Wednesday 25 April 2018

I want to eat a 'veggie sausage', not a 'mycoproteinous food tube'

France is banning producers of meat-substitute food from using words like ‘burger’ as it’s ‘misleading’. As double-standards go, this is a whopper, writes Phoebe-Jane Boyd in the Guardian. Read on: 

Mycoprotein, fusarium venenatum, fermentation, albumen, cultures, coagulating, curdling – these aren’t tasty words. Some of them are quite disgusting, actually. But if you’re vegan or vegetarian and incorporate meat substitutes into your daily diet, you’ll recognise them as the words in tiny font on the side of the packaging, you might even know how some of them are made. If you think about them too much, they can conjure up disturbing images of unformed Soylent growing in the dark, festering away like dark sludge to form unnatural shapes …

We don’t have to think about all this, of course, because more palatable descriptors are used for the purposes of marketing, such as “bean curd sausage”, “tofu steak”. The name-substitutes given instead of “gelatinous fungus” are like kind lies; distancing what we put in our mouths from the reality of how it came into being.

But these kind lies appear to be on the way out, following the vote by French MPs on Thursday to ban producers of vegetarian meat substitute from using meat-related phrasing in their descriptions. Products not partly or wholly composed of meat can’t be “steak”, “bacon”, or “sausage” any longer, just in case it’s “misleading” for consumers. This assumes, though, that no one has ever tasted both meat and meat substitute. Because anyone who has tasted, seen, or smelled them both knows. You know the difference between the look and texture of a meat steak – ribbons of white fat running through deep, pink flesh – and a meat-substitute steak – an amorphous beige lump that looks like it’s travelled from an outer limits hellscape.

Fake bacon? Nothing like actual bacon; it’s a chewy slab of something (we can’t call it cardboard – cardboard has a texture) that vaguely tastes of bacon crisps, and smells a bit like cinnamon when cooked. Soya mince – cut-up rubber bands mixed with a yeasty flavour. If you use substitutes, you know what they are, and that they can be enjoyed just fine as part of a full meal. Some of us love them.

However, associating these products with meat – even with meaty words – just isn’t right, according to the new regulation. “It is important to combat false claims, our products must be designated correctly,” said French MP Jean-Baptiste Moreau on the issue. But since when has food been described correctly or honestly? Is there going to be a change across the whole of the food industry? Dairy milk isn’t going to be described on the bottle as “mammary secretions” (thank goodness), even though that’s what it is. Beef is not yet “carcass” or “body part”, and offal is not “viscera”. Pork has not become “parts of pig”.

‘Associating these vegetarian products with meat – even with meaty words, – just isn’t right, according to the new regulation.’ Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo
Pig, cow, and sheep are more easily divorced in the mind from what arrives on plates when they’re called “pork”, “beef”, and “mutton” instead (just ask the children who don’t know that bacon comes from pigs, or what fish fingers are made of). You don’t have to think about it if you don’t want to. “Sausage”, “burger” and “steak” further remove the foodstuff from the animal they come from. They’re words that make the disconcerting worth eating – also lies, of a sort. They’re not as big as a Soylent Green lie, but they’re not upfront honesty either.

It turns out that the truth just isn’t tasty, whether you eat meat or not. I don’t want to eat a tofu tube, instead of a sausage. Or disks, or balls, spheres, slop, chunks – I’m running out of words that could be used to describe coagulated soy milk pressed into white blocks of matter. I like the shorthand of words like “sausage” and “steak” for substitutes, because I don’t want to eat something that sounds like it came out of a horror film.

If meat producers can distance consumers from the reality of where their products come from, the substitute industry should be able to do the same. Otherwise, what will we all eat instead when confronted with the unvarnished truth of what our food is? An apple?

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