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Food Wars

By David Moe, Food Processing Consultant – When I think about food wars, the first thing that comes to mind is the movie Animal House and the food fights and slinging of the food. This may not be the best example of a food war, but it is a good place to start. Today’s food wars are based more on economics, perception, beliefs, the gut, nostalgia, food heroes, topic of the day, printed and spoken words, sometimes facts and seldom just fun (like a good plant versus animal food fight). It seems like slinging of information and how the information sticks and is accepted should take precedence over just slinging the food itself.

When I think about food wars, the first thing that comes to mind is the movie Animal House and the food fights and slinging of the food. This may not be the best example of a food war, but it is a good place to start. Today’s food wars are based more on economics, perception, beliefs, the gut, nostalgia, food heroes, topic of the day, printed and spoken words, sometimes facts and seldom just fun (like a good plant versus animal food fight). It seems like slinging of information and how the information sticks and is accepted should take precedence over just slinging the food itself.

When looking back at my previous blog posts, most topics discussed fit within the food war category. I could tone this down and change war to fights or disagreements, but war just gets more attention. In a food war, there is not always a true winner or loser as battles shift to new topics to disagree upon. Every person or food eater has their own interests to consider when determining what and how to eat.

Let’s look at the “eater” wars.

The “V” groups (vegans and vegetarians) have been at war with each other as well as with carnivores, omnivores and other types of eatervores since before various eating preferences groups bore labels. There are lacto (eat dairy), ovo (eat eggs), pollotarian (eat poultry) and semi vegetarians. Vegans typically go a little further, and many do not eat any animal products (including honey) or use animal products like leather, silk or wool.

According to a 2018 Gallup poll of Americans, only 3% reported to be vegans and 6% reported to be vegetarians. This is not a large group, and they have become less stigmatized when included as a part of the “PB” (plant based) eating group. The term plant based was virtually unknown until a few years ago and is now a growing food choice segment.

In the past, vegans, vegetarians, carnivores, omnivores and other vores were names used to describe and categorize food eaters. The more recent use of the term plant based is used to describe foods to be eaten rather than pigeonhole the eater. All eating groups are encouraged to include some plant based foods in their diet.

When a person notes they are trying to eat more plant based foods, the response is more like, “I’m trying to eat healthier, too.” To admit being a vegan or vegetarian, the response is more like, “How can you restrict your diet so much?” or “Don’t you get tired of salads?”

Much of my working career consisted of cost wars for various processed meat products. The objective was to reduce product cost for competitive or other reasons. Plant based ingredients were known but not described as such. They were a part of a long list of functional ingredients from animal, plant and other sources. Functional ingredients were used to bind water and fat and increase processing yield. When the war on fat arrived, the same ingredients were used to replace fat in the recipe. This included the addition of carbohydrates (sugars, starch, cereal flours, etc.) and higher protein extenders (mostly soy and textured soy products).

With a target to reduce product cost, there was little consideration that some processed meat might be improved, in some way, with the inclusion of specific functional plant or other ingredients. The meat industry was slow to think beyond the cost reduction war. Providing a cheap product may win price battles, but adding actual and perceived product enhancements helps win wars.

If you are a locavore living in the Philippines, a price/value burger is available. It is a mixture of beef and soy and is listed on the menu as McDo.

Some consumers are happy with products that provide price/value or low cost. Some buyers now want less of something (animal, salt, sugar, fat, environmental and ethical impacts). Others look for products with more of something (whole foods, nutrition, facts, information). Others just go with the flow and/or follow Instagram or marketing hype in the media.

This leads to the current animal versus plant ingredient battle now known as the burger wars. This war should not be confused with the great chicken sandwich war of 2019.

Recent ads in the New York Times and other media questioned, “What’s hiding in your plant based meat?” I am surprised they used the word meat, which is part of ongoing naming wars.  Some follow-up in the same media included “real burgers and brats are made with beef, pork and spices.”

There may be a war between burgers made with beef versus plants ingredients but not against the word “burger.” The term burger is generally agreed to be a patty shape rather than contents. According to dictionary.com, a burger can be a hamburger or a food patty on a bun including ingredients other than meat.

