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Lab-grown meat isn’t “plant based”—but is it “vegan”?

Food technology is evolving. Our language needs to evolve with it.

Lab-grown meat isn’t “plant based”—but is it “vegan”?
[Source Images: VVCephei/iStock, maytih/iStock]
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While browsing through the ice cream options made from coconut, almond, cashew, soy, banana, and sunflower seeds, I recently came across one curious—if confusing—alternative. A brand called Brave Robot sells ice cream made with “non-animal whey protein.” Usually, seeing “whey” or “casein” (also on the ingredient list here) is a reliable indication that a product isn’t vegan because that implies that it’s made with cow’s milk. But this product claims to be made of “animal-free dairy.” What the heck is that? And is it vegan?

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Language is fascinating and complicated. Just as terms like “plant-based” and “vegan” are becoming widespread, their definitions seem to be shifting and expanding. In the case of the animal-free dairy in Brave Robot’s ice cream—made by a company called Perfect Day—the process involves fermenting microorganisms to create the same components found in dairy, but doing so with no animal inputs. If a food is biologically identical to dairy—meaning people with whey allergies will want to avoid it—but it’s made without animals . . . is it vegan?

It doesn’t seem as though there’s a simple answer to this. For a long time, what made something “vegan” or, interchangeably, “plant-based,” was simply not containing any animal products—no milk, meat, eggs, or other animal derivatives. Honey has always been a sort of grey area within veganism, but apart from that, things are fairly cut-and-dried. If you’re vegan for ethical reasons, animal-free whey appears to check all the boxes for ethical-food production. And yet, calling it “vegan” doesn’t feel quite right.

Even conventional animal products are blurring the definitions of these terms. In the U.K., regulatory body the British Standards Institute released a definition of “plant-based” that allows for small amounts of egg, milk, and other nonmeat animal products within the product. But the colloquial connotation can’t be changed by official decree. According to The Vegan Society, only around 27% of people think “plant-based” foods may contain milk or egg, even in small amounts. To more than 64% of the British public, “plant-based” is equivalent to “vegan,” meaning the product contains no animal ingredients whatsoever.

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Prominent brands like Tyson have already tried coopting the “plant-based” label to include eggs and milk, a practice, which to me, seems misguided at best and intentionally deceptive at worst. (The company has since ditched animal products from its plant-based line.) And with the rising trend of major meatpacking companies taking a blended approach by introducing hybrid meat-veggie products, it’s easy to see how things could get confusing.

Emerging technologies like animal-free animal proteins are likely to complicate the conversation even further. Well-funded tech startups around the world are hustling to make cell-based—also called cultured, cell-cultured, cultivated, clean, and lab-grown—meat made by growing animal cells in a nutrient-dense medium outside the body of an animal. The idea behind these innovations, of course, is to create a delicious, perfect meat simulacrum without having to harm any living animals. Which begs the question: Is cell-based meat, then, inherently vegan?

Chances are, it’s going to depend upon who you ask, at least for a while. In one sense, yes, cell-based meat is by definition made without animal slaughter or suffering, thereby eliminating the animal welfare and likely the environmental issues with factory-farmed meat. No animals harmed, no problem.

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But it would be hard to justify calling Brave Robot ice cream or cell-based meat “plant-based,” per se. Despite our history of using the terms “vegan” and “plant-based” interchangeably, these sorts of products just simply aren’t plant-based by any stretch of the imagination. To some, calling these foods “vegan” would be absurd, not to mention confusing to shoppers. So the question is, can something be plant-based but not vegan? Or vice versa?

Meanwhile, the meat and dairy lobbies and their opponents are squabbling over even more ostensibly basic terms. On both sides of the Atlantic, industry associations are filing lawsuits to protect words like “milk” and “cheese” from being used to describe vegan dairy alternatives. The companies backing these suits claim that such labeling is “misleading” to customers, even with clear and legible labeling. Whether that argument is being made in good faith, however, is debatable. Soy milk is far from a new phenomenon. It’s patronizing to suggest that customers are unable to comprehend the basics of ingredient labels, and that’s not even taking animal-free meat and dairy into consideration. Will the animal-product lobbies push back when, inevitably, brands begin to introduce animal-free milk and cheese?

All of this is even further muddled by the fact that not all cell-based meat is free from animal inputs. Many are made with fetal bovine serum, typically collected during the slaughter of pregnant cows. If even one animal has to die for it to be produced, can we really consider a product vegan? In my opinion, no. But it does certainly reduce, though not eliminate, animal suffering. Needless to say, it’s a complicated topic.

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There’s one more mitigating factor: animal testing. Impossible Foods makes their meat primarily from soy and potato protein, which makes the “plant-based” label fitting. But animal rights activists have called out the company for utilizing animal testing. Because of food safety laws in the U.S. and elsewhere, animal testing is legally required in some of these cases before a food can hit shelves. So, can a burger made from peas, or milk made from fermented microorganisms, be considered “vegan” if their production relies on the exploitation of animals?

If nothing else, it’s clear that we’re going to have to think long and hard about what we want terms like “vegan” and “plant-based,” and even “milk” and “cheese” to mean going forward. Looking at the ingredient panel alone is no longer a comprehensive or accurate way to evaluate food from an ethical standpoint. Nor is reading the labels—”vegan,” “plant-based,” “animal-free,”—an effective way to discern the actual ingredients.

Food technology is evolving. This is good. Figuring out what language to use is hard, but it’s worth muddling through the messy semantics to arrive at a more sustainable, healthy, and compassionate world.

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Brian Kateman is cofounder and president of the Reducetarian Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing consumption of meat, eggs, and dairy to create a healthy, sustainable, and compassionate world. Kateman is author of Meat Me Halfway—inspired by a documentary of the same name—and editor of The Reducetarian Cookbook and The Reducetarian Solution.