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Omnivorous

What's for dinner this year?

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BEYOND BEEF  Americans love hamburgers, but the search for more ecologically sound alternatives to factory-farmed meat has given rise to the meatless Impossible burger and other vegan substitutes.
  • BEYOND BEEF Americans love hamburgers, but the search for more ecologically sound alternatives to factory-farmed meat has given rise to the meatless Impossible burger and other vegan substitutes.

One issue poised to dominate 2017 is the place of meat in the modern human diet. The issue strikes at the core of our omnivorous nature, while tugging at our heart strings and challenging our intellects.

The more I learn about the impact the meat industry has on world hunger, our changing climate and other facets of our environment, the more foolhardy and selfish eating animal products appears to be—unless, perhaps, you're raising or hunting your own, or purchasing from a livestock operation that's sensitive to its environmental footprint.

By contrast, consumer interest in the quality of life experienced by the animals that provide us their meat, organs and secretions has spiked. The likes of Walmart and McDonald's are happy to oblige, having pledged to phase out their use of chicken eggs that were laid in a cage. Whether the chickens are truly any better off is an open question.

Not coincidentally, 2016 was the year that the veggie burger came into its own, largely on the back of the Impossible Foods burger. This plant-based, umami-rich patty sizzles and browns in the pan, and sheds plant-based red "blood" with each bite you take. Even the least apologetic of meat eaters surveyed have admitted to respecting the Impossible burger, fortified with wheat and potato protein and lubed with coconut oil.

The fake-animal-product space has also exploded with the likes of vegan cheese alternatives made from cultured nuts, pink-hued fake shrimp and crab meat, nut- and grain-based "milk" products like almond milk and soy milk, egg-free "mayo" and every kind of vegan substitute for eggs, chicken and most every other piece of flesh or fluid you can imagine.

It's not just vegans who are into this stuff. Locavores, climatarians, ovo-lacto-paleo-bacon-vores and good old-fashioned omnivores are finding their way to animal-product-free alternatives for entirely different reasons.

Me, I eat meat. Mostly wild game, for which I feel zero guilt, assuming the hunt goes well. While I don't avoid animal products as a rule, I do limit my intake of milk products. I know it isn't cool to admit it, but I like soy milk. I like milk, too. And heavy cream. And cheese, though I long ago settled on mayonnaise as my go-to cheese alternative.

The various animal-product industries have not been pleased with these developments, and pushed back big-time in 2016. Unilever, owner of the Hellmanns and Best Foods brands of mayo, took vegan-food processor Hampton Creek to court for using the word "mayo" on the label of its egg-free mayonnaise substitute, Just Mayo. The National Dairy Council attempted, and failed, to make it illegal to use the word "milk" to describe nut- and grain-based milk substitutes like soy or almond milk.

In 2016, public understanding and perceptions of fat continued to be turned inside out, especially saturated fat, which has long been assumed to be the culprit behind obesity and related ailments, like heart disease. Once practically unassailable, this position is now being openly questioned, as expert opinion is shifting to the camp that regards sugar as the primary dietary culprit behind obesity.

"Saturated fat" is a fancy way of saying "animal fat," but with one big exception: a pair of oils, coconut and palm, derived from closely related tree species. Saturated fats are increasingly understood to benefit brain health, as well as other crucial body functions. The relative merits of unsaturated fats, meanwhile—especially those found in grain-based oils like canola, safflower, sunflower and soy—seem to worsen the more we learn about omega-6 fatty acids, in which the grain-based oils are high.

And it isn't clear that all meat is bad for the environment, either. A vocal minority of ranchers are making the ecology-based case that certain landscapes can benefit from properly managed herds of certain ungulates. In the absence of buffalo and other native grazers, many ecosystems could spin out of control without tasty creatures like cows to fill that vital niche.

Rotational grazing, if done correctly, can result in healthier ecosystems and carbon sequestration, proponents claim. It's a compelling vision, but even if it's true, the cattle-carrying capacity of the landscape is much less under rotational grazing than under traditional feedlots. If the world were to make a dramatic switch to rotational grazing, it would mean a lot less meat to go around.

This could be the year of the fight over the legal definition of the word "burger." It will be a year of glory and evolution for imperfect produce, and in celebrating the innate beauty of plant parts. But amid the angst, celebration and exploration of a plant-based diet, don't be surprised if meat makes a little comeback too. The relative places of meat and plants in an omnivorous animal in a modern context will continue to be a fluid, evolving situation in 2017.

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