Brow Beat

Bacon Increases Your Risk of Cancer. Are Any Vegetarian Substitutes Worth Eating? 

Sweet Earth Benevolent Bacon.

Sweet Earth Natural Foods

Just about everyone likes bacon, and no one likes cancer. So when the World Health Organization announced in October that bacon causes cancer, America’s knee-jerk reaction was perhaps expected. First came shock, then denial, then moral outrage. “Bring on the cancer,” one Slate editor declared. On Twitter, the hashtag #JeSuisBacon began trending. The pandemonium was such that academics had to reassure America that bacon was not as bad as cigarettes, while level-headed journalists tried to properly explain the WHO’s carcinogen classification system.

Yet all the outrage couldn’t change the fact that America’s favorite breakfast meat was now linked to serious health problems. As a vegetarian and proponent of many soy products, I wondered: What about those who worshipped bacon and cared about their health?  Was there a way for these conscientious bacon acolytes to enjoy the flavor and experience of bacon, without all the carcinogens?

To answer this question, I decided to host a fake bacon taste test. Under the guise of brunch, I would serve a group of seven friends four types of fake bacon made from various soy and wheat products, which they would rate for bacon-iness or lack thereof. I would also hand them scorecards on which they would jot down their reactions in the categories of taste, texture, and appearance; overall impression; overall score; and “what’s missing?” Then, I would average their ratings into a single score ranging from zero pigs (inedible) to five pigs (virtually indistinguishable from bacon). 

On the day of truth, I served up the “bacons” alongside more obviously edible foodstuffs like rosemary cheddar biscuits, maple syrup, and orange juice. My goal was to answer the question: Could vegetarian bacon be just as satisfying, delicious, and versatile as flesh from a pig’s belly?

Let’s just say it’s a good thing my friends love free food.

1. Sweet Earth Benevolent Bacon, $5.79

We started with the most appetizing looking of the four, which is not saying much. But Benevolent Bacon did a good job of disguising its true nature: It was a velvety red-brown, with darkened edges, as if it had actually been smoked on a grill. However, as I fried it in olive oil in a cast-iron pan, I found it difficult to tell when the “bacon” was actually done: it didn’t crisp, crinkle, or do anything else that bacon typically does. Instead, it lay there, prone, like a stick of cardboard. The taste, according to my guinea pigs, wasn’t much better: “It neither tastes, nor looks, nor feels like bacon,” came the first verdict from Slate’s Jacob Brogan. “Like a limp fake meat lasagna noodle,” wrote another taster on her scorecard. “Or burnt fruit leather,” agreed Slate intern Greta Weber. She generously added: “I wouldn’t not eat it.”

Score: 🐷🐷🐷

2. Tofurky Smoky Maple Bacon Tempeh, $4.19

If Benevolent Bacon at least could claim to look like bacon, then our second contender had no such legs to stand on. This tempeh-based product—tempeh, for the uninitiated, is made of sheets of compressed, fermented soybeans—came in thick, firm, graying strips. The impression was that of a “dead, gray finger,” according to multiple tasters. The texture was “like oatmeal bread/sunflower seeds,” wrote one. “Could be firmer and have more appealing color and shape—This one would benefit from hiding its appearance in a larger dish, like a stacked burger,” wrote David, who was our only token vegetarian besides me. “Kept eating to figure out why it was so terrible,” bemoaned Mike on his scorecard. “But the terribleness defied description…Why did I eat it all.” “Ugh, oh god,” cried Jacob aloud. “No! No! … ah, this is disgusting.” I’ll refrain from trying to transcribe the other noises he made.

Score: 🐷

3. Lightlife Smart Bacon, $5.29

The sentiment came out as half-declaration, half-question, as incredulous as if someone had just put a handful of dirt in his mouth and found it to be edible: “I kind of … like this?” The speaker was Carter, a bacon enthusiast so enthusiastic that he had insisted on bringing a 3-pound package of actual bacon—“control bacon,” he said, to help legitimize the “scientific experiment”—to my vegetarian bacon party. Yet even Carter was clearly at least partly won over by our third sample.

This bacon substitute looked, again, like burnt cardboard. But, with the application of heat, it crisped up nicely, becoming brittle and crumbly like the muscly part of bacon, or bacon bits. (Note: the floppy parts weren’t as good.) What was missing, as with all of our contenders, was the fatty mouthfeel of bacon, the marbling effect, or, as Greta put it, “all that glistening grease.” But it would certainly do the trick in a salad or BLT. “Satisfying, ultimately,” wrote David. “Thin, crispy, meat-like color, tastes more like bacon than the others. Which is… ‘good’—I guess?”

Score: 🐷🐷🐷🐷

4. Organic Fakin’ Bacon Tempeh Strips, $4.99

Alas, we ended on another tempeh-based sample. This one wasn’t even going through the effort of pretending: The bean strips in their raw form looked a mold-colored, unappetizing gray. I had distinctly low expectations as I cooked them on the cast-iron pan with a light coating of oil. But perhaps that was just my fake bacon saturation talking.

No one else seemed to have much enthusiasm for this one either, nor were we willing to refer to it as bacon. Tasters especially took issue with the flavoring: people did not appreciate the addition of smoky maple flavoring, which was both unnecessary and unconvincing. “Trying too hard to be smoky,” wrote Greta; “Too much fake smoke,” wrote another. The beans tasted as if they had been spritzed with barbecue sauce. “It’s like mesquite lentils,” as Carter put it. Missing: integrity.

Score: 🐷🐷

Afterward, we sat back in our seats to digest our plant protein and consider how this experience had inflected our relationship with bacon. Lauren, a meat-eater, thought for a moment. “What I don’t like,” she said thoughtfully, using her tongue to explore the leftover pieces of fermented bean that had lodged themselves between her molars, “is the way it’s trying to pass itself off as bacon. I would have been much more satisfied if it didn’t masquerade as meat.” The rest of the table nodded gravely in agreement. It seemed that Lauren had captured a universal sentiment: There was something jarring, disconcerting, and vaguely offensive about soy protein trying to imitate meat, when clearly it was so clearly smushed beans. It was almost … insulting.

But why should it be?

It’s easy to say that, because I’m vegetarian, I don’t understand the bacon experience. But I sure know a cult following when I see one. When people call it sacrilege to imitate bacon, what they’re really saying is that bacon is something pure—an immutable, unparalleled, almost spiritual experience. And therein lies the problem. Bacon isn’t the be-all and end-all of foods. It is a thin, rectangular piece of a pig, composed of approximately half fat and half muscle, treated with salt, flavorings, and spices.

As a vegetarian, I actually liked all of the “bacons” in question; I found them hearty, filling, and pleasantly textured. But I agree in part with Lauren’s assessment—in my view, tempeh, soy, and tofu don’t need to masquerade as pseudo-meat products, as I’ve written before in Slate. (Just do you, gross squished finger tempeh meat!) When they do seek to imitate, they create a case of mismatched expectations. It was like the “cauliflower steak” I had recently at Founding Farmers: It was great grilled cauliflower, but not so much “steak.”

The problem isn’t the idea of vegetarian bacon; it’s our illogical attachment to this one particular meat product. It’s bacon that needs to stop masquerading as the pinnacle of gastronomic goodness—and us who need to stop elevating it.