The Quest for Healthy Junk Food
Over the past couple years the company Beyond Meat, maker of fake burgers and sausage, has managed to attract the sort of breathless, credulous coverage that’s usually reserved for tech startups and royal marriages. The spin is always that if enough people simply decide to replace meat with a combination of ground up pea protein, oils, stabilizers, and various flavorings, then the world’s most pressing problems will be averted: climate change will cease, animals will no longer suffer, and everyone will be healthier.
This last claim is on my mind today. On its packaging Beyond Meat emphasizes the large amount of protein per serving, the lack of soy and gluten in its products, and its GMO-free bonafides. These, along with the prevalent sense that anything plant-based must be good for you, create an aura of virtue. Beyond Meat wants to be seen foremost as a healthier alternative to anything so commonplace as ground beef.
Now Beyond Meat is joining up with Pepsi to form the unfortunately named PLANeT Partnership. The idea is to “unlock new categories and product lines,” presumably by cramming pea protein into all sorts of unexpected places, which will contribute to Pepsi’s ongoing efforts to “[make] it easier for consumers focused on health and wellness to consume products on the go.”
The problem with this is both simple and intractable - the chances of Pepsi making something that is actually healthy are pretty slim. For all the smug confidence various experts bring to discussions of what constitutes a healthy diet, the evidence for one particular way of eating over another is remarkably scant. Given the lack of precision in dietary science, a big dose of humility is called for. But there is one single nutritional idea I am truly confident in: processed foods are generally not healthy, and the more sugar they contain the worse they are.
If I am right about this it is obvious why Pepsi is not a good candidate to lead a health revolution. Its business model consists of selling shelf-stable, irresistibly sweet, salty, crunchy snacks made up of cheap ingredients like corn, soy, sugar, and oil. Adding pea protein to the mix does not change the underlying reality; Beyond Bacon flavored Doritos would still be Doritos.
Beyond Meat is emblematic of an effort, either deeply naive or deeply cynical, to save the world through mass consumption. The conceit (right there in the name!) is that there lies a new and better future that can be reached by doing away with the foods humans have been eating as long as there have been humans. This bizarre faith in some sort of purely material transcendence is most evident in the technology sector, but it is spreading ever outward. It is the funhouse mirror reflection of the equally foolish notion that a return to some mythical past would solve every present problem.
Perhaps this seems like a strange line for me to take, given that I ask my customers to pay a premium for the meat I sell, based on the idea that it is healthier for the environment, the animals, and yes, for the people who eat it. Without reservation I believe all of these to be true. But here is the difference between Cairncrest Farm and Beyond Meat. I have arrived at the practices I currently employ through trial and error, observation, conversation, and revision. They are a way to manage a small, beautiful piece of upstate New York. They cannot save the entire world, but they do real good right here, today.
The way forward I imagine, which I admit is naive in its own way, is not of partnerships between big business, like Beyond Meat, and behemoth business, like Pepsi; I don’t want Cairncrest Farm to grow large enough to partner with Hormel to get our bacon into the fridges of 300 million Americans. What I want is an ever-broadening patchwork of farmers and eaters who have a stake in each other’s wellbeing. I don’t have studies to prove it (as far as I know no one has done them) but I would bet that, in addition to actually realizing the sorts of environmental, animal welfare, and social improvements to which the Pepsi press release pays lip service, this sort of food system would be much more effective at improving human health.