We’re Entering a New Age of Meatless Meat Today. But We’ve Been Here Before
At the turn of the 20th century, the first mock meat craze swept the nation
Add two cups peanut butter, two cups mashed beans, four cups water, three tablespoons corn starch, one teaspoon chopped onion, a pinch of sage, a pinch of salt and mix it all together. After you steam that in a double boiler for three hours, you’ll get around 24 servings of protose, arguably the earliest commercial meat substitute in the West.
While today high-tech companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are investing big in meatless meat—billed by Bill Gates, an early investor in both businesses, as the “future of food”—the concept of meatless meat for all was a conversation happening at the turn of the 20th century, too.
Before Upton Sinclair’s damning account on the meatpacking industry forced new federal food safety laws in the 1900s, a growing vegetarian movement had taken hold of the country, paving the way for products like protose to sell widely. The mock meat didn’t taste like the beef or chicken it was meant to imitate (the primary flavor was protose’s star ingredient: peanut butter), but all the same, the “healthy” alternatives to flesh—many coming out of Michigan’s Battle Creek Sanitarium—had an influential run as early substitutes to meat.
Battle Creek, founded in 1866, was part of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The medical center, hotel and spa became, as Howard Markell, author of The Kelloggs: Battling Brothers of Battle Creek writes, the denomination’s equivalent of the Vatican for more than half a century.
By that logic, the man who ran it, John Harvey Kellogg, may very well have been its pope. Between 1895 and 1905 roughly 100 foods billed as healthy (though, today, nutritionists would likely push back against that label) were developed there under his supervision. Kellogg, whose parents converted to the Adventist faith and moved the family to Battle Creek to be closer to the church, was one of the most influential surgeons of the late 19th century and an expert in health and nutrition. If his name sounds familiar, it’s because he and his brother, Will, were those Kelloggs. As it happens, that Corn Flake recipe, which divided the brothers bitterly, also subscribes to Adventist teachings to abstain from eating excitable foods that might stimulate untoward moral and physical activity. That same philosophy, unfortunately, didn't just lead Kellogg to health food, but also to an especially cruel anti-masturbation crusade that lingers over his legacy today.
Kellogg became increasingly interested in diet while studying to become a doctor, and was especially influenced by the ideas of Sylvester Graham, of the Graham cracker fame, whose popular vegetarian diet reforms nodded back to the temperance movement’s ideas of linking a healthy body to a righteous, Christian life. In keeping with those ideals, by the late 1870s Kellogg had established a health food company out of Battle Creek, where he developed products like granola, crackers and Corn Flakes. As he began focusing on nut-based food substitutes, he launched the Sanitas Nut Food Company in 1889. It was there that he began to experiment endlessly with meatless meats like protose, as well as bromose, nuttose, nut-cero, nuttolene, savita, and vijex, among others.
(Of course, while Kellogg gets create for patenting some of the first modern meat analogues, references to the “first meat replacement” tofu, for instance, go back centuries, first referenced at least as early as 965 C.E. in China, authors Akiko Aoyagi and William Shurtleff write in their history of meat alternatives.)
Kellogg wasn’t creating these canned meat alternatives in a vacuum. The Progressive-Era philosophies that shaped many of the doctor’s ideas created an environment that made other people interested in eating the concoctions, too. The American diet was seeing a larger shift away from meat at the time, as Vegetarian America: A History chronicles. Thanks to the work of writers and activists like Sinclair, as well as progressives like Jane Addams and politician Robert LaFollette, the book observes vegetarianism was coming into a “golden age” in the country.
W.H. Wiley, chief chemist of what is now the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who served in the administrations of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, was one of many concerned about the American diet. Wiley, perhaps best known for founding the Poison Squad in 1902—a group made up of healthy young people who tested chemicals and adulterated foods on themselves—had been working, unsuccessfully, to pass pure-food bills in the 1880s and 1890s. He was also looking for meat alternatives. Vegetarian America adds that in addition to his concerns around the cost of meat, the “wasteful economics” of animal agriculture was on his mind. In a 1902 talk where he addressed the high price of beef, he called attention to the need for meat substitutes:
“It is well known that men nourished extensively on cereals are capable of the hardest and most enduring manual labor,” he said. “Meats,” he added disparagingly, “are quickly digested and furnish an abundance of energy soon after consumption, but it is not retained in the digestive organism long enough to sustain permanent muscular exertion.”
To that end, Charles Dabney, an assistant professor working for the government, approached Kellogg to take part in Wiley's quest for new protein alternatives. As Kellogg recounted in the 1923 book The Natural Diet of Man: “Recognizing that the increase of population would ultimately lead to an increase in the price of foodstuffs and particularly of meats, and possibly a scarcity of meats, Professor Dabney requested the writer to solve the problem by the production of a vegetable substitute for meat.” With that first experiment, protose, Kellogg already knew he was onto something. To “a considerable degree [it] resembles meat in appearance, taste and odor,” he wrote, adding that it even had “a slight fibre like potted meat.”
