Stop Calling Vegan Food “Fake”
Vegan cheese is cheese. Vegan meat is meat. Let’s get on with it.
Michaela Grob posted a framed sign on the wall of Riverdel, her gourmet vegan cheese shop in Brooklyn, that both assuages the believers and challenges the doubters. It lists an ancient definition for the word “cheese” that traces back to its Indo-European root, which just meant “to ferment, become sour.”
The sign welcomes visitors into New York City’s first dedicated vegan cheese shop, which specializes in artisanal items like cashew truffle and macadamia-based fresh mozzarella, plus a sandwich counter with versions of deli favorites like bacon, egg and cheese and a McMuffin.
What you don’t find on the sign, or any description of her products, is the word “fake, as in, “fake cheese,” the oft-used shorthand way to refer to a plant-based alternative. “Fake” has been in the vegan nomenclature for years, dating back to the woeful era of frozen Boca burgers, pasty soy cheeses, fakin’ bacon and other foods that were were meant to be one-to-one imitations. Grob finds it a little offensive.
When we say “fake” elsewhere, we mean a tacky pretender: fake nails, fake blood, fake plastic trees, fake friends.
“It’s real cheese, with different products,” Grob said. “For me, fake is something you can’t eat, something you just look at; a fake wheel of plastic cheese or something like that.”
“Fake” is often also used as a derogatory term, a way to belittle plant-based products as “less than.” The word conjures images of over-processed lumps of imitation food, an uncanny valley full of soy. When we say “fake” elsewhere, we mean a tacky pretender: fake nails, fake blood, fake plastic trees, fake friends.
That’s why it’s long time to stop using it: the word annoys food makers who put hard work and craft into their products and it’s an outdated way to describe a food system that’s gone way past imitation into innovation. The food items labeled “fake” are often made of more “real,” whole foods than the items they are supposedly knocking off.
The debate is more than just academic: Lawmakers in more than a dozen states including Mississippi, Missouri and Louisiana have worked on measures to stop vegan products using words like “burger,” “hot dog” and “milk.” Backers — and the animal industry lobbyists behind them — say the laws are for consumer protection, so Kroger shoppers don’t accidentally grab a Beyond Burger when they meant to grab one made of dead cow (the horror!).
“If [plant-based makers] can’t say that it’s a black bean burger by using ‘burger,’ how are they to describe to the consumer what the product is?” Holly Dickson, interim executive director of the ACLU of Arkansas, which opposes the measures, told NPR.
But such language distinction was already lost before plant-based alternatives came along.
Vegan cookbook author Terry Hope Romero recalled to me a recent trip to the grocery store where she saw someone buying a jar of Tostitos queso dip in a neon orange color; its label declares “made with real cheese.”
“That is the most disgusting fake food product,” she said. “It’s terrible for anyone who eats it. That’s all they have, that’s their only claim of wholesomeness.”
The ingredients on that dip list cheese, yes, but also “cheese flavor,” sodium hexametaphosphate, monosodium glutamate, datem, sodium phosphate and artificial color.
By contrast, the ingredients on the popular vegan queso by Siete include entirely recognizable food names; the most jarring ingredient listed is “plum.” To further muddle the waters, New York Times’ restaurant critic Pete Wells was recently criticized for praising “fake cheese” — in this case meaning dairy based American cheese.
“A lot of this comes from restaurateurs and industry people instead of consumers,” said Kale Walch, cofounder of Minneapolis-based Herbivorous Butcher, a company name picked with a trolly wink at expanding what “butcher” means.
“They’ve been so ingrained in the tradition of meat and cheese, in some cases spent money to learn how to prepare such foods. Our products come as an affront to some of that,” he said. “We’re not trying to take their meat and cheese away, we’re just trying to bridge two communities.”
“It is a little frustrating. We put a lot of work into the product I feel like in itself is its own thing. Our steak doesn’t need to be called ‘fake steak;’ it is a steak. The etymology is shifting, and the very definition of meat is changing day by day.”
