Do Alternative Foods Need to Taste Just Like ____?

Plant Milks

In January 2019, I was helping to organize a symposium on Biophilia (love of nature). In keeping with the Biophilia theme, most of the food was vegan, and people were urged to bring their own cups, bowls, etc.

I was in charge of purchasing plant milks to add to the coffee and tea; so, I asked on the Animal Allies Whatsapp group and elsewhere for suggestions on which plant milks go best with coffee and tea. The two most common suggestions were Oatly oat milk and Pacific Barista soy milk.

The day before the event, I went to the store to buy the plant milks and Wow! – there were so many options: macadamia nut, almond, rice, cashew, and hazelnut, not to mention oat and soy. Plus, different flavours, such as chocolate and vanilla, were also on offer.

On the day of the Biophilia symposium, the hour of reckoning arrived, when after some exciting talks (the one by Dr Kae Kawanishi of the tiger welfare project in Malaysia was especially awesome), it was time for the coffee/tea break. I eagerly watched as people added plant milk to their hot drinks.

Then, I asked one of the participants for their opinion of the plant milk. “It’s nowhere like regular milk,” was the reply. “Ouch!” I was so disappointed ☹. But then, the person added, “I don’t look for the plant based alternatives to taste like animal based foods. The question I ask myself is whether they taste good, not whether they taste the same as the old stuff.”

That was a light bulb moment for me:

Instead of trying to create pro-animal food and drink experiences that closely resemble people’s experiences with food from animals, maybe we should judge pro-animals foods, such as plant milks and plant based meat, on their own. This is similar to what Impossible Foods CEO Pat Brown said at a press conference at the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show:“Unlike the cow, we get better at making meat every single day.”

Pat Brown Impossible Foods

In other words, creators of pro-animal foods needn’t strive to “fool” people into thinking they are eating foods taken from animals. Instead, these new foods can be even better. They aren’t substitutes for, replacement of, or alternatives to, they are improvements on foods ripped from animals. Being improvements shouldn’t be too difficult. After all, foods from animals:

  1. Raise cholesterol
  2. Have no fibre and are low in antioxidants
  3. May contain the growth hormones and antibiotics the animals are routinely fed
  4. Potentially carry higher levels of pesticides from the foods the animals ate, as pesticides concentrate as they move up the food chain
  5. Contribute to global warming and other forms of environmental degradation
  6. Greatly harm animals.

For all the above reasons, maybe instead of being called plant based or vegan, maybe these improved foods should be called smart foods, as in smart phones (as suggested by Animal Allies member April Ng) or feel good foods (as suggested by the results of a Faunalytics study).

However, maybe the name doesn’t matter too much; maybe it all comes down to taste. Healthier, greener, kinder foods can’t win out unless they pass people’s taste test. But, just as students need to know what questions will be on a test so that they can prepare to ace that test, producers of sustainable foods need to know what question consumers will ask. Will the question be, “Does the food taste just like meat, cow’s milk, etc.?” or will the question be, “Does the food taste good?”

George Jacobs