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Trying Impossible Pork as a practicing Muslim was super weird

The plant-based product from Impossible Foods doesn't contain any actual pig meat. But for those who avoid pork for religious reasons, it may still be tough to swallow.

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With Impossible Pork, I was able to taste an off-limits meat for the first time.
Abrar Al-Heeti/CNET

"This feels so wrong," I think as I lift the sandwich to my mouth. My hands are shaking and doubt starts to creep in. I fight off the hesitation and take a bite. 

It's hard to taste the "meat" at first. The flavor combines with those of carrots, cucumbers and cilantro in the banh mi. I break off a chunk to taste it by itself, untainted. It has a chewy consistency and a flavor similar to that of chicken, albeit with more of a savory, smoky essence. 

"So this is what pork tastes like," I think. I put the sandwich down after a couple of bites and call it a day. "I think I've done enough damage."

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As a lifelong practicing Muslim, I've never eaten pork. Billions of people around the world also avoid the meat because of religious or dietary restrictions, as it's forbidden in interpretations of faiths including Islam, Judaism and some sects of Christianity. But what I'm eating now is a new plant-based substitute for the popular meat, made by Impossible Foods, the California-based company home to lab-grown "meat" products such as the Impossible Burger. I visited the company's Redwood City headquarters in late 2019 to sample Impossible Pork, before its debut at CES 2020 in Las Vegas. The product finally became available commercially in September of this year. 

Impossible Pork looks, smells and cooks like the real thing. It's slightly disconcerting.

CNET

Impossible Foods says its pork creation, which is certified gluten-free, can be used as a substitute for ground pork in any recipe. It doesn't contain any animal hormones or antibiotics, and the company says it offers the same "savory neutrality" as ground meat from pigs. (While I obviously can't attest to this, my pork-eating CNET colleagues agree.)

It can be hard to mentally separate this plant-based substitute from its pig-derived counterpart. That's one downside to creating something that so closely emulates real pork, I suppose. 

Sure, there have been times I've bitten into a slice of pizza to discover pepperoni sneakily placed under the cheese, or found bacon discreetly sprinkled on my salad. But those were accidents, and they resulted in me quickly spitting the meat out. This time I'm intentionally eating something designed to mimic something I've been taught to avoid my entire life. 

"I grew up with a dislike for pork, and that's something I'm actually proud of," said Mustafa Umar, an imam based in Anaheim, California. "If people come and ask me, 'What do you think? Should I try [Impossible Pork]?' I would say no. Don't do it unless you've already been eating pork and you're trying to quit."

When Impossible Pork was unveiled, the company said it was designed for halal and kosher certification. But Impossible Foods now says it's not moving forward with those certifications "as we wish to continue to use the term 'pork' in our product name," and "the authorizing bodies will not certify a product called 'pork.'"

When I interviewed Impossible Foods CEO Pat Brown in late 2019, he noted, "This product isn't designed specifically to target people who have religious objections to eating pigs." Still, this could be a chance for people like me to try something they might not otherwise get to taste.

"For those Jewish people and Muslims who have always wanted to eat a pig -- I doubt there are many, but if there are any -- this is the opportunity," Brown said.

Uncharted territory

Despite how strange it felt to try Impossible Pork, it was an opportunity I couldn't pass up. This was my chance to taste something I never could have eaten before. In addition to the banh mi, which was made using an Impossible Pork patty, I sampled dumplings made with the ground meat substitute. In both instances, I had to fight a gut feeling that I was eating something off-limits. That's a feeling that might come to others who've sworn off the meat on religious grounds. 

Many faiths, including Islam and Judaism, forbid pork because it's considered unclean. There's also the notion in both religions that avoiding pork is simply a commandment from God. Umar said he wouldn't promote a product like Impossible Pork within the Muslim community for those reasons.

"Anything that kind of resembles pork is kind of like anathema to Muslim desires, sensibilities, tastes," he said. "I wouldn't want to try something that tries to imitate an animal that's considered to be filthy or dirty in my religion." 

Alan Cook, a rabbi in Champaign, Illinois, says he also isn't particularly drawn to try Impossible Pork, because pork's not a meat he misses. He points to a common attitude among many Jews that "if one is choosing to live a kosher (or halal) lifestyle, God doesn't want us to see it as burdensome. It's not about finding these workarounds and substitutes, and we should be happy with the bounty of foods that we do have available to us."

Still, some Jewish followers might interpret kosher law to mean being conscious of what we put into our bodies, Cook notes, and an argument could be made that consuming plant-based products is one way to meet religious requirements if it has less of an environmental impact than meat production.

New York-based Rabbi Mordechai Lightstone, founder of Tech Tribe, a community for Jews in tech and digital media, said a product is safe to eat if it's made from kosher ingredients and is kosher certified, "even if it approaches the taste and smell of a non-kosher product." He added that "if it makes the world of kosher open to more people and accessible to more people, then it's great."

When I asked Brown in 2019 if he expected any pushback from religious communities and leaders over Impossible Pork, he was pensive.

"It never even occurred to me," he said. "The religious prohibitions are quite specific to the animal, and not to the flavor profile. It's a product made entirely from plants. ... It would surprise me if that raised any issues just [by] being called pork."

Whatever the consensus on the permissibility of Impossible Pork, one thing's for certain: My brain, and my stomach, had a hard time processing. About 15 minutes after sampling the product, I felt slightly queasy, so much so that I wasn't able to eat a proper meal until several hours later. 

I'm fully aware that much of this hesitation and discomfort was probably in my head, though I felt a similar way when I tried the Impossible Burger a few months ago, too. I imagine that discomfort stemmed from consuming something my body isn't used to. This time, though, there was the added element of having eaten something off-limits, which ultimately didn't sit well with me.

Given the plethora of other food options that aren't accompanied by a twinge of guilt, something tells me I won't be walking into a restaurant and ordering an Impossible Pork sandwich anytime soon. At least not until my brain -- and stomach -- catch on.