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The Next Bite: The Marketers

Fake meat needs a better name

An illustration of alphabet soup Cristina Martín Recasens for the Boston Globe

When we talk about the food of the future, we conjure images from science fiction: the pureed brown stuff in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the blue milk of “Star Wars.” It’s not far off from the modern food movements we latch on to today. Algae is the future of food; no, clean meat is; no, bug protein is; no, sustainable vegetarian meat substitutes are; no, bioengineered nutritionally complete powders are.

But what we call the new powders, isolates, mixes, and drinks of the future might help determine whether they become the powders, isolates, mixes, and drinks of the future. Terms like “beef” and “chicken” evolved over centuries. When the foodstuffs of tomorrow suddenly emerge from the lab, where will they get their names?

“Can I tell you the worst name ever?” asks writer and linguist Ben Zimmer, who tracks new words for the journal American Speech. I know exactly what he’s going to say: “Soylent.” The engineered meal replacement, purportedly popular in Silicon Valley, has gotten more attention for its name than for the product itself. The founders claim the product was named for a soy and lentil foodstuff from the novel “Make Room! Make Room!”, which portrays an apocalyptic hellscape of overpopulation. But more people associate the name with the 1973 movie “Soylent Green,” which paints a similar apocalyptic hellscape and adds cannibalism in to the mix. “Everyone’s told us to change the name,” co-founder Rob Rhineheart told The New Yorker in 2014.

Soylent, a meal replacer popular in Silicon Valley, is a name often associated with the apocalyptic movie “Soylent Green.” Rick Kern/Getty Images for Soylent
Soylent, a meal replacer popular in Silicon Valley, is a name often associated with the apocalyptic movie “Soylent Green.”

Allan Metcalf, professor of English at MacMurray College and author of “Predicting New Words: The Secrets of Their Success,” lists five common factors that contribute to a new word’s success, helpfully acronymed as “FUDGE”: frequency of use; unobtrusiveness; diversity of users and situations; generation of other forms and meanings; and endurance of the concept. The more FUDGE factors a new word has, the more likely it will survive. A word that is used a fair amount, dissolves easily into the fabric of the English language, gets used by a lot of different people in different situations, lends itself to syntactic or semantic riffing, and names something that endures is a successful coinage.

It’s “unobtrusiveness” that is the sticking point, notes Zimmer. Most coined names for futuristic foods tend to draw attention to themselves. “It’s a crowded namespace, so creators of new foods look for naming strategies that will set them off from the crowd,” Zimmer says.

Take “aquafaba.” The word was coined in 2015 on a Facebook group devoted to vegan cooking to describe the liquid that beans (and usually chickpeas) were cooked in. In the early part of 2015, some vegan cooks discovered that this liquid can be whipped and used like egg whites, giving meringue-loving vegans a new ingredient in their arsenal.

Since the process of coining “aquafaba” was documented in writing on a Facebook group, it gives us a rare glimpse into word creation in action. The first names to be proposed were fairly transparent, and many were gross: “bean water,” “bean brine,” “bean juice,” “bean mucus,” “bean marrow,” “bean whites,” “bean fluid,” and “bean exudate.” Others threw unobtrusiveness to the wind and went whimsical: “L’egg” (short for “legume egg” and one letter shy of a famous brand of pantyhose), “sea cream” (inspired by the sea, “protein pollution,” and the action of wind and waves), and “gloop” (one assumes that’s onomatopoeic) were proposed. Once figurative names were introduced, neologizers went every which way but “bean.” Some immediately went for what Zimmer calls “a tried-and-true strategy,” the blend: “V’egg,” which is a play on the aforementioned “L’egg” and is a blend of “vegan” and “egg,” and “bloop,” a blend of “bean” and the previously proposed “gloop,” were put forth.

Some took blends and classed them up (“aquafaba,” a compound of the Latin aqua, meaning “water,” and faba, meaning “bean”) and some went for all-out word play (“muslege,” an anagram of “legumes” that brings to mind “mucilage”). There were even a few acronyms, always a crowd pleaser: “ASAM” (Aqueous Substance for Animal-free Meringue) and “VPJ” (Vegan Protein Juice). The Facebook group fairly quickly adopted “aquafaba” as the name for their chickpea egg-white substitute; the 2015 coinage was just added to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary. (Note: I worked for Merriam-Webster at that time but had nothing to do with “aquafaba” being entered into the dictionary.)

Meringues made with aquafaba, a bean-based ingredient Nina Olofsson,
Meringues made with aquafaba, a bean-based ingredient

Naming and branding consultant Nancy Friedman is not a fan of “aquafaba.” “Too Latinate to be lovable,” she writes in an email. “It could be a skin lotion or a pharmaceutical; it doesn’t say ‘delicious’ or even ‘beneficial.’ ” Which underscores an important point: the foods of the future will only become so once they’re widely adopted, which means their names rely heavily on marketing. “A general principle of branding is: make the unfamiliar seem familiar and the familiar seem unfamiliar,” writes Friedman.

