We’ve already witnessed the rollout of a slew of plant protein-based shamburgers, a variety of non-animal-based pseudo-foods, like cashew “cheez,” vegan tofurkey and soy-based “chikin',” as well as — God help us — the atrocious holiday substitute “veggnog.”
That latter “drynk” doesn’t even sound appetizing, much less portend to be anywhere near the (already questionable) sensory appeal of the real deal.
But mock meat manufacturing is gaining momentum, so it’s time to brace yourself for the latest faux food category being marketed to legions of oh-so-health-conscious veggie wanna-bes: Fake “fysh.”
Of course, plant-based “toona,” crab-less crab fakes, and sea-less “skallups” have already been on the market in one form or another — not to be confused with surimi-based analogs of crab and shrimp that are formulated with purified fish protein.
But a Portland, Ore.-based start-up, Tofuna Fysh, is now marketing a line of fishless “tofuna,” so-called “fysh sauce” and “fysh oil,” touting on its website the joys of Tofuna Stuffed Sandwiches, Fysh Tacos and Flax-Seed-and-Coconut-Flake Crab Fakes as a brunch-time special.
There’s even a newly formed Plant Based Food Association, a trade group for marketers of “protein alternatives,” although executive director Michele Simon told Bloomberg that consumers seem to be “less aware of the environmental and human welfare issues surrounding the fishing industry.”
As in, “unaware.”
(Bloomberg also reported that Tofuna Fysh was recently hit with legal constraints over its attempt to market a “Chickpea of the Sea” fake toona product. Sometimes, it’s possible to get too clever with the marketing lingo).
Advantage Tofu? Not so Much.
Truth be told, an acquisition binge of veggie and organic food processors by the mega-manufacturers is well underway: Tyson has made a significant investment in vegan “meats;” Pinnacle Foods, which owns the SmartBalance and earth balance brands (not to mention Birds Eye, Mrs. Butterworth’s and Van de Kamp’s), acquired Gardein Protein International, which markets plant-based chickn’ and meat analogs; Hormel Foods bought up Applegate Farms, an organic meat company; and Danone SA coughed up $10.4 billion to take over WhiteWave Foods, makers of plant-based milk alternatives.
That’s all sunshine and rainbows for the food industry, but the eco- and nutritional consciousness that consumers claim are driving their purchases of animal food substitutes don’t come without a cost, and one criterion that has been touted as a primary driver turns out to be a lot less meaningful.
That’s because what is perceived as the significant environmental advantage that plant-based foods supposedly have over animal foods is nowhere near as clear-cut as most people think.
For one, the volume of plastic packaging waste from faux foods tends to increase, not decrease, and as more than one scientist has pointed out, every single piece of plastic ever produced is still around — because it takes centuries for the stuff to even begin to decompose.
More importantly, the carbon footprint of all those veggie analogs is right up there with animal foods. According to a major study commissioned by the Dutch government a few years ago, the CO2 equivalent calculated for a pound of tofu isn’t radically different from that of a pound of store-bought chicken.
And the CO2 equivalent of such seafood staples as mackerel, herring, pollock (whitefish) and shellfish is almost identical to the much-touted tofu that finds its way into all kinds of analog formulations. Plus, keep in mind that those data are calculated before further processing, packaging and distribution.
For me, the bottom line is pretty simple: Are faux foods natural? No, they’re not.
Are they locally produced? Hardly ever, at least not as far as ingredient and raw material sourcing is concerned.
Are they better for the environment? In some cases, no; in many others, barely so.
And the most important question of all: Are they less expensive?
Do I really need to answer that?
The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and columnist.