Increased sales of meat substitutes suggest a growing number of flexitarians are moving closer to the full-fledged vegetarian end of the dietary spectrum, says a co-cordinator of this weekend's Vegfest at Seattle Center.
About three percent of American adults call themselves vegetarians, but studies have shown a significant number of them occasionally eat meat. A poll conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture revealed two out of every three self-identified vegetarians had eaten meat in the previous 24 hours.
Vegfest organizer Stewart Rose, vice president of Vegetarians of Washington and author of The Vegetarian Solution, says these transitional vegetarians are among the most enthusiastic consumers of the animal flesh analogues that have lately been flooding the non-meat market. In 2011, sales of meat substitutes, including fake riblets and imitation chicken nuggets, were up ten percent from three years earlier, the Wall Street Journal recently reported.
"Sales of these products are through the roof," Rose says. "People are moving in a vegetarian direction."
At Vegfest, the nation's largest vegetarian food festival, food manufacturers will offer samples of newly-developed meat substitutes, including vegan seafood.
"We'll have bacon that isn't bacon, cheese with no dairy and even shrimp that's not shrimp," Rose promises. "I've heard reports of people's cats meowing when people open the cans."
Fake meat isn't a modern concept. As early as the 1890s, John Harvey Kellogg was promoting a peanut cutlet that could be seasoned to taste like veal or salmon. He later experimented with soy-based analogues, presaging the mid-century invention of the meatless hot dog.
Controversy over analogues dates back nearly as far. There are vegetarians who believe fake meat perpetuates an appetite for animals, and helps normalize a practice they consider immoral.
"Some people would like to have a lentil loaf because they don't want to be reminded of the slaughterhouse, and I don't blame them," Rose says.
Rose, who's adhered to a strict vegan diet for 33 years, isn't ethically opposed to fake meat.
"I get urges for a hot dog when I listen to a ball game in the summer," he admits. "I love those Tofurkey dogs."
Advances in meat science mean analogues are now much more palatable than Kellogg's nut paste, Rose adds.
"The quality of vegetarian food has improved," he says. "People used to think they were in a bind, they could have healthy food or delicious food. You don't have to sacrifice good taste."
More than 500 foods will be available for tasting at Vegfest, including such traditional vegetarian staples as baked tofu, curry and soy milk. But Rose says he doesn't expect the 50 percent of Vegfest attendees who aren't vegetarian to immediately gravitate to dishes that might challenge a committed carnivore's palate.
"We believe everyone should proceed at their own pace and do the best they can," he says.