Ground beef, or hamburger, is regulated by a standard of identity. According to regulations, it must not contain anything other than beef and some seasoning (if listed on the label). When other ingredients (also must be listed on label) are added, the product ceases to exist as ground beef or hamburger. The product can now move upscale or downscale depending upon the ingredients added and target niche. On the value end, it may end up as ground beef and X product, beef patty mix or a fanciful name like not possible burger or McDo. When all the beef is replaced with mostly plant sourced ingredients, the product could possibly become an Impossible Burger.

There are burgers where the meat is the chief protein source and where plants are the chief protein source. The products can range from cheap gut filler to products with excellent nutritional and sensory profiles that mimic meat or some place in between.

Almost 90% of people eating non-meat burgers are not vegetarian or vegan.” – NBC news

It appears most of the consumers of the current plant based burgers are flexitarians, the curious or people that perceive them to be healthier. Some vegans are concerned plant based burgers are not legit as they may contact meat when cooked or contain mayonnaise and have introduced legal wars.

I propose a challenge to all burger eaters to try a whole beef Wisconsin cannibal sandwich. This a raw, uncooked ground sirloin patty with onion and ground pepper on it. I tried the open-faced version, and unlike some veggie burgers, it did not bleed out mystery juice even when served uncooked.

Plant based foods have won acceptance as viable replacements for some conventional dairy and meat products. Plant based sounds better than words like animal, Angus, anti-biotic free, etc. to many eaters. This should lead to more combination products. If butter with canola or olive oil is accepted, why not meat and pulses (edible seeds of legumes)?

Now is the time for processed meats with claims like - now with X percent less meat, contains only X percent meat, now with two servings of healthy plant based fillers and binders, or some such claim. There are many opportunities to think outside the product standard of identity boxes when developing processed meat and other food products.

My favorite meatless ham, that never happened, was to be called “sham.”

“I believe that social media should be credited for the huge shift to plant protein we witness today.” – Hank Hoogenkamp

There have been good and bad wars. Sometimes a war will break out based on where a food is placed on the “eat this, not that” lists. If kale is on the “eat” side and bacon is on the “not” side, I say go flex and eat both. The war should not be fought over so called good or bad foods. The win is the overall diet or sum of the parts. Over consumption of most any food can have a negative effect on one’s diet. What is wrong is to demonize a food, such as meat (it’s killing you) in order to encourage eating more plants or vice versa.

“Changing lifestyle is all about finding balance between foods that are healthy and will fuel the body properly, while not depriving yourself of the flavours and foods you enjoy. Going vegan doesn’t necessarily mean healthy.” – Christian Mongendre, Owner, Hong Kong’s Treehouse Restaurant

I was able to venture out into the food war zone to determine if the food wars go beyond marketing.

The first stop was a presentation encouraging eating vegan at a vegan owned yoga studio. I enjoyed some great food and discussion and did not note any positive spin in favor of animal products. I had my first taste of shredded jackfruit in barbeque sauce. I did not find any evidence of war but noted plenty of questions and a desire to try new recipes. This place fit the current trend of prioritizing spending toward foodstuff, fitness and fun, rather than just stuff.

My second venture into the war zone was to attend a hands on class entitled “plant based cooking.” I failed onion dicing the first day but did pick up some new veggie butchering skills. The 12 attendees ranged from one true vegan to flexitarians and people getting a learners permit to expand food choices through plant based options. I noted only cooperation and the only food war issue was to get their husbands to cut back some on meat consumption.

The food wars discussed have resulted in more food choices for everyone and has led to a war to develop competitive and applicable food products. Sometimes food wars are based on judgements and can be resolved with a little empathy and understanding.

With the present war to include more plant based whole foods (unprocessed and unrefined) in one’s diet is not a bad thing. However, a beef burger could be considered to contain more whole than a veggie burger. There is no right or wrong way to win a food war. Keep eating a variety of stuff in moderation, mostly food, but do not forget to lend a hand to those caught in the lack of food war.