Commentary: Faux food fantasies

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Ultra-billionaire Bill Gates makes news every time he blows his nose.

Not really, but as the world’s No. 1 or No. 2 richest human (depending on who’s doing the guesstimating), he can make the media salivate just by thinking about reaching for his checkbook.

When you’re worth $66 billion, everything you do matters. The average guy, if he wants to blow even 1% of his annual income, he has to really think about it. That’s $500 or $600 bucks.

Gates, were he to “divert” 1% of his annual income—his income, not his net worth—to some business he’s interested in, would be handing over a cool $50 or $60 million.

That’s why, despite his utter lack of culinary credentials, when Gates pens a food review, it gets plastered all over social media. Why not? If you’re an entrepreneur, and he takes a liking to your new food product, you could be set for life.

In fact, Gates has invested undisclosed sums in several “innovative” food companies, including Hampton Creek Foods and Beyond Meat. I’ll give the latter bragging rights: They not only landed Gates (indirectly, through his stake in venture capital firm Khosla Ventures) and Twitter founder Biz Stone as investors, they’ve managed to convince some prominent alt-foodies, like The New York Times columnist Mark Bittman, into providing ringing endorsements.

“I tasted Beyond Meat’s chicken alternative, for example, and honestly couldn’t tell it from real chicken,” Gates wrote in a Mashable.com post. “Beyond Eggs [Hampton Creek’s pseudo-egg alternative] does away with the high cholesterol content of real eggs. Lyrical has drastically reduced fat in its non-dairy cheeses. Nu-Tek has found a way to make potassium chloride taste like salt with only a fraction of the sodium.”

Okay, Gates is savvy enough to know there’s a market for people who are convinced that a whole crop of modern-day health problems are due to those twin terrors of fat and cholesterol. They’re suckers for faux foods that substitute cheap sweeteners, modified starch and textured vegetable protein for the nutrients naturally found in foods like beef, pork, eggs and milk.

If it says “low-fat” on the label, plenty of consumers, fooled by false medical warnings about red meat and lured by the barely concealed advertising promise that low-fat can be eaten in high-volumes are gullible enough to stock up on all kinds of non-food products.

Like Beyond Meat and Beyond Eggs.

Phony food’s bad enough, seeing as how human physiology didn’t evolve to function optimally on ingredients manufactured by a bunch of technicians in lab coats, an army of modern-day Clark Griswolds devising ever-more “functional” additives. But Gates also tries to link eating faux foods with solving real problems.

“All this innovation [is] important, too,” he wrote, “in light of the environmental impacts of large-scale meat and dairy production, with livestock estimated to produce nearly 51% of the world’s greenhouse gases.”

Say what?

Not only is he trying to create a connection that doesn’t exist, he’s taking data from the widely discredited “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” the 2006 report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, and tripling down on it!

Without making anyone suffer through another exhausting rebuttal of the numbers in Long Shadow, it’s enough to state that not only is meat production emphatically not responsible for more than half of all global greenhouse gas emissions, but switching to processed, manufactured substitutes for animal foods—as if that’s even feasible—would neither dramatically reduce emissions nor improve the health of anyone foolish enough to believe that fat-free, meat-free or cholesterol-free means disease-free.

That won’t stop some people from buying such substitutes, however, and perhaps the best defense against that trend is the eating experience of those products themselves.

Clint Witchalls, a writer with the UK’s The Independent newspaper and author of a story on Gates’ interest in non-meat “meats” (“Can faux chicken win over committed carnivores?”), did a taste test with Beyond Meat’s fake chicken.

By the way, Beyond Meat “chykin” is made with water, soy protein isolate, pea protein, amaranth, chicken flavor, soy fiber, canola oil, titanium dioxide, white vinegar and carrot fiber (and you know what “carrot fiber” is, right? Orange Slime).

As Witchalls wrote, “My mouth wasn’t watering. The ingredients looked familiar, [and] at a glance the strips could pass for chicken. Up close, though, they had an unpleasant pea-like aroma. I’d like to say it tastes like chicken, but it doesn't.”

When he fed some to his 12-year-old daughter, her verdict was even harsher: “Looks like clay, smells like clay, tastes like clay.”

That’s not exactly the kind of finger-lickin’ thumbs-up you can build a marketing campaign around. Even with Bill Gates’ dough behind you, the prospects of selling “clay” to the meat-eating public can be summed up in three words:

“Ain’t gonna happen.”

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.


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Bea Elliott    
Florida  |  April, 24, 2013 at 09:04 AM

You might want to tell that "ain't gonna happen" to my local grocery stores - All three major chains have doubled the size of their "meat alternative" section. One store has actually labeled its own brand of plant based meat. So bring on the "orange slime" - I can eat it raw! ;)

Sharp    
Missouri  |  April, 25, 2013 at 10:29 AM

Mimicry is the sincerest form of flattery, so they say. Fake meat: none of the goodness for twice the price. That's what makes foodies so boisterously proud of themselves. Bittman is a clueless hack.


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