The vegan “bleeding” burger makes for a strange contradiction: inherently paradoxical, more a thought experiment than the sort of thing you can get at Sainsbury's. And yet it is very much a thing. Iceland has been selling the No Bull vegan quarter pounders since the summer. The Moving Mountains B12 Burger can be ordered at Marston's Pubs across the country. Tesco just debuted its Beyond Meat burger. In the US, the Impossible Burger has taken on a kind of cult status. But why do we as humans—even those of us who have forsworn animal products to follow vegan or vegetarian diets—crave the simulacrum of bleeding in our food?
Darlene Juschka, associate professor in Religious and Women’s Studies at the University of Regina, believes it comes down to how we copy things.
“The burger as sign or symbol is a staple in the American diet and its ‘proper’ presentation is red and a little bloody,” she tells me. “In the context of the food industry, where our food is highly processed, food that is authentic and natural is of huge concern. The bloody vegan burger, then, that looks, tastes, and bleeds like the real thing is the real thing.”
Juschka’s research interests include the semiotics of pain and she views the bleeding found in burgers as signifiers of life and strength, invoking animal sacrifices performed in ancient Greece. Here, the blood was intentionally made to spurt and spatter at the altar of the god receiving the sacrifice. “Blood,” she explains, “was vital to life.”
However Juschka also recognises a gendered dimension: the raw and bloody beef burger is associated with a kind of robust masculinity. She sees the simulated bleeding as a way of perhaps making permissible an otherwise “soft” and “feminine” vegan food. This is echoed by Camilla Mørk Røstvik, a fellow at the University of St. Andrews (also a long term vegan), who is researching the visual history of menstruation. She is interested in the ways we find some types of blood more abject than others.
“It is strange how bleeding that signifies a healthy human body is invisibilised,” she says, “but bleeding that is associated with hunting and violence, blood that means you have killed an animal, is acceptable.”
But are all vegan burgers correctly characterised as “bleeding”? Carol J Adams, activist and author of the seminal The Sexual Politics of Meat, believes there is lazy conflating happening when we speak about plant-based burgers. Her most recent book, Burger, explores what she terms the “identity crisis” of burgers. She talks about the development of the two biggest “bleeding” burgers: the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Meat burger. Both products sought to replicate beef burgers at an almost molecular level. The Impossible Burger creators identified bleeding as fundamental to the sensory experience of a burger, conceiving of a plant-based blood. Beyond Meat, however, was more interested in the “Maillard reaction” (a caramelisation process in which the amino acids and sugar in the burger browns the meat) and the way the fat is distributed. Indeed the Beyond Meat website states that it was not the company’s intention to create a bleeding burger, but rather the use of beetroot gave the patty a red meat appearance, leading “some in the media to remark that the burger ‘bleeds.’”
Adams puts this preoccupation with bleeding in vegan burgers down to simple stereotyping. “This patriarchal labelling is confusing what the plant-based burgers are accomplishing,” she tells me. “We don’t know how to think outside the burger.”
“It’s hot, salty, and fat. It’s a Proustian reminder of previous carnivorous exploits."
According to Adams, this fixation is eclipsing the real narrative: the environmental and ethical case against meat.
“We reduce the conversation down to this one thing, this lowest common denominator, which isn’t even a common denominator!” she says, adding that plant-based burgers often aren’t specifically targeted at vegans, and so the question of why a vegan would want to eat a bleeding burger is moot.
“These burgers are not made for vegans,” she says. “The [beef] burger’s time is over. Perhaps they're trying to appeal to the person most insecure about giving up meat?"
This is something the founder of the Moving Mountains burger, the UK’s biggest vegan “bleeding” burger, Simeon Van der Molen, attests to, stating that the product is aimed at the flexitarian market or “people looking for meat-free products that taste good enough to convert the most committed carnivores.” Interestingly, Van der Molen also tells me that when marketing the burgers, the company focused on using language associated with meat—such as the “sizzle” of cooking burgers and their “juiciness”—as opposed to consciously replicating bleeding.
And having sampled one of the Moving Mountains burgers, it wasn’t the “bleeding” which particularly struck me, which was only apparent when cutting the thing in half and giving it a good squeeze (and even then, it was just a pallid pink, not especially bloody at all). It was the fibrousness, the sinewy bittiness of it, the juiciness. Previously voracious meat-eater-turned-vegetarian Richard Scott sees the bleeding of vegan burgers as more representative of the ceremony of eating a good burger: the juices running into the bun and soaking into the salad, leaving a little puddle on your plate that you can dip your fries into.
“It’s hot, salty, and fat,” he tells me. “It’s a Proustian reminder of previous carnivorous exploits. It’s gross and generally regrettable—and that’s exactly what I’ve been missing.”
Like Scott, I understand the appeal of a truly bleeding burger. There can be a kind of posturing within veganism and vegetarianism that claims to find meat repulsive when actually, it is entirely possible to think meat tastes delicious, but to negate eating it for ethical or environmental reasons.
Adams likens bleeding burgers to sprinkling turmeric on a tofu scramble to make it look more egg-like. “It’s aesthetically pleasing,” she says. The same can probably be said of the burger that oozes with entirely plant-based but shockingly realistic juices.