We are in a food revolution. Fake meat, meat substitutes, plant meat, whatever you call it, “vegan meat” has shaken up food production for the past five years. It even had its own boom and bust. Pioneers Beyond Meat listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 2019 – within months the price soared, dropping to less than half the original price, after sales failed to meet inflated expectations .
But just as the dotcom crash didn’t spell the end of the internet, a few hiccups don’t mean the demise of fake meat. At the forefront of the industry is Adam Yee, a US-based food scientist, who says the focus going forward will be on the little things.
“It’s called micro-fermentation,” he explains. “Training organisms to create things like egg whites, meat protein, blood, and then putting them into plant-based products, so they taste very similar to their animal counterparts.” In other words, they will have the same DNA. But will it be vegan?
Names are a thorny issue in this business. I have a hard time with the term “vegan meat”. But if you think of meat in the medieval sense, when it simply meant food (as in sweets), then it makes sense. Vegan meat, if you like.
‘Why don’t vegans only eat vegetables?’ meat eaters often ask, pointing out that they recently enjoyed a dinner of beet hummus and roasted eggplant.
This is a useless argument for two reasons. Having the occasional vegan meal is quite different from eating vegan food day in and day out, when the urge to eat something with a meaty chew or follow a favorite chicken recipe can be overwhelming.
Additionally, many vegans love the taste of meat, avoiding it for wellness reasons or because they think it’s better for the planet.
“People are used to having this kind of meaty texture in their lives. And, culturally, it’s important to them,” says Neil Rankin, creative director of Symplicity, whose hash, meatballs, sausages and burgers are the vegan meat of choice for many top restaurants.
Rankin made a name for himself as a specialist meat chef at Temper in London, before switching to vegan meat when he became frustrated with the ultra-processed ingredients of most alternatives. “It didn’t seem to sit well with the last 10 years of food development, which is focused on farm-to-table produce and provenance,” he says.
Admittedly, the most widely used method of making “meat” is the unappetizingly named “high-moisture extrusion.” It is however quite simple. Essentially, the ingredients are mixed into a paste, heated as they are forced through a plate pierced with holes, then dried – much like making spaghetti.
Manufacturers run into a series of problems when making a substitute. Flavor is the least of their worries, as it can be replicated with added glutamates for flavor, or simply masked with a liberal use of spices. Texture is another matter: the plants are usually firm, but become soft and mushy when cooked. The meat is springy, firming up as it cooks, with a springy texture and long fibers, giving it the chewiness we crave.
Then there’s the issue of fat, which gives meat its juicy texture and carries its flavor. Vegetable fats tend to melt at a lower temperature than meat fat, which means they don’t stay in your mouth as long. In addition, meat fat is contained within the cells of a network of collagen fibers, which vegetable fat cannot yet hope to replicate. But you can be sure that the producers are busy working on it.
Tried and Tested: Meatless Shopping
Fleshy rating: 4/5