The veggie meat space is an interesting place these days for all sorts of reasons.
For one thing, variations of meat analogues that once were stuck in the frozen section are finally making it to the meat aisle in Safeway stores around the country, thanks to a whole bunch of persistence from the CEO of Beyond Meat. Not to be outdone are the food scientists at the Silicon Valley firm Hampton Creek, which announced this week that it was plotting its own lab-grown meat.
I’d like to make an argument that if either of these kinds of meat have a legitimate shot to make it as a true alternative to the real thing, they should look at the lessons of imitation crab meat. For more than 40 years, surimi has played an important stand-in for different kinds of seafood—and while it’s still actual meat, made from a gel of either Alaskan pollock or Pacific whiting, part of the reason it has managed to succeed in the U.S. market is because it’s both cheaper than the alternative and enough of a stand-in that people won’t be totally put off by it.
In a 1987 New York Times article, David Berelson Jr., who played a key role in bringing the Japan-born Surimi to the U.S. in the 1970s, spoke of the malleability of the material.
"Surimi is like flour to the baker," Berelson explained. "It can be created into any product."
And these days, it’s actually used as such. A recent Thrillist story noted that the material has a way of showing up in fish entrees that would seem like the real deal, like a lobster roll.
But like veggie meat, there are tons of skeptics of imitation crab in no small part to the fact that, unlike imitation beef, it’s generally considered less healthy than the real thing.
A big part of the reason is very similar to the weaknesses of vegetarian meat products: To put it simply, surimi is heavily processed, basically by design. To create the gel for it requires a long, complicated trip to the factory. It’s harder to recreate the illusion than he real thing. If you’re eating a burger from Beyond Meat, the process is probably as convoluted, if not moreso. (But at least in that case, they’re using veggies.)
But it’s hard to compete with the price of imitation crab meat, no matter how you choose to eat it. For every ounce of surimi you buy, you’re spending about a quarter. For ever ounce of lobster, the cost is above three bucks.
“It's basically the cubic zirconia of the seafood game,” writes Thrillist’s Lee Breslouer.
If the veggie meat makers of the world want to top meat, the alternative needs to be both quiet and transparent.
It’ll be tough to beat Boca or Morningstar Farms, but the right approach could win the day.