (others hold the same opinion), I think they’re a somewhat more responsible corporate entity, and their overall food offering is superior. They also compare positively when they go up against the Clown, and the two other also-rans.

But in terms of the Beyond Meat Burger, I think that people are reading too much into what it is. It’s essentially an incredible marketing coup for the company. I think it’s okay to eat it if you want to do a fast food sort-of vegetarian option, but don’t order one if you think it will be better for you or that you’re saving the planet.

If you want to do that, go buy (or even better, grow) some vegetables and learn to cook.


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One Response to Beyond Meat

  1. Ms. Glaze August 18, 2018 at 22:49 #

    Wow, interesting post, and yes the American AW is garbage and has been for about 40 years. I’m definitely not into Frankenfood which is esentially what this is. On the otherhand I have had some killer vegan hamburgers made from a mixture of healthy ingredients that were not created in a petri dish. It’s too bad they couldnt promote something “real”. I do commend AW from offering vegetarian options, we all could and should reduce our meat consumption. But let’s face it, if you’re heading to AW it’s pretty much always going to be for one thing…

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