Juicy burgers, tender steaks and mince that you can’t tell from the real deal- lookalike meats are on the rise and coming to a supermarket, restaurant and food stall near you. Will food science and eco credentials convince you to change your order?
My plant based steak is gently oozing, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. It’s beetroot blood, but it’s still a bit disconcerting. Said steak can be picked up at Tesco- Vivera Veggie Steaks come in at £2.99 for two, which is clearly far more wallet friendly than the bonafide sirloin alternative, and they look bizarrely realistic both in the packet and on the plate. Texture wise, they’re softer than your average rump or similar, but there’s still a distinct meatiness going on, and while they’re not exactly wagyu on the taste-o-meter, I can imagine that accompanying them with a side of béarnaise and double cooked chips would get you closer to proper beefy pub grub stuff. Which is exactly the point.
Lookalike meats are a fast growing market, primarily aimed at the flexitarians , meat-free Monday devotees and conscientious carnivores looking to cut down on their meat intake. More and more of us are fitting these descriptions- according to Mintel , 28 per cent of UK adults have limited the amount of meat and poultry they’re eating over six months up until March 2017. As such, the likes of traditional meat alternatives such as the Quorn, made with fermented soil mould (really) bound with free-range egg or potato protein, and Seitan, known as 'wheat meat' due to the fact that it's made from wheat gluten, are seeing a surge in popularity- Quorn reported a 12 per cent rise in sales for the first six months of this year alone.
Our health is the most significant motivator for veering towards more plant-based options, but for young adults under 25, the environmental benefits win out- less meat means fewer greenhouse gases, and we’ve felt the effect of those on the planet to the extreme this summer, while animal welfare also remains a huge driver when it comes to ditching meat. The Vegan Society reports that demand for meat-free options soared by almost a thousand per cent last year, and it’s not simply the vegans and vegetarians among us seeking out plant-based sustenance: 22 million of us label ourselves as flexitarians in the UK, meaning the we eat a baseline vegetarian diet with meat and fish added in on occasion. While the number of Brits describing themselves as vegan is at an all time high at 3.5 million according to comparethemarket.com , far more of us fit the flexitarian profile are are likely seeking alternatives to our nostalgic Sunday roast or customary Friday night steak.
Happily for former or sporadic meat freaks, food scientists are ahead of the game on this one, having created relatively convincing alternatives by replicating the taste of an iron rich molecule called haem, found plentifully in animal protein- it's responsible for giving red meat in particular its distinctly rich, bloody, earthy flavour. Scientists use fermented yeast to achieve a more 'haemy' taste, and the plant-based ingredient is a key component of US company Impossible ’s much loved, soy derived burger, alongside wheat and potato protein, coconut oil for succulence and soy for a salty, umami flavour. Business in booming, and sales indicate that today’s meat imitators are hitting the mark.
You don’t need to book a transatlantic flight to get a taste of a fake steak that behaves like the genuine article rather than a doormat, as my meat-free foray in the Tesco aisles prove, and it’s not just the UK’s largest supermarket that’s getting in on the imposter beef action.
Iceland’s No Bull burger , £2 for two, claims to bleed, but as it’s predominantly soy based the jus is generated by a beetroot and paprika extract blend. Similarly, Sainsbury’s rolled out it’s mock meat range in June, stocking burgers that mimic a ‘medium rare’ effect when cooked next to real meat. The vegan lookalike meats are made by a Danish company called Naturli’ , whose range also includes mince that’s almost indistinguishable from the stuff you’d normally put in a Spag Bol and faux bresaola for the swanky Italian deli fans.
Waitrose, which also stocks Vivera’s carbon copy meats, recently increased its plant-based offering by 60 per cent, while Tesco is taking the meat dupe choices to new heights this month with the introduction of US import Beyond Meat ’s plant burgers, which are predominantly made with pea protein and go big on the ‘bloke with a BBQ’ image that’s so often associated with great hunk of meat. You can see what they’re getting at, and if it convinces regular meat eaters to reduce their meat consumption (despite the vegan wave, we eat twice the global average of meat per capita in the UK ) then power to them, but as ‘plants are rad’ promotion goes, it’s a bit too macho for our liking.
Many vegans aren’t happy with the lookalike meat marketing tactics either, deeming bleeding fake steaks distasteful and pointing out that, if we need to process plants so that they look like meat to make them appealing and appetising, we may have a problem. On the other end of the spectrum, a report published earlier this week by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board criticised the rise of ‘pseudo meats’, declaring that “some of the manufacturing processes involved are far from natural”. One meat industry representative also told The Times that there are plans underway to pay bloggers and big-name chefs to highlight how highly processed pseudo meat can be across their social media channels, in a double whammy backlash against the Instagram promotion of plant-based diets and lifestyles. Meanwhile in France, vegan and vegetarian food manufacturers are banned from labelling faux meat as sausages, mince, burgers or bacon.
The conflict between the meat industry and lookalike meat manufacturers will no doubt rage on (food is a fiery topic at the best of times), but for those of us aiming to steadily shrink our meat consumption without sacrificing the very elements we love about meat, pseudo meat is an easy, convenient stopgap that makes summer barbeques and midweek meals that bit more straightforward to cater for. A bit like a nicotine patch or weaning yourself off caffeine , there will likely come a time when we don’t feel the need for a pseudo steak, and the culinary innovation/ abomination (depending on how you look at it) will prove to be a flash in the pan as we become more adept at planning and cooking plant-based meals, and accustomed to buying high quality, high welfare meat and fish every so often, rather than picking up cheap stuff on the daily. Time will tell, but for now, mock meat is having a moment.