Engineered meat substitutes pose a distinct challenge. There are two different kinds of engineered substitutes that lay claim to being the “meat” of the future: ones that are plant-based, and ones that are based on animal tissues grown in a lab. The latter type has gone through its own rebranding before it’s even available in stores. It’s been called “lab-grown meat,” “artificial meat,” “cultured meat,” “test-tube meat,” “in vitro meat,” and, very briefly, “shmeat” (a stunning blend of “sheet” and “meat”). Some food activists have proposed calling it “clean meat,” noting that meat grown in a lab is “clean” in that it has very little environmental impact, like a previously successful phrase, “clean energy.” Detractors of the term say it implies that meat harvested through slaughter must, using the law of inverses, be “dirty.” It’s clear to lexicographers that the name for this hasn’t settled out yet, though “shmeat” seems to have been abandoned.

Impossible Foods makes a plant-based meat alternative. Jason Henry/The New York Times
Impossible Foods makes a plant-based meat alternative.

More familiar are the plant-based meats. The Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger are two well-known examples, and they are different from the veggie burgers of yore by acting as close to beef as possible. Both burgers “bleed ” and “sizzle” when cooked and are proclaimed “juicy” when eaten. The Impossible Burger uses a plant-derived compound called “heme” to make its burger beef-like; heme is a component of hemoglobin, which is what makes our blood red. Vegetarians may squirm at marketing materials that use images of beefy-looking sandwiches — and even of cows, in the Beyond Burger’s case — but perhaps vegetarians aren’t the only target.

For almost 1,000 years, when confronted with a new food item that looks like or is used like an existing food item, we’ve given it the name of the existing food. Soon after “meat” came to be used for the flesh of an animal in the 1300s, it was also applied to other foods, like nuts and eggs, that were used like the flesh of animals or which had a similar texture to the flesh of animals. “Milk” has been used for the extruded liquid of nuts since the 1300s; thick jams and purees of fruit or nuts that were spread over bread have been called “butter” since the early 1800s. All of these gained their names because they acted like or were used in place of the original item. Burgers themselves have been made of eggs, nuts, or other meat substitutes since at least the 1930s, and it’s no longer unusual to see black-bean burgers and turkey burgers on the local pub menu along with beef burgers.

But when we give new foods old names, the producers of the old foods that the new foods are supplanting grow restless. Nowhere is that better exemplified than in the turbulent public life of margarine. The butter substitute was created in 1869 by French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriés as part of a competition to develop a butter substitute for the French armed forces. Mège-Mouriés called his substance, derived from beef tallow, “oleomargarine” — a fanciful blend that draws on the Latin word for “oil” and the Greek word for “pearl.” The butter substitute was cheaper to make than butter. When oleomargarine hit American shores in the 1870s, states with flourishing dairy industries protested loudly. It culminated in the passage of the 1886 Oleomargarine Act, which taxed and regulated the manufacture and sale of margarine — but first defined what butter was. The act begins, “The word ‘butter’ shall be understood to mean the food product usually known as butter, and which is made exclusively from milk or cream, or both, with or without common salt, and with or without additional coloring matter.” The act was not passed to protect consumers from bad margarine; it was passed to protect dairy farmers.

From the late 1800s onward, state and federal governments have issued laws and standards of identity which define, for sales and labeling purposes, hundreds of foods, including peanut butter and white chocolate — and meat.

Vegan burgers are displayed during the Calais Vegan Festival in September in France. PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty Images
Vegan burgers are displayed during the Calais Vegan Festival in September in France.

In June, the Missouri legislature passed a bill clarifying the definition of “meat” for labeling purposes. Anyone selling a product labeled “meat” that is “not derived from production harvested livestock or poultry” would be subject to a fine and up to a year in jail. The US Cattlemen’s Association is asking the US Department of Agriculture to revise its definition of meat in a similar way. A Food and Drug Administration spokeswoman, meanwhile, said via e-mail that the agency is working to “update our current policy on naming a wide variety of plant-based foods that are being positioned in the marketplace as substitutes for dairy and meat products.”

Will artificial “meat” taste as juicy if it has to be called something else? Zimmer mentions one other important consideration when naming the foods of the future. If whatever we eat in 2030 “is a tasteless hockey puck, then all the naming in the world won’t help it.”

Editors Dante Ramos, David Scharfenberg, and Alex Kingsbury

Design and development Elaina Natario

Design Director Heather Hopp-Bruce

Audience engagement Heather Ciras

Illustration Cristina Martín Recasens

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