Real Men Eat (Fake) Meat

Two alternative meat companies are battling for market dominance, but they both share one common enemy: masculinity

The first time I sunk my teeth into an Impossible burger, I entered a state of disbelief. This can’t be fake meat, I thought, as the rest of my meal disappeared in what felt like an instant.  

Plant-based meat substitutes have been around for a long time. Apparently, seitan debuted in 535 B.C., meaning that it pre-dates Jesus Christ. (Let me check my pockets, nope, sorry all out of biblical puns). Tofu entered the picture near the turn of the first millennium.

All of the modern alternatives (e.g, Lightlife, Quorn, Tofurky) arrived in the 80s and 90s. And while the brands developed a dedicated base of vegetarians and vegans, the products remained a curiosity to your average consumer.

However, the last decade has seen a sluggish industry shift into warp speed. This due, in part, to the fact that people (myself included) are finally starting to listen to the scientists who have been consistently shouting about the ways that reducing meat consumption can help our health, performance, and climate.

But it’s also because the technology behind plant-based meat has drastically improved. When Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods launched onto the scene, both introduced products that not only looked more appetizing than their predecessors (the Impossible burger was actually designed to bleed) but also tasted damn good too.

The two companies are now the market leaders and have been at war to gain control of an industry predicted to reach $140 bn by 2029. Beyond Meat IPO’ed last May, and Impossible Foods recently raised a private round of $200 mn. As a result, both boast ten-figure valuations and have mega-money at their disposal.

All that cash has helped them expand at a blistering pace. Both brands now grace the cooler section of most major grocery chains. You’ll also find them on the menu of nation-wide chain restaurants like TGI Fridays and Applebee’s as well. But in recent months, that battle has reached a fever pitch with the two making the move into the world of fast food.

Beyond Meat just introduced a faux-sausage dish with Pizza Hut and also works with KFC, Del Taco, and McDonald’s, just to name a few. Impossible Foods has inked deals with White Castle, Qdoba, and Little Caesars.

All of those partnerships received largely positive or neutral reviews; that is, until the high-profile launch of the Impossible Whopper at Burger King went slightly off the rails.

It began with what seemed like an innocuous article on a “Livestock News” website (because who doesn’t like to start their day with a bovine bulletin). A veterinarian wrote a (now modified) piece claiming that the Impossible Whopper has “18 million times as much estrogen as a regular whopper.”

The internet rumor mill seized on that info and produced exactly the kind of conclusion you would expect of thousands of keyboard warriors: the Impossible Whopper just might turn men into women.

Boobs! Erectile Dysfunction! These were the apocryphal assertions made by many reaction pieces. Thankfully, major media outlets debunked the claims. However, likely to little effect, given that the guy reading “Nation File” probably isn’t fact-checking himself in the Washington Post.

To those who venture into some of the crazier places on the internet, the controversy will have come as no surprise. The “soy boy” meme has been around for a number of years. And right-wing internet personalities like to use the term to call into question the masculinity of men they don’t like.

But why? The soy/estrogen connection (technically it contains “phytoestrogens”) is just a surface level example of what appears to be a deeper cultural affliction. James Hamblin at The Atlantic did a great breakdown of Impossible Whoppergate and offers a summary that explains the complex relationship between masculine identity and meat.  

The myth of physical feminization has its basis in existential concerns about power and status. [Carol Adams, the author of The Sexual Politics of Meat] has studied this idea at length. She and other scholars have argued that the idea of veganism is rolled up with qualities like compassion, conscientiousness, and empathy—for animals or the environment.

By modern American cultural standards, these are feminine traits. Violence, physical domination, and self-interest are masculine. Add in the global history of colonization, Adams says, and meat has become equated with white, heterosexual men. “Now it’s kind of like plant-based meats are here to take away their identity,” she says. “So eating meat is a sort of reactionary attempt to reclaim something that’s already been lost.”

Study after study has demonstrated that perceptions of masculinity and meat are deeply linked (regardless of sexuality), so much so that when their masculinity is threatened they are even more resistant to giving up their carnivore state.

But I’m sure you don’t need science to tell you that scarfing down animal flesh is endemic to the performance of the male gender. Think about Guy Fieri’s relentless pursuit of the ultimate “Dude Food.” Or the ultra-carnivorous Youtubers behind Epic Meal Time.

For the love of Christ, Salt Bae (the Turkish butcher and Instagram personality) hypnotized the world by wearing cool sunglasses and sprinkling salt over his elbow onto hunks of raw meat (has more than 30 m followers).

The good news is that times are changing. The co-author of another study on this topic recently said that “many men are interested in eating less meat, they just need social permission to do so – and as more men make vegetarian and vegan choices, that permission is becoming more readily available.”

Luckily, there’s plenty of that to go around these days. The Netflix documentary Game Changers spotlights elite athletes, from the Olympics to the NFL, that have improved their performance after giving plant-based a try.

The filmmakers assiduously lay out the case for men to adopt an animal-product-free diet (which also includes better erections, apparently). They even wrangle Arnold Schwarzenegger, the king of muscle, to rail against the agro-marketing complex that has kept meat front and center for men for all these years.

It’s compelling stuff. I’ve flirted with both a veggie/vegan diet over the years but have never been able to see it through. When I’ve tried to eliminate animal products, I’ve given up after only a few weeks, often citing fatigue, inconvenience, or brain fog.

And sure, I could have spent more time meal planning or finding vitamins that helped deal with the surface level issues. But it’s more likely that my failure to understand my cultural attachment to meat was what ultimately made my efforts insincere.

I didn’t want to be the guy who showed up at a BBQ that said “No thanks” or “Here are my veggie patties to grill.” Which is, effectively, allowing social dynamics to make life decisions that should belong entirely to me.

Which is perhaps why, of all the studies I canvased, there was one that, in my mind, really took the cake: “men who identify more strongly with new forms of masculinity consume less meat, have a weaker attachment to meat, have a greater tendency to reduce their meat intake, and have more positive attitudes towards vegetarians,” the authors wrote.

So, I’m going to give a plant-based diet another (earnest) shot because old masculinity is over-done. New masculinity? That’s rare.

I report back with progress soon.

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About the Mandate Letter

I use this newsletter as a journal to work through my ideas and collect examples of broader trends that reflect how masculinity is evolving in culture. I would very much appreciate your input. If you come across interesting examples of this trend or others, please email me tips at Jason [@] jasonrogers.co. If you're reading this in your inbox, just hit reply, and your response will go directly to me. Also, keep up with me on Twitter & Instagram or text me at 310-299-9363.