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Food Industry Courts Meat-Eating Vegetarians

Some vegetarian food is getting a makeover. It's being made to look, feel and taste more like meat.

The industry is looking to latch on to a new group of eaters: “Flexitarians,” health conscious, mostly young consumers who are cutting back on meat in their diets. Some cut out almost all meat, others cut out just a little.

With over 44 percent of American eaters aged 18-29 choosing to eat a meatless meal at least once a week, according to market research firm Innova Insights, the strategy makes sense. If more people are looking to cut down on meat – but not give it up all together – create vegetarian products that taste like the food consumers are used to.

They're looking for consumers like Bob Sholar, who lives in Parkville, Mo., outside Kansas City – legendary barbecue country and home of the North American World Series of Barbecue.

Sholar has cut meat mostly out of his diet because he worries about his cholesterol.

“It’d just be Thanksgiving, Christmas, maybe a birthday, something like that thrown in – just the special meal times of the year,” he said. “Other than that, we don’t go out of our way to eat meat.”

The change wasn’t easy, but after seven years living the flexitarian life, he’s pretty used to it.

“Sometimes you’re looking to make something taste a bit like meat, a lot of times you’re not – you’re just realizing you just don’t eat meat,” Sholar said.

About 2 to 3 percent of Americans consider themselves vegetarians, according to most estimates, but it's harder to pin down the flexitarians.  Still, high-end supermarket chain Whole Foods is seeing a higher demand for meals that aren’t based around meat, according to Sarah Morgan, a healthy eating specialist for the Rocky Mountain region of Whole Foods.

“I would say that a lot of our customers tell us that they’re looking for some alternatives and they’re looking for new ways to think, instead of this standard American diet that’s very animal-protein focused,” Morgan said.

Many of those customers haven’t had to live without the foods they grew up eating. The food industry is evolving with the demand.

“(Customers) say that there are a lot of ways and different foods out there that allow them to eat in a way that they still get those comfort foods,” Morgan said.

That’s the new Holy Grail for some food companies – vegetarian foods that replicate the carnivore’s food experience so they don’t feel that they’re sacrificing while giving up meat.

Vegetarian options like Boca Burgers and Tofurky now tout their “flame grilled” taste and a new, juicier faux frankfurter. And even in the heart of the meat and potatoes Midwest, food scientists are all over the trend.

Fu-Hung Hsieh, a professor at the University of Missouri in Columbia, and his research scientist colleague Harold Huff have worked for years to develop a plant product that mimics real chicken.

They recently settled on a soy-based strip that they’re hoping to convince consumers is just like any old chicken strip you’d find in your supermarket’s refrigerated section.

“The trick is the fine-ness of the fiber,” Huff said.

The fiber is what makes the texture just right.

“The mouth-feel and appearance in a product is sometimes just as important as the taste,” Huff said. “If it looks bad, people do not want to eat it. If you can make it look like something they’ve already accepted, you’ve got a winner.”

Flexitarians just won’t flock to rubbery meat forgeries.

“That’s why you’re seeing people focus on replicating meat,” said Ethan Brown, president and chief executive officer of Maryland food production company Savage River Farms. The company is working with the University of Missouri and hopes to bring the veggie chicken product to market beginning next month.

Humans have eaten meat for thousands of years, Brown said, so there’s no reason to throw out that accumulated knowledge, even if you’re trying to be more of a vegetarian.

“Why not create something from plants that mimics the taste, texture and appearance of meat to allow us the terrific culture and recipes, etcetera, that we’ve so come to enjoy?,” Brown said.

Even with the product’s launch imminent, Brown is having trouble settling on a name for the veggie strips. On the one hand, he wants it made clear they are fully vegan. On the other, he wants to attract meat-eaters.

For now, I’m splitting the difference and going with the oxymoronic “Veggie Chicken.”

After researching meat alternatives, I had to satiate both my hunger and my curiosity. I invited some friends over to make some fajitas with the veggie chicken thrown in. It ended up a mixed bag.

The regular chicken fajitas we made definitely tasted better. But once I smothered the veggie strip in some sauce, it could probably pass for real chicken pretty well. That’s what the food companies are going for – giving consumers another option.

Bob Sholar, the  flexitarian in Parkville, said he’s skeptical that any vegetarian product can truly have the taste, feel and look of meat.

But like any good Midwesterner, he wouldn’t mind if they kept trying.

“Barbecue, you just can’t find a replacement for barbecue,” Sholar said, longingly. “You can put barbecue sauce on lots of things, but you haven’t replaced the barbecue, so that’s a tough one. If they can come up with a good barbecue sandwich then I think that’ll sell.”

Half a slab of soy ribs? Maybe one day.

Harvest Public Media, based at KCUR, is a collaborative public media project that reports on important agriculture issues in the Midwest. Funded by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Harvest Public Media has reporters at six NPR member stations in the region. To learn more, visit www.harvestpublicmedia.org, like HarvestPublic Media on Facebook or follow @HarvestPM on Twitter.

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