The Impossible Burger: Ethics and a CNA taste test
.- Food trends come and go, and the trend du jour is plant-based “meat” that is partially made in a laboratory.
Many vegans and vegetarians have rejoiced at the growing popularity and relative mainstream success of both the “Beyond” and “Impossible” brands, and there is a growing claim that eschewing meat choices in favor of these new products is a more ethical choice for consumers.
CNA spoke to Catholic moral theologians to discuss the ethics of eating meat, and the morality of eating faux meat during penitential fasts. And, lest CNA coverage of these products seem incomplete, we conducted a taste test.
According to Dr. Joseph Capizzi, a professor of moral theology at the Catholic University of America a person is not morally obligated to choose a vegan patty, like the Impossible Burger, over a beef or chicken burger.
“There’s no reason, in my opinion, to think the consumption of products so dependent upon technology are superior to the consumption of animal products,” said Capizzi.
“I do think, however, in both cases, ethically relevant issues include the production of the foods, including not merely the environmental impact, but also the ways technologies might distance the human being from creation,” he added.
Capizzi told CNA that while he does not think it is ethically superior for people to stick to eating mostly plant-based food, he does think that “people need to reflect on the ethical nature of eating.”
“Though eating is a basic human need, how we eat, what we eat, with whom we eat–including whom we exclude–are all questions that need our reflection,” said Capizzi. While these alternative products have done some work to address some of these concerns, there is much work to be done.
“One thing I’ve noticed is the lack of hospitality that can accompany over-restrictive diets,” he explained, recounting the experience of seeing a poor person offer meat to guests, presented as a luxury, only to see the meat rejected because of the guests’ vegetarianism.
Dr. Charles Camosy, a professor at Fordham University who has written extensively about veganism and vegetarianism, disagreed with Capizzi’s take. Camosy told CNA that these new products make it harder for American Catholics to justify eating meat.
“The Catechism of the Catholic Church insists we have a moral duty not to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly,” said Camosy.
“With good-tasting protein available from so many sources now, including from new imitation meat products, the teaching of the Church would seem to indicate that the necessity of participating in the suffering of death of animals, for most of us, isn’t what it might have been in the past.”
Camosy noted that the Bible states that in the new Kingdom of God that will come with Christ’s second coming, “animals are to be our companions, not our food.”
The new kingdom “will be a Peaceable Kingdom among all creatures: lambs, lions, snakes, and babies,” he said, and there will be no need to slaughter animals.
The faux hamburger market is dominated by two companies: Beyond Meat makes the Beyond Burger patty, Beyond Beef ground meat substitute, Beyond Sausage, and Beyond Beef Crumbles. Impossible Foods sells the Impossible Burger patty and the Impossible Sausage.
“Protein, fat, minerals, carbohydrates, and water are the five building blocks of meat,” says Beyond Meat’s website. Beyond uses plant-based versions of protein–including protein from peas, mung beans, fava beans, brown rice, and sunflowers–and fats to create its products. Additionally, Beyond uses beet juice to create a burger that “bleeds.”
Impossible Food uses “heme,” a protein that is found in nearly all living things, to make its plant-based burgers taste like meat. This heme also mimics a “bleeding” effect.
“Impossible Burger gets its heme from the protein soy leghemoglobin, which is naturally found in soy roots. Impossible Foods produces soy leghemoglobin through genetic engineering and fermentation. Thanks to heme, Impossible Burger has a rich, beefy flavor that satisfies the most discerning meat-eaters — but it contains no animal products whatsoever,” the company’s website says.
Dunkin’, the restaurant once known as Dunkin’ Donuts, launched a Beyond Sausage sandwich nationwide Nov. 6 after a successful test market in Manhattan. Customers can choose to substitute a veggie egg white patty for the fried egg. CNA paid $3.99 for the Beyond Sausage sandwich.
An ordinary pork sausage, egg, and cheese sandwich on an English muffin from Dunkin’ costs $4.99.
CNA recruited three journalists for a blind taste test of the Beyond Sausage sandwich and pork sausage sandwich. Two out of the three testers were unable to determine at first glance if the sandwich they were eating contained Beyond or pork sausage, and one mistakenly thought the pork sausage she was eating was actually the Beyond Sausage.
Two out of the three testers said they preferred the pork sausage sandwich to the Beyond sandwich, but one said she liked that the Beyond sandwich reminded her of a falafel. This tester was the only one who said she would order the sandwich again in the future.
The sandwich was not extremely popular among testers. But some Catholics have asked whether it would be good enough to eat on a Friday, when Catholics are instructed to abstain from (actual) meat.
CNA asked Fr. Thomas Petri, O.P., the academic dean and vice president of the Dominican House of Studies, to weigh in on whether or not an Impossible Burger (or similar product) would be appropriate for a day when Catholics abstain from meat.
“The Church’s universal norms say that we should abstain from meat on Fridays, especially Fridays in Lent,” explained Petri. “The Impossible Burgers are not technically meat. So, of course, someone could argue that we can eat them on Fridays.”
Still, he said that “giving up meat but having Impossible Burgers that taste like meat seems to me to be a technicality to get out of the spirit of the penance,” he said.
“We should remember the point here is to give up something in union with Christ crucified. If a person is seeking Impossible meat to skirt the penance, it’s hard to believe they’ve really understood the point of it all.”
It is important for Catholics to remember that fasting and abstinence are not done for purposes of dieting, or to respect animals, said Petri. The purpose of fasting is to “unite our offerings to the perfect offering of Christ, and so to prepare for the great feast of his coming.”
And for those who are still struggling (or hungry) on a Friday, Petri had some advice.
“If you’re craving meat on a Friday, offer it up.”