A vegetarian burger is a meatless patty made of ground grains or soybean curd, and vegetables. It is often referred to as a veggieburger.
Americans' love affair with hamburgers began sometime in the 1850s when German immigrants introduced the Hamburg steak to their new country. Made with a mixture of ground beef and seasonings and served on a roll, it quickly became the quintessential American meal. In fact, hamburgers were the foundation for the proliferation of fast-food chain restaurants in the United States and eventually around the world. A fat content of 15-30% supplies the juicy taste that consumers love, but has also been linked to health problems. This, and the rise in popularity of a vegetarian diet, led food processors to develop a meatless burger.
Although the term vegetarian did not exist until the 1800s, the theory or practice of following a meatless diet can be traced as far back as the first millennium. The Buddhist religion forbade the killing of animals for food. Buddhist priests who had spent time in China were responsible for introducing tofu, a white cheeselike substance that results from the soaking or boiling of soybeans, to Japan in the eighth century. The sixth century B.C. Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras advocated a kinship between humans and animals, and his followers often adhered to a vegetarian diet. Plato, Epicurus, and Plutarch were other early vegetarians.
In the Christian religion, the avoidance of meat has often been viewed as a penance. Some monastic orders forbid the consumption of meat. For centuries, Catholics were instructed to forgo meat on Fridays and even now avoid it during the season of Lent. In the 1800s, the Bible Christians sect was created when a group separated from the Church of England, citing the Bible's prohibition of meat consumption as one reason for the split. William Metcalf, a Bible Christian minister, and 41 followers, arrived in the United States in 1817. One of those followers was Sylvester Graham who traveled the country extolling the virtues of vegetarianism. One of his particular favorite foodstuffs was whole grain flour, and it is from him that we got Graham crackers.
By 1847, British Bible Christians had established the Vegetarian Society of Great Britain. The American Vegetarian Society followed in 1850. Up until this time, the primary impetus for following a vegetarian diet was a concern for animal life. In the twentieth century, the healthful benefits of a meatless diet became another, equally compelling force. Once again, this came from within the religious community: the Church of Seventh Day Adventists, which claims that 50% of its members and nearly 100% of its clergy are practicing vegetarians.
One of its most famous members was John Harvey Kellogg of corn flake fame. Kellogg was physician-in-chief of the Adventist-run Western Health Reform Institute in Battle Creek, Michigan. Kellogg believed that meat consumption was ruinous to the human colon and thus the Institute's kitchen was strictly vegetarian. Kellogg and his wife developed the first meat substitute, a seasoned peanut and flour mixture called nuttose. Worthington Foods, the country's oldest vegetarian foods company, was established in 1939. Its initial target market was members of the Church of Seventh Day Adventists. Today, the company produces a veggieburger under its Morningstar Farms brand.
By the 1960s, vegetarian restaurants were cropping up throughout the United States. In 1971, Diet for a Small Planet, by Frances Moore Lappe was published. Although Lappe's purpose was to alert the public to the negative effects of animal farming on the environment and people rather than to write a treatise on vegetarianism, her book convinced many to drop meat from their diet. Equally influential was the burgeoning animal rights movement, buoyed by the publication in 1975 of Animal Liberation by Peter Singer, and the founding of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in 1980.
By the close of the twentieth century, vegetarianism was enjoying its strongest popularity, with an estimated 15 million practitioners in the United States alone. An entire industry devoted to the processing of high-protein vegetable foods to simulate the taste of meat has evolved.
One successful meatless burger company is Gardenburger, Inc., founded by Paul Wenner. Wenner became interested in the correlation between nutrition and health in the 1960s. Chronically ill most of his life, Wenner experimented with various food combinations and ultimately became a vegetarian. After working as a cooking teacher for a number of years, he opened the Gardenhouse restaurant and Gourmet Cooking School in Gresham, Oregon. It was here that the original Gardenburger, a mixture of mushrooms, brown rice, onions, oats, and low fat cheeses, was created. In 1985, he was forced to close the restaurant. Undaunted, he established Wholesome and Hearth Foods, Inc., and began to distribute his meatless burger nationwide.
Other major brands include Boca Burger and Harvest Burger. Although some of the smaller firms produce their veggieburgers by hand, most companies employ modern food-processing machinery.
Veggieburgers are created with a variety of ingredients including, but not limited to soybeans, rice, whole wheat, black beans, corn, lentils, mushrooms, carrots, and zucchini. Some companies add stabilizers such as tapioca starch and vegetable gum. These ingredients are purchased from outside suppliers and then processed in-house. When the grains and vegetables arrive at the plant, they are examined for quality. Rotted specimens are discarded.
The Food and Drug Administration issues strict standards for the commercial processing of food. These regulations include sterilization of factory equipment, quality of ingredients, and storage safeguards. Raw materials are tasted and judged visually upon their arrival at the plant. Tasters also sample the product at various points along the processing line.
While the trend toward a more healthful diet is expected to continue, it is not readily apparent that the veggieburger will become an integral part of that diet. The primary challenge facing companies that produce meatless burgers is to create a patty that pleases palates accustomed to beef and the fat that gives it its flavor.
On the positive side, the products received major media coverage toward the end of the 1990s. Boca Burgers were served at the White House and in the Senate. Gardenburger's consumer market share jumped from 24-51% after it purchased advertising time on "Seinfeld," a popular television program. However, most industry analysts think that the real breakthrough will only occur if one of the major hamburger chains, such as Burger King or McDonald's, puts a veggieburger on the menu.
Messina, Virginia and Mark Messina. The Vegetarian Way. New York: Harmony Books, 1996.
Wenner, Paul. GardenCuisine: Heal Yourself. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.
"Veggieburgers Are Ringing Up Meaty Sales." Chicago Tribune, 6 December 1998, sec. 5, p. 1.
Boca Burger. http://www.bocaburger.com (March 4, 1999).
Gardenburger, Inc. 1997. http://www.gardenburger.com (March 4, 1999).
Worthington Foods. http://www.momingstarfarms.com (March 4,1999).
— Mary McNulty