In France, it’s now against the law to label vegan and vegetarian substitutes as sausages, bacon or mince, under new measures to prevent shoppers from being misled.
Elsewhere, the lines are becoming increasingly, and purposely, blurred between meat and plant-based foods.
After decades of suffering through token vegetable lasagnes, vegetarians and vegans have enjoyed a vast improvement in the selection of meat-free foods in supermarkets and restaurants in recent years.
But innovation has ramped up this year, igniting an international war on who can make the meatiest, bloodiest plant-based burger and convert the most meat-obsessed among us.
So what does the surge in popularity of this new wave of meaty, plant-based food say about the psychology behind eating – or not eating – meat, and can it really spell the end of our carnivorous culture?
Last month Sainsbury’s started selling a vegan range by Danish food company Naturli’ Foods, including a “bleeding” mushroom burger, in the meat aisles of 400 UK stores.
Tesco has recently started selling the UK’s first plant-based steak, and Iceland has seen its bloody No Bull burger fly off the shelves since it launched in April.
Fuelling these launches is a rapid shift in our diets, and it’s not just the rise of veganism and vegetarianism, but also those who want to cut down on their meat intake, otherwise known as flexitarians.
It’s the latter group that retailers and restaurants are trying to tempt and if they succeed, these mock burgers could play an integral part in reducing global meat consumption.
It’s no secret that we’d solve a lot of problems if everyone on the planet switched to a plant-based diet. Agriculture is a significant cause of global warming and causes 15 per cent of all emissions, with half of this coming from livestock, and raising cattle requires huge amounts of water and grain.
But the problem is, meat remains one of our favourite foods.
“We haven’t found that meat is innately desirable – little kids don’t seem to love it – but it’s certainly desirable,” says Paul Rozin, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the study, ‘Is Meat Male?’.
But mock meat, he says, is a way for people who want to cut down on their meat intake to have the experience without the moral and health side-effects, which are playing an increasing role in shaping our diets.
Demand for meat-free food increased by 987 per cent in 2017, and a third of those who have decided to cut back on meat cite health reasons for their decision, according to YouGov.
For those under the age of 25, the environmental benefits of a plant-based diet are the biggest motivator to cut back, according to Mintel research.
One reason for this, according to Charles Spence, professor of experimental psychology at the University of Oxford, is because food is plentiful, and we have the luxury to let our morals inform our diets.
Also, the rise in food intolerances and allergies is making it easier for people to have a diet that breaks convention.
But it’s not cutting back on meat that matters, but how businesses respond, according to Brain Kateman, co-founder of The Reducetarian Foundation, because it’s not that people have an objection to meat, but quite the opposite.
“Most of us are aware of the problems associated with how we produce meat, and we don’t want to eat meat associated with animal cruelty and climate change, or that increases the risk of health problems including heart disease and cancer” he says.
“But most people don’t choose their food based on ethics and health, it’s primarily based on price, taste, convenience and how readily available it is. People worship meat, not just the taste but their memories associated with it.”
For Neil Nugent, chef and director of product development at Iceland, it’s flexitarians he thanks for his No Bull burger doing so well, which he says reacts just like meat when cooked.
“The most important thing to get right was the texture,so you get that bite you get from eating meat. If you start to overcook it, like meat, beetroot starts to come out and it’ll go browner,” he says.
Nugent’s inspiration for launching the burger, after four months of sampling and six shots at the recipe to get it right, was seeing the trend take off in the US, but also because of what he was seeing on social media.
“The whole flexitarian trend has been led by social media, with people sharing photos of what they’ve done with vegetables. It’s one of the first food trends social media has led,” he says.
But Spence isn’t so convinced with the bloody vegan burger trend, and compares it to uncanny valley, which is the unsettling feeling people experience when robots closely resemble humans, but are not quite convincing enough.
“It’s good for changing food habits and sustainability, but I wonder whether this is the right way to imitate meat. Even if you had the perfect mock meat burger that you can show under blind tasting conditions that people can’t tell the difference, people will respond differently as soon as you tell them the source of the burger.”
Rozin agrees, and says the success lies in how good the imitation is – but even this is no guarantee, because some will inevitably think there’s something unnatural about eating mock meat.
