Fish sandwiches equal Lent: Maybe there's a religion hook in this meatless burger trend?

First, a confession: Which is a good thing during Great Lent.

I totally admit that the following headline caught my eye because, as Eastern Orthodox folks, my family is currently in the middle of the great pre-Pascha (Easter in the West) in which we strive to fast from meat and dairy. It’s a season in which the Orthodox have been known to debate the merits of various tofu brands and ponder the miracle that is apple butter.

Every now and then, people like me end up traveling — which means looking for Lenten options in the rushed, fallen world of fast food. Thus, you can understand why I noticed this headline in the business section of The New York Times: “Behold the Beefless ‘Impossible Whopper’.” Here’s the overture:

OAKLAND, Calif. — Would you like that Whopper with or without beef?

This week, Burger King is introducing a version of its iconic Whopper sandwich filled with a vegetarian patty from the start-up Impossible Foods. The Impossible Whopper, as it will be known, is the biggest validation — and expansion opportunity — for a young industry that is looking to mimic and replace meat with plant-based alternatives.

Impossible Foods and its competitors in Silicon Valley have already had some mainstream success. The vegetarian burger made by Beyond Meat has been available at over a thousand Carl’s Jr. restaurants since January and the company is now moving toward an initial public offering.

As I dug into this story, I had this thought: I realize that there is a religion angle here for strange people like me. But would the Times team include any kind of reference to the other religion angles linked to lots of other people who avoid beef?

Obviously, there are millions of Hindus in America and many of them avoid beef, for religious reasons. Then there are Buddhists who are vegetarians or vegans. Among Christian flocks, many Seventh-day Adventists strive to be vegetarians.

Then there is the Lent thing. Is there a religion angle to several fast-food empires — even Chick-fil-A, for heaven’s sake — emphasizing fish sandwiches during this Christian penitential season? #DUH

So I wasn’t looking for lots of religion-beat style content in this story. But maybe a paragraph noting the increasingly complex religious landscape in the American food marketplace?

Well, the Times team did cover the environmental angle in the story — as in the increasingly intense debates about the impact of cows (being discreet here) on the earth’s atmosphere. That’s a valid angle.

Also, it’s clear that beef-free burgers in 7,200 Burger King locations (the initial Impossible Whopper rollout is in 59 restaurants in the St. Louis area) would represent a massive change in the American fast-food world. This is the big story angle here, and I get this.

On the business side, here is another valid angle. Journalists: Remember the PR and legal wars when Oprah went after Big Beef?

Cattle ranchers have also criticized Impossible for calling its product meat and have promoted state-level legislation that would limit how Impossible and other alternative meat companies can market themselves.

As a near-retiree who is a bit gravity-challenged, I also appreciated this paragraph:

On the health side, the Burger King version of the Impossible burger will have about the same amount of protein as the regular Whopper, with 15 percent less fat and 90 percent less cholesterol.

Then, obviously, there is this question: Are the burgers any good? The PR team was ready for that one:

Burger King’s chief marketing officer, Fernando Machado, said that in the company’s testing so far, customers and even employees had not been able to tell the difference between the old meaty Whopper and the new one.

“People on my team who know the Whopper inside and out, they try it and they struggle to differentiate which one is which,” Mr. Machado said.

So what’s the bottom line here?

I this case, I would argue that the religion angle in this story is actually part of the business-angle bottom line. These products are being introduced into a more complex American marketplace, in terms of faith groups and people with beliefs that affect diet. I would love, for example, to know the percentage of “nones” who are vegans, for example.

These statistics will affect the success of these products.

Plus, this story is running during Lent. Oh, right. I led with that.

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