Stories

Why Thanksgiving isn't meatless

Illustration of a mini turkey in a petri dish
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Plant-based alternatives to meat have found their way into upscale restaurants and fast-food joints alike, but the trend hasn't really cracked Thanksgiving — one of the biggest meat-eating days of the year.

The big picture: Companies have made big strides in re-creating the taste of burgers and chicken nuggets with plant protein, but there are relatively few vegan options for the Thanksgiving turkey.

  • With more Americans embracing plant-based diets, a meatless turkey could rake in profits for the company that gets closest to the classic taste.

The backdrop: The most popular vegan alternative to the Thanksgiving centerpiece is Tofurky, which hit the market around 25 years ago. But even that product doesn't aim to re-create turkey's unique taste.

One reason companies haven't attempted a faux turkey is because it's much easier to re-create the texture and flavor of a processed meat product — like burgers or sausages — than it is to mimic something like steak or roasted chicken.

  • "Technically, it's super hard to make something have the texture of the muscle of an animal," says Ricardo San Martin, research director of the alternative meat program at UC Berkeley. "Turkey meatballs, for example, would be easier."
  • Re-creating the fattiness of a roasted bird is also difficult with plant protein, experts say.
  • On top of that, "Turkey is more of a niche market than chicken," says Glenn Hurowitz, who runs the environmental advocacy organization Mighty Earth. There’s been less investment in plant-based turkey than chicken.

The stakes: While eating beef has the steepest environmental impact — a diet that includes beef has 10 times the climate impact of a plant-based diet — other types of meat-eating hurt the planet, too, Hurowitz says.

  • A diet that includes chicken has three times the impact of a plant-based one.
  • For turkey and pork, it's four to six times.

But, but, but: "The biggest obstacle to plant-based turkey is how central eating turkey is to the Thanksgiving tradition," says Hurowitz. "It has meaning and values and traditions, so that's very hard to replace," San Martin says.

The bottom line: When considering the deep and wide-ranging climate effects of the meat industry, switching to a plant-based diet is one of the most impactful actions individuals can take to reduce their carbon footprint, experts say.

  • But while plant-based meat products are gaining popularity in the U.S., overall meat consumption is going up, too. Says San Martin, "One is not replacing the other."