This is a question I get asked all the time and one of the main things that comes up as a “criticism” of veganism. Yeah, but if veganism is so great, why are you trying to copy all OUR foods? Or how about: Yeah, but if veganism is so sustainable, what about all these new super-processed foods??
Meat substitutes have become almost as contentious a topic as palm oil in some circles! So I will do my best to explain my thinking on meat substitutes and hopefully not make too many enemies in the process.
Substitutes for animal food products can certainly play a very important and helpful role in the transition process. Many meat eaters do not even know what a meal looks like without meat, so if they have a vegan burger instead of a vegan steak, that is good for animals. And if you tell them to make their own (vegan) banana blossom fish or that they should make a meal out of all veg, beans, and grains, they may just say: Uh, this veganism thing is definitely not for me.
We live in a (mostly) omnivorous world, where dietary norms are based on the idea that a meal NEEDS meat. Meals are generally named after the meat in them, rather than the other components. General Tso’s chicken, for instance, often has broccoli in it but no one seems to bother about that. A burger isn’t a burger because it’s got a slice of tomato and some lettuce: it’s a burger because it’s got MEAT (or a meat-like food item).
People can be reluctant to change their habits and transition needs to account for one’s daily routine and structure. If vegan food seems completely “different” from what one is used to, a meat eater may be less likely to embrace it. If they feel they suddenly have to cook all their food from scratch and don’t know why, veganism can seem too time-consuming. The use of substitutes can help the early transitioner feel that the change isn’t too drastic.
However, by using substitutes, consumers are still reliant on familiar eating norms. They may still feel that a meat-like element is necessary for a meal to be healthy, tasty, and sufficient. They may still worry about the “protein” source in the meal, not realizing they can get plenty of protein without worrying about it at all. And, they may be unlikely to explore the many different ways meals can be formed and taste delicious without a meat element.
This is one reason why I believe that advocacy can be most effective if we use targeted approaches. For some people, the use of meat substitutes may be helpful in the initial transition. Others may, however, not need these highly-processed, generally less healthy food items.