“There are a lot of components to a good steak, and its structure will be hard to replicate. At the moment, steak-lovers can’t be satisfied. Even if there’s a good imitation, some people will still want to eat the real thing.”
The reason people want their vegan burgers to resemble meat, according to psychologist Melanie Joy, is because of how we’ve been socialised and conditioned to believe in carnism, a system of beliefs that means when we look at meat and dairy from the animals we’ve been conditioned to think of as edible, we see them as food.
She argues that we crave certain flavours and textures, including meat, simply because we’re used to them, and not necessarily because our body needs them.
“We associate meat with food and pleasant culinary experiences, such as family traditions, and we have a desire for foods we have a long-term association of pleasurable experiences with,” Joy says.
But introducing food that replicates the look, taste, texture and smell of meat into the vegan food market risks bringing with it the cultural attitudes around meat, and its associations with strength and masculinity.
A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research in 2012, for example, found that people associate meat with maleness.
“I’d love a campaign that makes broccoli seem very manly, or for people to see a carrot and the first word that comes into their head is ‘macho’,” Kateman says. “But there is a rise of bodybuilding among vegans, so we’re starting to see a change.”
I’ve avoided meat-like foods for the 12 or so years I’ve been pescatarian, but for research purposes I tried a very realistic Mheat burger by vegan meat brand Sgaia.
I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did, but what really surprised me was how long the cultural associations we have with meat can still linger long after you stop eating it.
I felt like I’d had a good feed, like the burger had breathed life into me and pumped by body full of iron. Really, I hadn’t eaten anything that hasn’t been in my diet for over a decade.
Some vegans aren’t happy, though, and have criticised retailers for their decisions to stock vegan products resembling meat. Writer and vegan Lucy Lucraft gave up meat partly because of animal cruelty.
“I find it a little offensive, and counter-intuitive, to eat products mimicking meat,” she says.
“The idea that it’s delicious to see the blood from an animal dripping out my food is pretty offensive. However, I do think it’s more important to help people stay vegan, so if that means them eating bloody burgers, so be it.”
Kateman says any efforts to reduce the consumption of animal products should be applauded, but that we’ll only be successful by treading lightly.
“We have to ease into change. There are so many fundamental problems in our existence right now, I worry if we try to tackle every single one at one we’ll see zero change.
We’re at a point where most people are consuming animal products every day, and the last thing we need to do is make it harder for ourselves. We can’t let perfection be the enemy of the good.”
Nugent’s response to the vegan backlash of Iceland’s No Bull burger is, “Vegans are vocal, but you can’t please everyone. The proof is in the sales,” while the famous Impossible Burger from the US, which led the mock meat trend, doesn’t give vegans a look-in.
“Our target consumers are meat eaters. Our product is designed to satisfy the cravings of meat-lovers without compromising the sensory experience they enjoy. This may or may not appeal to vegetarians but they’re not our target market.” says Nick Halla, international senior vice president of Impossible Foods.
The reason comes down to simple maths: “The vast majority of global consumers desire the taste and experience of meat,” he says.
But it might not be too long before we won’t have a need to replicate meat at all, as it fades out of our diets altogether, according to Joy.
“Vegan meats will eventually be unappealing because we won’t have been socialised into meat. It’d be like someone now having a fake dog burger. The only reason we don’t find eating vegan meats disgusting now is because we’ve been so deeply socialised to not see eating certain types of animals disgusting,” she says.
“It’s not a question of if, but of when the dominant ideology of carnism is replaced by veganism”.
The shift is already starting to happen – not just with the amount of people cutting down on or cutting out meat altogether, but within the meat industry. Jaap Korteweg, founder of The Vegetarian Butcher in the Netherlands, says the interest he’s getting from the meat industry is a strong indicator of what’s to come.
Meat companies, including a chicken slaughter company, are applying to be partners with Korteweg as he finalises production of the first machine specifically designed for making plant-based meat on an industrial scale by transforming vegetable protein into a layered structure.
The technology, developed alongside Wageningen University, has taken 20 years of research. “Meat companies see that there will be less meat in the future, so they want to invest in plant-based meat. They take this movement very seriously, and they want a share in it.”
Korteweg’s prediction that vegan meat’s share of the market will increase to the point of overtaking meat within the next generation, combined with Joy’s theory that upcoming generations won’t be socialised to see meat as food, suggests the future for mock meats looks bloody good.