Taste was perhaps stretching it. But if it the fake meat didn’t taste like meat, as Aubrey Taylor Adams writes in her dissertation on American Health Food Culture, that wasn’t too big of an issue. Unlike the Impossible Burger or Beyond Burger of today, the technology wasn’t there yet to expect it to. What early mock meat could do was at least look like the real deal. For instance, Adams points to a Good Health recipe for “Brazil Nut and Lentil Roast” where, she notes, “the editors were careful to emphasize the importance of the firm, dry texture generally expected of a meat roast: ‘For if too moist, it will not be firm and solid like meat, and will not slice nicely.’”
If a wider tent of consumers didn’t subscribe to the religious underpinnings of Kellogg’s vegetarian philosophy, his health warnings certainly played into the fears of the day. Kellogg’s skill as a nutritionist was recognized throughout the country, and he knew how to make a statement. In one anecdote Markel shares in his book, the doctor used a projector to show that there were “420 million [disease-causing microbes]” in one sliver of meat “not as big as your thumb.”
Such claims, Markel writes, “resonated loudly in an era when health inspections of meat, dairy, and other food products were still rudimentary, at best, and everyone in the room knew someone (if not themselves) who had contracted typhoid fever, cholera, tuberculosis, and any number of diarrheal disease from ingesting tainted water, meat, eggs, and dairy products.” (For the faith-based consumer thinking about how meat impacted demeanor, another yarn involved a wolf whom Kellogg claimed only became vicious once it was allowed meat.)
Kellogg and his wife, Ella Eaton Kellogg, went on to oversee a bevy of canned, nut-based mock meats under the Sanitas label. At the height of the mock-meat craze, Kellogg was reporting health food sales figures of almost half a million dollars. The reach of their product was impressive: They were sold in groceries and early health food stores across the Anglophone world (England’s first health food store, named after vegetarian Sir Isaac Pitman, had launched in 1898), stretching from Australia to South America.
Today’s faux meat has come a long way since protose and its offsprings. As Smithsonian previously recounted in the history of the veggie patty, the individual credited with creating the first commercially sold veggie burger (in 1982), for instance, had never even eaten a meat patty before coming up with his recipe.
By contrast, the latest companies to take on the challenge have taken pains to continue to make their patties look and taste like the real thing. This time around, the mission driving their creations isn’t grounded in organized religion, but instead in the environment. With a crusade to end the harmful impact of animal agriculture on the planet, the latest campaigns to divest from meat aren’t trying to attract just vegetarians and vegans, but also people who regularly enjoy meat yet worry about the effect their consumption habits are having on the planet.
That’s why it was something of a coup that Impossible Food recently announced the rollout of the Impossible Whopper, (the announcement came on April Fool’s Day—the joke being that the chain was serious). But as Chris Finazzo, president of Burger King's North American division, recently told the Washington Post, the company’s research showed there’s a market for it. According to a 2018 Gallup poll, vegetarians and vegans remain a minority—fewer than one in 10 Americans follow the diets—however, meatless meat appeals to a wider demographic. According to Finazzo, some 90 percent of people buying plant-based meat are, in fact, meat eaters who want better options.
"There's a lot of people who want to eat a burger every day but don't necessarily want to eat meat every day," Finazzo said.
The initial rollout of the Impossible Whopper, which is being sold in 59 St. Louis locations, is already looking promising. If it everything goes according to plan, the Impossible Whopper will debut in all 7,200 Burger King locations nationwide next. The patty uses Impossible Burger’s 2.0 recipe, which is vegan and certified kosher, and has been largely hailed as an improvement by those who’ve tasted it. The patty now browns as a beef-based burger would when you cook it and “bleeds” due to a genetically modified yeast cell soy leghemoglobin or “heme,” which also gives the burger its meatier taste (though that’s also what caught the attention of some food safety advocates, as Bloomberg breaks down).
It seems as though the next age of meatless meat might be right ahead of us. Just last Saturday, ten Chinese plant-based meat manufacturers came together for Meat Fest in Shanghai, an event organized by Vegans of Shanghai and Plant Based Consulting China to “boost the profile of Chinese plant-based meat manufacturers and promote a healthy lifestyle based on meat alternatives,” according to an article in the South China Morning Post. Citing research from the firm Markets and Meats, SCMP points out that the global meat substitute business, estimated at $4.6 billion in 2018, is already predicted to rise to $6.4 billion by 2023.
Washington Post food reporter Tim Carman’s glowing dispatch from St. Louis suggests a meatless future won’t just be an ethically tasteful choice. Praising the meat alternative he sampled as a “master illusionist,” Carmen ends his review with a prediction: “America, get ready for the Impossible Whopper. I suspect it will be coming your way soon, once it passes through St. Louis.”