Video: Lent in the age of the Impossible Burger: Do rules against eating meat on Fridays apply to fake meat?

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CHICAGO — Meat is forbidden on Fridays during Lent, driving many Catholics and other observant Christians to partake in fish frys, seafood specials and McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish during the season.

The explosion of plant-based proteins now offers more options, and a potential conundrum for the faithful: is it OK to indulge in juicy, beef-like burgers that ooze like the real thing but without the verboten animal flesh?

Technically, yes. Faux meat products from the likes of Impossible Foods, made with soy, and Beyond Meat, whose ingredients include pea, rice and mung bean protein, do not run afoul of Lent’s meat abstinence laws, which bar Catholics aged 14 and older from eating animal flesh on Ash Wednesday or any Friday during Lent, save for the aquatic kind. Lent runs Ash Wednesday through Easter Sunday, April 12.

But “you risk losing the whole spirit of it,” said Todd Williamson, director of the Office of Divine Worship at the Archdiocese of Chicago, if you substitute meat with a close copy.

“What’s behind the whole tradition in practice is to go without in order to be in solidarity with those who are hungry, with those who can’t afford meat,” Williamson said. “By going without that we are reminded of others. We experience hunger ourselves. So it’s a bit deeper than whether it’s just a meat product.”

Even so, restaurants and grocers see an opportunity in the Lenten season to promote plant-based meat, whose U.S. sales surged 14% over the year ended Jan. 25 to surpass $1 billion, on top of 18% growth the prior year, according to Nielsen. Traditional meat, a $96 billion industry, rose less than 1% over the past year.

Jewel-Osco is offering an Ash Wednesday buy-one-get-two-free promotion for Pure Farmland plant-based proteins, which include burger patties and meatballs.

M Burger, whose plant-based Impossible Burger has risen to be the chain’s No. 2 seller since making its debut in September 2017, during Lent will offer a limited-time Hatch Green Chili Impossible Burger, topped with white cheddar and sriracha mayo. The menu item, available starting Wednesday through Easter Sunday, was among numerous Lenten specials promoted by restaurant group Lettuce Entertain You, which traditionally has focused on specials at its seafood-focused restaurants.

At Epic Burger, which has six Chicago restaurants and two in the North Shore, sales of its plant-based Beyond Burger rise 10 to 12% on Fridays during Lent compared with prior Fridays, and the company “absolutely” sees Lent as an opportunity to market the product, said marketing manager Spencer Most.

Its email and social media campaigns more heavily push meat-free alternatives during the season, though the company doesn’t explicitly mention Lent to keep the messaging “religion neutral,” Most said. The Beyond Burger, which the company introduced in May 2017, accounts for 13% of the chain’s sales.

“It’s perfect for people who aren’t eating meat who want to indulge without feeling guilty,” Most said.

And therein lies the conundrum. Abstaining from meat during Lent has historically been part of penitential practice to remember the sacrifice that the faithful believe Jesus Christ made on Good Friday, when he was handed over to be crucified. Indulging in pretend meat may not be much of a penance.

“I think it all comes down to the intention and interior disposition of the individual,” said Rebecca Siar, director of campus ministry at St. John Paul II Newman Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

While fake meat products technically comply with abstention requirements, “if someone is just eating them in order to ‘cheat the system’ in a way, then that might defeat the purpose of abstaining from meat in the first place,” she said. “The overall purpose of this Lenten practice is to give something up that is considered a disruption in our normal routine, an intentional sacrifice.”

To that end, the church encourages those who already avoid meat to take up a different form of penance, so a vegetarian might go vegan on Fridays and a vegan might remove alcohol or olive oil, Siar said.

Other religious leaders say believers would be better served by Lent if they focused less on rules and penance and more on finding ways to live a better life. The Rev. Charles Bolser, a retired priest from St. Viator Parish in Old Irving Park, calls meat abstention a “superficial law” and doesn’t think people should fret about eating a plant-based burger.

“For those who want to give up meat I think that’s fine,” Bolser said. “But I don’t think it’s something that you’re forced to do. How does that by itself change the way I live my life? Does it really help me concentrate on becoming a better person? Or is it simply, I’m obeying the rules?”


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