One of the earliest food experimentations I embark on since deciding to drop meat from our dinner plates is to try plant-based meat. And to be honest, we have tried lots of it within a relatively short period of time. Over the last two months we would have consumed it at least twice (sometimes more) on a weekly basis, whether it is in restaurant or takeaway meals, or just incorporated into the cooking from my own kitchen. It is an item that appears on my weekly shopping list, taking the place of the beef or the chicken or the pork that used to be there.
I just figure that if this works out, it would be the single factor that would make our transition to plant-based diet much easier. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that we were still big meat eaters, to the extent that our favourite date night location was a steakhouse and Will invested in a Weber just so he could make us the perfect steaks.
Over the last two months I have also been talking to people and following and reading countless articles, Youtube videos, podcasts and forums on veganism and plant-based eating to learn more about this style of living, and I notice that the topic of plant-based meat comes up a lot. I am amused by how many people have passionate opinions on this topic and this includes, especially, people who eat meat. I also personally find this quite an interesting space, coming from a commercial background, as I learnt about an industry that has dramatically transformed only over the past five to ten years as it rides the wave of more people who are becoming more conscious of how their diets impact the earth and the welfare of animals.
So, to anyone who is curious but have not ventured far enough down the supermarket aisle to explore plant-based meat products (which was me not that long ago), here are a few things I have learned.
What is it actually?
Plant-based meat is a food product that is made to imitate the look, taste and texture of meat. Unlike messaging that tells us to just celebrate the beauty and joy of eating vegetables, plant-based meant is intended to do the exact opposite – it is to make people think that they are eating meat when they are not.
Plant-based meat can be made from a variety of ingredients including vegetable protein, soy, peas, wheat, rice, mushrooms and other plants that would give it a meat-like consistency. They are quite commonly available now – I have seen them in all the Coles, Woolworths and some oriental shops I shop in. You can usually find them in the frozen and cold food section of the supermarket (close to where real meat is), and separately labelled. They come in many forms that real meat to come in e.g. mince, patties, sausages, nuggets, bacon, salami and in the oriental shops, you can find a different range that includes Asian spam and BBQ “pork”. Various flavours are created to mimic the different types of meat e.g. lamb, chicken, beef, pork, duck.
As a kid I remember eating fake meat on rare occasions, usually during the Chinese New Year, and I have to say, the industry has come a long way from when fake meat tasted like tofu mixed and flour and was always drenched in sauce to make the soy taste less obvious. There are many brands out there now competing for the market’s attention, and visionary entrepreneurs from different countries have been leading the way to partner with chefs and scientists to make plant-based meat that tastes and behaves just like real meat. (Rightly or wrongly, I ate one just two weeks ago where the patty was still a pink in the inside after being cooked.) In fact, some of these brands took years of trialling and experimentation before being launched to the market at large.
For some of these companies their vision is not only to dominate the vegan or vegetarian portion of the market; their vision is to expand into the meat-eating population to give them a real viable alternative to meat and revolutionalise the way people eat .
Who thinks what?
There has been much debate and controversy over plant-based meat over the last few years as its popularity rises in the mainstream stores. Some of the arguments include the real health value of plant-based meat, the processed nature of this product, and whether it is actually a sustainable product for the environment. Others (mainly industries that benefit from the animal farming) have heavily contested the marketing of these products, saying that they cannot be labelled by terms that are commonly used to describe real meat, because it confuses the consumers. In some countries these arguments have even landed in courts and policy making.
In addition, I have heard people questioning the intent of these products, and that if vegetarians and vegans are “appalled” by the slaughter of animals for food consumption, then why should there be a need to eat products that look and taste like meat?
Well, here are my own views of the world.
Starting with the labelling argument. From a consumer’s perspective, I don’t think it really matters what we call a product. If I am a vegetarian craving for food that resembles meat, I would be searching for these products regardless of what they are called (which is what I have been doing). And if I am a person who like my meat and if by chance I stumble upon plant-based meat and buy it by mistake, I would surely have learnt my mistake the next time I walk down that aisle. And lastly, if I am someone who is in neither category and am just a curious consumer who occasionally would like to reduce my meat consumption, I should be happy to find that my options are laid out before me. So, as a consumer, I win in all aspects.
I do not agree nor understand the basis of the argument that vegans or vegetarians should stop looking for meat alternatives because it muddles the purity of our intent. Whilst there are some people who dislike or are disgusted by the taste of meat, there are also others (like myself) who choose to give up meat not because they dislike the taste of meat, but rather, they have an issue with the meat comes about to be on their plates. I do not personally make an association between eating something with a chewy texture to seeing a slaughtered animal. If someone tells me tomorrow that an animal does not have to live a short life and then die to be on my plate, then yes, I will eat that piece of roast pork thank you.
I do agree that the nutritional value of plant-based meat is questionable, as it is a highly processed food, but I take this to mean that we eat it in moderation, which is not unlike most other foods that we consume. As for the sustainability issue, I have seen statistics that suggest that the production of plant-based meat uses much less water and resources than traditional farming.
What is my verdict on plant-based meat?
Like I mentioned we have gone out of our way to try many types of plant-based meat over the last two months so I have made some of my own conclusions about the products. There are a handful of brands that we have tried and would never buy again, and there are others that we have already happily put onto our lunch and dinner menus on more than a few occasions.
Our favourites are by far the Beyond Meat products – both the burger patties and the mince. Beyond Meat is an American brand (and interestingly its founder is the son of a dairy farmer), and are therefore more expensive than the local ones, but we think it’s worth it. Will cannot stop raving about it. Even burger joints like Grill’d and Hungry Jacks use Beyond Meat patties in their burgers. I have made burgers myself at home with their patties and spaghetti bolognaise and Chinese stir-fry with their mince. As I have sensitive tastebuds I can still tell that the mince is not pork or beef, but it is still flavoursome, chewy and less greasy than when I use real meat. A formidable substitute. We cannot wait to try any future Beyond Meat products that may be on their way.
The other product that we tried and liked is the Plant Asia duck. It is uncanny how much this tastes like the real thing, down to the smokiness flavour and how the skin “crisps” up when pan fried. On the two occasions that I cooked this, I also made “Peking duck sauce” as a dip and sliced up some cucumbers and carrots to go with rice and wraps (like how Peking duck is usually served up). Another one that we recently tried is the Next plant-based bacon, which are thin, salty, pink strips of soy protein that crisps up when I pan-fried them. Even Maxy (who is the ultimate detector and spitter of any fake meats in our household) likes this one and he calls them crispy snacks.
At the end of the day, these products are meat replacement and not actual meat, and as such, there is always going to be difference in how they taste. However, having said that, it is not to say that these products do not taste good in their own right. Some of them do, so much so that if I am still eating meat, I would see them ending up on our dinner menus from time to time. The market is relatively new and still has a way to go, in terms of pricing, nutritional value and sustainability, but this is also an economy of scale issue. To me, the question is not whether we stop this market from operating or expanding, but rather, how we help shape what we want to see this industry delivers. With more and more products coming online, and a growing consumer base, it should hopefully not be too long until the plant-based meat industry addresses those issues. If we are to land our goal in using our land and resources sustainably, and to protect animals from being further exposed to unnecessary cruelty, this transition is necessary.