Editor’s Plate: Is Eating an Analogue Burger Breaking Lenten Regulations?

May 1, 2019
The new generation of meatless burgers is so good you could sin.

Probably every generation writes something like this: Life (and eating) was simpler before technology began changing everything.

As I write this, Easter Sunday just passed and two things are on my mind: the conclusion of the Catholic season of Lent and Beyond Meat’s initial public offering of stock.

Also as I write this, the April test of Impossible Foods’ veggie burgers at Burger King restaurants in St. Louis went so well the restaurant chain plans to offer them nationwide by the end of this year.
See the connection?

Maybe it’s not so apparent. For practicing Catholics, one of the traditions of Easter preparation is to not eat meat on Fridays during Lent. Which is a great excuse for eating a sumptuous fish dinner – I even had lobster one Friday during the season. So, as far as abstaining from meat goes, I don’t really suffer on Fridays during Lent.

A generation ago, abstaining from meat was pretty cut and dried. Then the vegetarian burgers arrived, the first generation of which were never confused with the real thing. I recall an earlier discussion about the propriety of eating a vegetarian burger during Lent: One of the debaters simply concluded that “eating a veggie burger is itself penance.”

That’s no longer the case. The patties from Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are very good, not quite up there with a juicy burger in my book, but fast approaching parity; and in a dead heat in other people’s minds. Some of the burgers even “bleed” when you grill them and ooze a little tongue-tingling fat. Some people wouldn’t know the difference between one of these and the real thing.

So I asked an official with the Catholic Diocese of Joliet (Ill.) if eating one of them on a Friday during Lent violated church rules, and he said no. “As long as it’s not meat, technically you’re fine,” he said. “You’re meeting the letter of the law. But it’s up to each person to decide if they’re meeting the spirit of the law.”

I have a pretty conservative Jewish friend who has never tasted pork or bottom-dwelling sea creatures. Can you imagine going through life without bacon or shrimp? When I asked him about meat and seafood analogues, he said I’ve asked a question many rabbis have pondered.

While he’s never eaten pork bacon, he said he enjoys some outstanding bacon analogues (how would he know how to compare?). He assures me all rabbis believe that a kosher-certified vegetarian pork analogue is fine, “but there are those who believe that it should be avoided for the reasons you outlined – spirit of the law and all that.” And some worry that a really good analogue is like a gateway drug; before you know it, you’ll be craving the real thing.

To further complicate matters, heme, or leghemoglobin, is the ingredient that separates the Impossible Burger from other plant-based burgers. Heme is a key component of meat burgers. A vegetarian version, soy leghemoglobin, is key to the flavor and color of the Impossible Burger and makes it “bleed” like a beef burger when it’s on the grill or being sliced.

But unlike the heme found in beef, the heme in the Impossible Burger is genetically engineered soy protein added to genetically engineered yeast. That doesn’t scare me, but it may frighten some consumers. “And we ferment this yeast – very similar to the way Belgian beer is made,” Impossible Foods says on its website. What could be better than Belgian beer? But they’re talking some pretty complex chemistry.

The result is complicated. While it has the same calories (240) as a 90% lean beef burger, the Impossible Burger has 1 more gram of fat, 9g of carbs (vs. 0), 10g less protein and 16% of a day’s sodium (vs. 1%).

And let’s not even get into cultured meat.

I don’t mean to pick solely on the Impossible Burger; the Beyond Meat burger has detractors, too, and a very lengthy ingredient list. There’s no denying these two companies and products have advanced the meat analogue category and changed the way some people eat. And Beyond Meat probably will have a very successful IPO. “Technological improvement” is a huge sales driver for computers, cell phones and even cars, but it’s a pariah when it comes to food.

Fakin’ bacon. Sham ham. Phoney baloney. Life used to be so simple.