The company doesn’t use “fake,” it advertises “meat-free meats” and uses the existing food terminology, because it’s what people know, with seitan-based maple bacon, jerky, korean ribs and pastrami, all made from scratch in their kitchen (Guy Fieri once declared “I’d eat it all day long.”)
“It is a little frustrating,” Walch said. “We put a lot of work into the product I feel like in itself is its own thing. Our steak doesn’t need to be called ‘fake steak;’ it is a steak. The etymology is shifting, and the very definition of meat is changing day by day.”
In fact, the word “meat” itself has already morphed in meaning many times: its original use was just to mean “food,” and then became used to distinguish the edible meat of something, such as a nut, from its inedible husk.
The use of “fake” doesn’t bother Romero in casual conversation, though she would never advise a company to put it on a label. But, she said, people who think plant-based alternatives are over-processed, and therefore unhealthy, are toting the animal industry’s line.
“There’s a very old-fashioned idea of ‘fake’ that tries to describe something as not being wholesome and something bad for you, even though American processed foods like to tote having ‘real’ (ingredients). … There’s this general schizophrenia when it comes to news and nutrition and health.”
Meat companies don’t have the patent on a cylindrical shape of food. Coconut milk ice cream is a scrumptious dessert game changer, who cares if it tastes exactly like a tub of Turkey Hill? Mushroom bacon rules, and would never be confused for pork bacon; calling it “savory flavored mushroom breakfast strips” would just take too long.
To me, the use of “fake,” and the laws against labeling, are at best an indicator that evolution often happens faster than the language a world raised on animal products can find to describe it. At worst, it’s a supremacist argument by those who insist the animal-normative diet is the only way to survive. In that case, it’s a classic fight against evolution: it’s a conservative defining “marriage,” a driver stuck in traffic shouting at cyclists, a suburban internet commenter boasting about how things work in “real America.”
It’s also hard for people to accept that vegan food has broken out of a binary. Yes, we all love the Willy Wonka “mock” meat factory that is May Wah, and yes, Impossible Burgers are meant to lure away meat-tuned palettes. But products like Field Roast sausages aren’t meant to imitate pork sausage, they’re just Field Roast (ingredients: wheat gluten, saffron oil, red wine, eggplant, onions, barley malt, etc). Meat companies don’t have the patent on a cylindrical shape of food. Coconut milk ice cream is a scrumptious dessert game changer, who cares if it tastes exactly like a tub of Turkey Hill? Mushroom bacon rules, and would never be confused for pork bacon; calling it “savory flavored mushroom breakfast strips” would just take too long.
“You don’t compare a cow cheese to a goat cheese or a sheep cheese, they are fundamentally different, but the same technique,” Grob said. “The same applies to cheeses that are made with nuts. That’s very often when I see the lightbulb going off.”
The debate about what counts as a burger or hot dog or milk can get real into the philosophical weeds (see: the “is a hotdog a sandwich?” discourse). So what do we call things if not “fake?” Grob said the definition should just be tied to the use: if you put an almond beverage on your cereal in the morning, it’s milk; if you cut a slice from a fermented wheel to put on a cracker, it’s a cheese. Romero said she still likes the cute food puns and wordplay — Tofurky, untuna and chick’n — which are easy for meat-raised consumers to understand.
My suggestion: go nuts (pun intended) saying cheese when you mean vegan cheese and burger when you mean a burger made from plants; they are functionally the same thing and serve the same purpose, just made with different ingredients. If you have to distinguish for others, say “dairy cheese” vs. “plant cheese,” “pork sausage” vs. “vegan sausage,” “veggie burger” vs. “burger you somehow keep eating despite irrefutable evidence that beef farming is a major factor driving climate change.” We should not cede the existing language of food if we want to create a more ethical and environmentally sound food system for everyone. Anyone telling you otherwise is a fake friend.