Supermarkets are going big on plant-based products. Sophie Morris takes a butcher’s at their benefits
The worst thing I’ve ever eaten was a “facon” and egg sandwich, made for me by an exceedingly kind friend on a camping trip. I sat down with a hot mug of tea, the sun on my back and the sound of holidaying friends in the air - memories now drenched in nostalgia - and bit into a slice of stomach-roiling pap.
“Facon” tends to be made from strips of wheat protein called seitan, or tofu or tempeh, both made from soybeans. It is then flavoured or smoked in an attempt to impart a meaty or savoury taste. Nobody - surely - expects it to taste like bacon. Why spoil a decent egg sandwich?
I don’t dislike tofu, tempeh or seitan in themselves, but I’ve long turned my nose up at fake foods. If you want to make something vegetarian, why not cook it with a sodding vegetable?
I appreciate I’m an outlier. The number of fake-meat products is soaring. In December research group MarketsandMarkets reported the sector will almost double to $8.3bn (£6bn) by 2025, from $4.3bn today.
Most people don’t have the patience for making the best meat-free pasta sauce I’ve ever tasted, Ottolenghi’s “ultimate traybake ragu”, which has 17 ingredients including oyster mushrooms, dried porcini, white miso paste and coconut cream.
Instead, vegan convenience foods are filling our baskets. Retailers say that they’re essential for the half-million Brits - up 20 per cent on last year - currently working their way through the Veganuary challenge.
According to Tesco, 77 per cent of these haven’t tried the month of meat- and dairy-free eating before, and it can be a real struggle. M&S is pushing
Plant Kitchen No Chicken Kievs, Chunks and Southern Fried Tenders as easy meals. Waitrose says that sales of meat-free burgers and sausages are up 27 per cent.
Yet Mintel has found that those of us reducing our meat intake faltered slightly during the pandemic, from five in 10 to four in 10. We reached for burgers and sausages through 2020, and sales of processed meat increased by 18 per cent. “But the setback for the flexitarian movement is likely to be very short-lived,” says analyst Edward Bergen. “We anticipate a flurry of new plant-based products in a market driven by innovation and newness.”
Tesco found that a roast chicken dinner is the mostmissed meal during Veganuary and has a £3 fake roasting crown to help you along. If you live near Watford Asda, you can visit its
Veelicious vegan butcher’s counter, which is selling mock lamb and vegan black pudding.
Next week a branch of the Italian plant-based burger brand Flower Burger will open in London, selling very pretty burgers in lurid pinks, blues and yellows. Time will tell if psychedelic fast food is merely Instagram whimsy, but fake meat itself is here to stay.
The fastest-growing plant-based brands of 2020 were the big guns - Linda McCartney, Richmond Meat- Free and Birds Eye Green Cuisine. But the better brands take a stand for the environmental purpose inherent in reducing our meat consumption. Meatless Farm was launched in Leeds in 2016 by Danish entrepreneur Morten Toft Bech, who says he was searching for better non-meat products for his family.
“One of the perils of the market growing so fast is that there are brands that don’t have a clear vision or purpose when it comes to health or sustainability,” he says.”The real challenge is how we continue creating a kinder food system and the debate around soy protein isn’t as black and white as it’s often perceived to be,” he continues. “Greenpeace has been running a high-profile campaign on soy-linked deforestation, and makes it clear there is no reason to avoid plantbased foods made with soy as long as it’s sourced responsibly.”
His sausages and burgers are newly soy-free, made instead from pea protein for its “even meatier taste and texture”. I find the sausages a bit slippery, missing the fibres of actual meat, but there’s a great taste there, slightly smoky and peppery. They stand up on price, too, with sausages and burgers at £2.50 and mince at £3, while many retailers are discounting vegan products this month.
But the list of ingredients for all of these products is long - longer than an Ottolenghi recipe. If our rush towards plant-based products is powered by health reasons, as 53 per cent of us tell Tesco (35 per cent cited environmental concerns), why are we happy to eat processed products over a mushroom or lentil?
It’s a balancing act. The fat levels are usually much higher in meat, but there’s more salt in the fake stuff. “Managing salt levels is a big challenge as it’s one of the key ways manufacturers can enhance taste,” concedes Toft Bech.
“We’re still reviewing how we can improve further, for example using seaweed or miso.”
Meatless wonders Future Farm Future Sausage, £3.50 for five
Brand new from Brazil, just launched into Sainsbury’s with burgers, mince and meatballs. GMO- and gluten-free and the only fake banger my daughter didn’t suss. The mince smells meaty while cooking.
Moving Mountains Plant- Based Fish Fingers, £3.60 for ten
Just arrived in Waitrose. Hard to go wrong if you bread something and dip it in ketchup, but these are tasty and the texture, while not flaky, is comparable. This British company is famous for its “bleeding” burger, and has also just launched “beef-flavoured tender strips”.
M&S Plant Kitchen No Beef Burger, £3.50 for two
Not new, but my favourite fake burger. Meaty flavour, decent heft and texture. Not too bad on salt content - 1.18g/100g, which is considered medium.