Increased food complexity requires a little clarity

The deep-fried Twizzlers at this year’s Calgary Stampede were all that one could expect. That’s more than can be said for many foods entering the gastronomic realm. They are simultaneously more — and less — than many would expect.

Case in point, the “Marrot.” A creation of fast-food chain Arby’s, it looks and tastes like a carrot but is made from turkey breast prepared with carrot marinade and maple syrup powder.

The Marrot is a tongue-in-cheek response to the plethora of plant-based burgers available at an increasing number of other restaurant chains.

Thus, meat that tastes like vegetables, a.k.a. megetables, is now in the same general fast-food space as vegetables or plant proteins that taste like meat.

Traditional definitions of food are being challenged and consumers’ desires to understand what they are eating are being challenged along with them.

Burgers made entirely from plants come with names like “impossible,” “beyond” and “cultured,” although the latter is the grown-in-a-lab kind of cultured as opposed to the meet-me-at-the-opera-and-wear-your-pearls type of cultured.

Less charitably, such foods have also been dubbed as shmeet or shamburgers. And may we point out that, after all, there’s already a term for meat made entirely from plants. It’s called beef.

Having many food choices is great. Who doesn’t like choice? There is clearly a market for meat in the usual sense of the word and for “meats” made from plant proteins and possibly “meats” derived in a laboratory from animal cells and myriad other ingredients.

The big questions — the meats of the matter, if you will — involve the reasons behind those options, which have been made available as food companies try to meet consumer demand or at least their perceived desires.

If environmental protection is the goal, do consumers choose a burger made of the beef from cattle that use land and plants that wouldn’t otherwise play a role in food production?

Or do they choose a plant-based burger produced without the involvement of animals that belch greenhouse gases?

If improved health is the goal, do they choose a burger with the dense protein and high nutrition of red meat? Or do they choose a plant-based burger to reduce their overall intake of meat deemed to be unhealthy in large amounts?

If the goal is to avoid the involvement of animals in the diet altogether, the choice is pretty straightforward. But in that case, why would consumers want burgers to resemble meat at all?

The above examples are admittedly vast oversimplifications of complex concepts, posed for the sake of brevity. Environmentalism, health, animal rights — food is evolving to be increasingly political.

That’s one reason why some factions, notably in livestock sectors, want the word “meat” to be more clearly defined. It’s the subject of several lawsuits in the United States and a matter of sometimes-heated discussion here in Canada.

Changes in foodstuffs are occurring faster than changes in the language that will accurately describe them. It is a First-World problem indeed.

However, the compelling desire for livestock groups and alternative “meat” producers to differentiate themselves from one another will ensure that consumers are informed about the ingredients in their food — if they choose to be informed.

For those that eschew that option, there’s nothing wrong with eating food because it tastes good or it’s healthy or it’s simply enjoyable. But perhaps that’s an attitude from a simpler time.

Society has passed the point where politics can be removed from food. Can that ever change? After all, if meat can come from plants and milk can come from almonds, many other things are possible.

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