The Not-Future of Meat
It's not beef. It's not plant protein. It's not … a good idea.
We live in the Year of the Faux Burger. The meatless Impossible Whopper debuted at Burger Kings across the United States in August, while McDonald’s is rolling out what it calls the P.L.T. (plant, lettuce, tomato) in Canada to see if customers bite. Beyond Meat, which makes the patty for the P.L.T., went public in May and became the hottest stock of 2019, pushing the company’s valuation well into the billions. One hedge fund manager compared the enthusiasm over fake meat to early investor frenzy over Bitcoin.
Now into this burgeoning culinary niche comes a new offering: The Blend.
It’s a dull name for a curious product. The Blend, from Tyson Foods, is made using pea protein, just like Beyond Meat’s burger. Both come in brown-and-green packaging. Both are soy-free. There is one notable difference, however, between the two products. The Blend, in contrast to Beyond Burger, contains beef. The kind from actual cows.
The Blend is a new entry in an unlikely market category that has emerged in recent months: foods that aren’t quite meat, but aren’t really not meat, either. Hormel debuted its own gastronomic mishmash earlier this year as part of the Applegate Organics line—a fake-meat/real-meat, beef-and-mushroom patty that is, confusingly enough, called The Great Organic Blend Burger. The company bragged that it had created a “mouthwatering burger that epitomizes clean labels while also catering to the growing population of flexitarians.” Applegate’s president, John Ghingo, proclaimed it a “win, win, win for conscious carnivores.”
It’s not just beef that’s getting a remix. You can wash down your triple-win semi-burger with a tall glass of half-almond, half-dairy milk from Live Real Farms, which insists that their new beverage, out last summer, “might be the most purely perfect blend of milk ever”—a claim that’s likely true because it also appears to be the first such milk blend. Or complete your amalgam-meal with a side order of Perdue’s “Chicken Plus” Chicken Breast & Vegetable Dino Nuggets, a concoction of rib meat, cauliflower, and chickpeas formed into the approximate shapes of long-extinct creatures.
If you’re a conscious or conflicted carnivore, why would eating planimals—a portmanteau that so far none of these companies has embraced—be an appealing dietary solution? Tyson’s tagline for The Blend, “Don’t Change Who You Are To Improve How You Eat,” suggests that there are consumers who want a burger with fewer calories and less saturated fat but worry that eating a straight-up veggie burger would mean surrendering some essential part of their identity. It’s a slippery slope from there to playing Hacky Sack shirtless at a farmer’s market.
As a non-vegetarian who often eats veggie burgers, I’m pretty much the target demo for this brave new protein category. My fellow flexitarians and I, who make up either one-third or one-fifth of the population depending on how you count, are usually motivated by overlapping concerns about health, animal welfare, and the environment. We care about these things, but not enough to abstain entirely from consuming flesh. In theory, the in-between burger is just what we’ve been looking for.
Or at least you see how a meat-company executive could arrive at that conclusion. If all these flexitarians are up for eating veggie burgers and beef burgers, they should be extra chuffed at the prospect of eating both at the same time. A sandwich that splits the difference—finally the code has been cracked! One imagines Tyson and Hormel executives nodding at this forward-thinking pitch while nibbling contentedly on Vienna sausages. (I’m guessing this is how meat-company executives behave behind closed doors.)
If only my inner conflict were so easily assuaged. The food industry’s approach to people like me—let them eat fake and steak—misunderstands how people like me choose what to eat. We tend to approach menu decision in terms of two rival pleasures, restraint and indulgence. Part of the upside of ordering a veggie burger or a kale salad or a quinoa-and-beet pilaf is the knowledge that you’re making a more healthful and ethical choice by avoiding meat. The Blend robs you of that smug buzz. To make matters worse, you’re not experiencing the borderline religious exaltation of a truly killer cheeseburger. Instead you’re settling for a meal you can neither thoroughly enjoy nor feel good about not thoroughly enjoying. If that makes sense.
Because, come on, there’s no way these burgers, billed as “mouthwatering” and “100% delicious,” compare taste-wise to a perfectly calibrated hunk of grilled ground beef or even, say, a Thickburger from Hardee’s. Just to be certain, I tracked down and tried the Tyson and Hormel burgers. The former is bland and spongy and altogether awful. Hormel’s partially mushroom-based patty is better, though still unremarkable, and sadly doesn’t taste at all like mushrooms. If you buried them in enough fixings they’d be passable at a picnic, but that’s true of any edible substance.
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In short, these compromise burgers have no reason to exist, particularly at a moment when we have several respectable meatless options to choose from. They are fundamentally flawed attempts to have it both ways. Here’s a car analogy that nearly works. The veggie burgers of old were like the electric Nissan Leaf—sub-par but self-righteous. Beyond and Impossible burgers are trying very hard to be Teslas. A Shake Shack double-cheeseburger is a Mustang; a high-end steakhouse burger is a fully equipped Escalade; and a Big Mac is totally a Taurus.
And The Blend? It’s like the discontinued GMC Yukon Hybrid. Sure, the hybrid version of a monster SUV was marginally more fuel efficient than the traditional version, but if you bought one you’d still be driving a gas-guzzling tank to drop your kid off at ballet. The fact that the Yukon used electric power, too, was largely an empty gesture in the direction of environmental responsibility. Welding a green symbol on the back of such a hulking vehicle seems a little silly, or even cynical; not unlike Tyson’s slapping a cutesy illustration of a peapod on the packaging of a mostly meat burger.
In the hastily stapled annals of less-than-stellar ideas, The Blend belongs aside other ill-conceived attempts to stake out a middle-ground best left unoccupied. The mullet proved that sending mixed hairstyle messages doesn’t work for anyone except Billy Ray Cyrus. The Snuggie had a cultural moment a decade ago but it remains unclear why blankets need sleeves. And there’s a reason you can’t name a single famous keytarist.
Going halfway isn’t always a mistake. Labradoodles are justifiably popular, and the spork deserves more respect than it gets. But The Blend is an unholy union that should never have made it beyond a brainstorming session. You can’t have your beef and not eat it too.
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