Over half of all Americans say that global climate change is a crisis, but less than 5 percent are vegetarians. These statistics always boggle me; eating vegetarian is one of the simplest ways to significantly combat climate change, with some studies estimating that the diet could cut greenhouse gas emissions and save as many as 7.3 million lives by 2050. So why aren't more people who claim to be worried about the climate adopting plant-based lifestyles?
There are, of course, any number of reasons, ranging from the popular misconception that vegetarianism is only accessible to the wealthy and white, to the fact that some people just don't want to give up their hamburgers. An enormous part of the reluctance to go veg, though, is cultural, and unfortunately a new spate of truly hideous brand names aren't exactly helping the cause.
Take, for example, MorningStar's newly-announced line of "plant-based meats" called — wait for it — Incogmeato. The "it's so bad it's nearly good" name of the meat substitute line highlights a branding trend dating back to the mid-20th century in which meat substitutes attempted to pass themselves off as real meat without actually calling themselves meat. This is, presumably, supposed to be appetizing; the idea being that a vegetarian customer craving turkey will gravitate toward a product called "Tofurky," a word that, in actuality, no one wants to say aloud, and when one does, is about as humiliating as ordering an idiotic drink like a "Sex on the Beach."
But for decades, these vegetarian-friendly portmanteaus have reigned supreme, from the popular "pleather" in the 1980s to brands like Scheese, Soyrizo, and Baconnaise. The names are intended to tip you off to their flavor profile, but in actuality often do themselves a disservice by inviting the comparison at all (and that's to say nothing of the unappetizing Frankenstein's monster quality about the fused names, which remain in my mind just a hop, skip, and a jump away from the truly grisly Turducken). Misspellings are another popular way to invoke a flavor — Toona, Chik'n — while the latest trend seems to be increasingly ludicrous burger superlatives: Impossible, Incredible, Beyond.
The marketing impulse, at least, I understand, and can perhaps best be understood by the coinage of the not-so-terrible "aquafaba," which played out in real time on Facebook in 2015. Aquafaba ("the translucent viscous goop you probably rinse down the drain when you open a can of chickpeas" -Bon Appétit) is used as a vegan egg substitute, and was arrived at by a Facebook Group that combined the Latin words for "bean" and "water." After all, "bean water" (née "bean juice," "that leftover chickpea stuff," "translucent viscous goop") doesn't exactly get your stomach grumbling in anticipation of a tasty meal. Just as "steak" and "sweetbreads" help separate us from "hunk of murdered moo-moo flesh" and "something's thymus gland," vegetarian products need a better name than "textured soy protein" to land themselves in your shopping cart.
The problem is, the names that are settled on aren't only marginally more appealing, they're actually infantilizing to vegetarians. Being reduced to eating something called a "Not Dog" makes a mockery of a legitimate, ancient, and often holy lifestyle; and it perpetuates the myth that vegetarians are in constant pursuit of finding a way to eat the very thing they've willingly, and often joyfully, given up. Yet goofy wordplay calls to mind knock-off brands like "Prongles" and "Kat Kots" — something cheap and inferior, or marketed specifically at kids. Vegetarian food names are so glaringly bad that they loan themselves to endless easy parody; earlier this spring, Eater published a list of its own ideas for "the next big 'unicorn' fake beef company out there," including the realistic-sounding Implausiburger, Unbelievaburger, and Bürger.
This is no petty complaint; names are extremely important when it comes to the perception of food, as is evident by the American ranching and dairy industry's panic over vegetarians co-opting words like "bacon," "patty," and "sausage" for meatless products. A number of states are even seeing legal cases brought by the meat industry over "deceptive marketing," with the most high-profile instances being over the sanctity of the word "milk" to only refer to fluid from mammalian glands (I maintain that literally no one has ever picked up a carton of Oatly and thought "hmm this must be cow milk"). Never mind that nut milks have been called "milks" since literally the 1300s; we're living through a strange time when the government is actually having to legally determine when something can have a meaty-sounding name.
It's not that there shouldn't be meat substitutes — the pitch of trendy new products like the Impossible Whopper is that they'll appeal to meat eaters who also want to start limiting their animal protein consumption — but rather that by giving the products cutesy names, the perception of vegetarianism as an inferior, or only reluctantly-adopted, diet won't go away. Eating vegetarian ought to be celebrated for its full and rewarding range of flavors and foods: a membrillo and stilton quiche, say, or gingered sweet potato and mung bean curry or roasted tomatillo and poblano shakshuka. All delicious-sounding on their own; no meat puns required.