When Michael Weber gave up animal products in 2003, the packaged food industry didn't have much to sell him.
"That early vegan food was either really hippy-ish or really processed," Weber tells The Salt. "It wasn't that high quality."
Nowadays, a stroll through a grocery store might just lead you to a freezer or cooler jammed with dozens of flavors of veggie burgers, meatless buffalo wings, dairy-free cheese and ice cream, and maple bacon tempeh.
Indeed, a U.S. product database found that 110 new meat substitute products were introduced in 2010 and 2011. And according to SymphonyIRI Group, a market research firm, frozen meat substitute sales reached $267 million in 2011.
All those new products are giving people who are looking for tasty alternatives to meat a lot more choice. And they're making it easier for Weber and his organization, Farm Animal Rights Movement, or FARM, to persuade people to limit the meat in their diets.
This year, FARM has 20 companies that make meatless food products as sponsors for its Great American Meatout, up from 13 sponsors last year. The Meatout is Mar. 20 event that promotes a plant-based diet by handing out free food samples.
This year's Meatout is playing out at 300 events around the country, including some where activists will offer a tiny payment and free food to people willing to watch a video on the livestock industry.
"Showing people the graphic footage has been what gets the most people interested in reducing their consumption of animal products," says Weber.
But convincing them that meat substitutes — with familiar names like sausage and beef tips — can taste really good is just as important, he says.
"People need to know it's going to be very convenient and palatable," he says. "If they don't think it's going to be enjoyable, they won't do it."
The meat substitute industry also seems to have figured this out. One way companies have innovated is by improving the texture of veggie burgers and other fake meat products to more closely mimic the chewiness of meat. Companies like Garden Protein International rely mainly on soy protein and wheat gluten as well as grain flours to recreate the density of flesh.
"Meatless products used to be either too gummy or too chewy," says Weber. "Now they're a lot closer to the meat they're replacing."
The growing success of meatless products isn't lost on the traditional meat industry. In an article earlier this month on the site MeatPoultry.com, one writer called some of the new "meat analog products ... impressive." And he lamented that meat producers haven't yet seen the business opportunity in meat substitutes: "I'm still waiting for some brave meat company to enter the meat analog arena."