Living in San Francisco, you encounter plenty of vegetarians, vegans, and a surprising number of sympathizers who would happily join those tribes if not for one meat in particular. “I’m pretty much a vegan,” a friend told me years ago, “but I’m bacon-curious.”
Ah yes: bacon curiosity, that scourge of the no-meat lifestyle. We know pigs are intelligent; we know they’re mistreated and contaminated in slaughterhouses; we know that not eating animals is one of the top things we can do to mitigate climate change. We also know most processed bacon contains dangerous amounts of carcinogenic nitrates. But those crunchy, fatty strips are just so damned versatile: there’s no sandwich, no salad, no breakfast plate that bacon cannot improve. It’s even annoyingly tasty in chocolate. Nearly $5 billion of bacon was sold in the U.S. last year, up $200 million on the year before.
Which is why it was a big deal when Beyond Meat revealed Wednesday that it is in the process of faking bacon. We’ve seen vegan bacon before, of course, usually made with wheat-based seitan or soy-based tempeh. And sure, you can get used to that stuff, in the same way you can get used to AM radio if the FM antenna in your car is busted.
It’s a serviceable substitute, but man, do you miss the full spectrum of flavor.
There is reason to believe Beyond’s version will be different. The company just went public and its stock has risen 700 percent in the first 3 months, so it is flush with cash for R&D. Its plant-based burgers are pretty good — not up to the Impossible Burger standard, but still the best fake burgers you can currently buy in a supermarket (plus Blue Apron is about to add them to its pre-packaged meal lineup). Its sausages, I am reliably informed by people who eat sausages, are even better, and are now served for breakfast in Dunkin Donuts.
Decent fake bacon, if it is able to replicate the mouthwatering fatty juiciness lacking in seitan and tempeh, would be a game-changer for the entire food industry. Beyond Meat CEO Ethan Brown told Bloomberg the product was “improving” as it went through development, which tells us that the company knows the particular importance of this foodstuff and is taking its time to get it right. (No launch date for Beyond Bacon has been announced; Bloomberg appears to have caught the company flat-footed by revealing it early.)
Still, Beyond had better step on the gas. They’re far from the only game in high-tech fake meat town. Impossible Foods, fresh from thrusting its burger into the global mainstream via Burger King (blind taste tests in Sweden supposedly proving it tastes just like the real thing), is about to launch in supermarkets — going head to head with Beyond in the source of its main revenue stream.
Impossible has the edge in terms of taste. It understands that what we want most from our fake meats is what we want most from our real meat: rich, delicious fat juice sliding down our chins and gullets. Impossible CEO Pat Brown told me earlier this year that Impossible Steak is next on his list. Can Impossible Bacon be that far behind?
Whichever company finds the holy grail first, the overall trend seems inevitable. Pigs are impossibly cute and impossibly smart, so much so that they apparently know what is about to happen to them in the slaughterhouse. They deserve to live, and live in smaller numbers, rather than spend their lives squeezed together in conditions so foul that they are forced to consume a quarter of all antibiotics sold in the U.S., just to survive a few years.
That isn’t sustainable, nor healthy, nor good for business. If food science can provide us with a plentiful alternative that is basically indistinguishable in taste, you can best believe most restaurants and fast-food establishments will offer it. Pig production won’t go away, but it will go into decline as a result.
In the coming food utopia, we can all sate our bacon curiosity — without consuming an ounce of guilt.