The year vegan junk food went mainstream

In the middle of November, Beyond Meat — a company that makes plant-based meat substitutes — announced it was going public on the Nasdaq stock exchange to better raise money for “the future of protein.” (“The future of protein” is also its tagline; “the future” is made primarily of peas.) Beyond Meat’s best-known product to date is the vegetable-based Beyond Burger, which is like a regular meat burger but Beyond.

Unlike its competitors — Gardein, which sells a menagerie of non-meat meats; Tofurkey, famous for its bulbous imitation poultry; Field Roast, which does fake meat in wholesome packaging; and Morningstar Farms, maker of “America’s #1 Veggie Burger” — Beyond Meat is aiming not just to capture the hearts and minds of vegetarians but to win over people who eat actual hamburgers. It wants to be sold “where meat-loving consumers are accustomed to shopping for center-of-plate proteins,” according to the prospectus filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. You can find it in “approximately 11,000” grocery stores across the US, which is more than a quarter of them.

The ubiquity of the Beyond Burger is part of one of 2018’s best movements: the mass proliferation of vegan junk food. Democracy may be crumbling around us, but it was a banner year for delicious processed food that just so happens to be meat- and dairy-free. And not just any vegan junk food but mainstream vegan junk food, products engineered not to satisfy vegan-identified vegans, but to tempt regular omnivores who are interested in novelty, or climate change.

It goes beyond Beyond, of course. Daiya, a leading purveyor of fake cheese, debuted non-cheese cheese burritos this year, as well as a “meat lovers” pizza without meat. Vegan fast-food chains — Instagram darling By Chloe, “veggie-positive” Veggie Grill — kept expanding, while regular fast-food chains like McDonald’s experimented with vegan options. It is enough to have unleashed an existential and legal crisis over labeling: What is “milk”? What is “meat?” The dairy lobby is worried. Big Beef is making preparations.

None of this is even to mention the Impossible Burger, the true icon of Our Year of Vegan Junk. “Few people may have expected a wheat-potato-coconut-fat patty to become perhaps the country’s most famous burger,” wrote New York magazine’s Grub Street, “but the Impossible Burger is now an impossibly big deal.” When the “bleeding” non-meat burger was introduced in 2016, you could only get it at the restaurants of an elite quartet of chefs, including the famously carnivorous David Chang.

Now, the patty, which gets its bloody look and taste from heme (the compound that gives meat its essential meatness), is at more than 1,000 restaurants, including White Castle, a chain best known for a movie about college students who get stoned. It is an unlikely pairing!


Several burgers, fries, and toasts from By Chloe arranged on a white cafe table.

By Chloe is vegan but does not require you to be.
By Chloe

“As the larger fast-food industry pays lip service to healthier offerings and builds cushier environs,” Eater explains, “White Castle remains a cultish, ultra-affordable, bare-bones outlier.” The move does not represent an overhaul of White Castle’s strategy — cheap, a little gross — but rather a gleeful celebration that non-meat meat can also be cheap and a little gross, which is a sort of progress. A slider at White Castle costs $1.99, double the original meat burger but still less than almost anything else edible.

This is great. Not because the food is virtuous — the food is White Castle — but because it indicates a shift in how meat-and-potatoes Americans think about vegan food. It is not just for hippies; it is also for people who frequent drive-thru windows. I know this firsthand, thanks to a drive-thru window in New Jersey. I ate my vegan slider in the parking lot, like a patriot.

Can vegans eat this food? I mean, yes, obviously. Vegans are very good at sussing out sources of relevant nutrients, much like squirrels. But despite the apparent rise of “plant-based” eating, the number of vegans and vegetarians in America is small and hasn’t grown much in the past 20 years. According to a 2017 Gallup poll, the Washington Post reported, 5 percent of Americans identify as vegetarian, while 3 percent said they were vegan. The last time the poll was taken, in 2012, the percentages were 6 and 2. Either way, the total is the same: 8 percent of Americans identify as some category of veg-something.

So the total number of veg-somethings hasn’t changed, but veg-something food options have ballooned, not only in number but in quality. This would make little sense if the target customer for vegan food was vegan. But the target customer isn’t veg-anything. “The average customer trying out an Impossible or Beyond burger,” mused Time, is not a lifelong vegetarian but a meat eater “looking for food that is better for their bodies and for the planet.”

In fact, plenty of actual vegans don’t even like all this real-seeming fake meat! “I’ve seen vegans eat it and find it to be something that they don’t want to eat again,” Chang told the Ringer about the Impossible Burger. “I had a vegetarian actually turn it away, because it reminded them so much of meat, they sent it back,” a Kansas City server recalled to NPR.

If you’re truly weirded out by meat, it’s possible you don’t actually want an uncannily accurate bleeding imitation. This doesn’t matter. The thing about vegans is that they are already vegan; they don’t need to be sold on the idea. It’s everyone else that does.

Could you say that this food — backed by venture capitalists and sold by major corporations — in fact continues to uphold a very broken system? Yes! This food is not radical. It is not politically disruptive. A fast-food chain can serve vegan burgers and still exploit its workers.

As the Guardian points out, given the amount of money behind these projects — funneling in from Silicon Valley investors, hedge funds, “hipster entrepreneurs,” Leonardo DiCaprio — “it’s easy to see why some vegans feel that the movement’s traditional association with anti-capitalism is a position rapidly disappearing in a fog of marketing hype.” This is fun! quick! easy! veganism that photographs well on Instagram. It is the least principled kind of veganism there is. But also, it might work.

Despite a constant stream of evidence that the current American diet is environmentally unsustainable, vegans, on the whole, have been remarkably bad at recruitment. The problem is twofold. People really like eating meat. Also, people really don’t like vegans.

As Abigail Higgins laid out earlier this year at Vox, there are a number of reasons for vegans’ relative unpopularity (a 2017 analysis suggested that just “labeling a product as ‘vegan’ causes its sales to drop by 70%”). One is that vegans make people feel bad. “People tend to interpret someone’s choice not to eat meat as condemnation of their own choices, which can make them pretty defensive,” Higgins explained. And this defensiveness isn’t totally misplaced. It’s true that a lot of vegans believe, for any number of reasons, they are doing the right thing, which indeed indicates that they believe a) there is a “right” thing, and b) you’re not doing it.

Meat is also pretty ingrained into our lives, and in general, people do not like their lives disrupted. Plus, vegans tend to be annoying about their veganness. (Not all vegans, etc; I, for one, am a casually vegan delight.)

That is what makes the rise of mass-market vegan junk food so powerful. It defies stereotype: Vegan food in America is supposed to be joyless and unfulfilling, seasoned only with the fermented tang of the moral high ground. And to be vegan is not simply a lifestyle choice but a statement of identity: It’s to declare that you have enough time and energy and resources to devote to the care and keeping of your electively restrictive diet. It is also to announce, however passively, that you believe so strongly in this cause — for ecological or ethical or animal rights-related reasons — that you are willing to change how you eat, likely every day, maybe forever.


A trio of three vegan sausages in buns from Beyond Meat, topped with peppers, onions, and relish.

Beyond Sausages: not a health food.
Beyond Meat

But vegan junk food does not demand devotion to any cause. Unlike rice and greens and beans — also very tasty! — you should definitely not eat vegan junk food every day forever. Many articles about vegan junk food will point out, alarmed, that this food actually isn’t that healthy. It’s heavily processed! It’s high in fat! Sometimes, it’s even higher in fat than the original meat version! A study from Harvard’s Department of Nutrition concluded that “not all plant foods are necessarily beneficial for health,” the New York Times gravely reported.

And it’s true. Vegan hamburgers and chick’n nuggets, like regular hamburgers and chicken nuggets without apostrophes, should probably not be a primary staple of anyone’s diet. That is the point of junk food: It is for sometimes. “We’re avoiding being healthy,” one (high-end) restaurateur told Grub Street of his new vegan venture. “We’re trying to go for tasty food that’s satiating.”

This is the promise of vegan junk food. It’s not especially virtuous, on account of being generally processed, and this lack of virtue makes it fun. Junk food isn’t the only fun vegan food — lots of vegan food is fun, I think but for non-believers, it is a shortcut. Accessible and nonjudgmental, non-meat junk may be the most efficient way to untether vegan food from its moralistic baggage.

Vegan junk food is not elitist or unfamiliar or salad-like. It’s an option, a novelty, an experiment. At best, it is an introduction, evidence that vegan food is not only for militants and health nuts and hippies eating lentil loaf. At worst, it’s one less meal that does not require a cow.