Turning plants into meat substitutes is complicated. This isn’t about putting soya chunks into a curry or shredding jackfruit to pose as mutton. To really mimic meat, one must account not only for specific flavours (chicken nuggets, beef patties, pork sausages, fried prawns), but also the textures and sensory expectations diners associate with meat. Think of marbled fat that sizzles on a hot pan, chewy jerky, or the salty snap of bacon. So manufacturers of plant-based meats have been working hard to innovate.
The groundwork. Most substitute recipes start with a protein to provide heft and structure. These typically come from green split peas, chickpeas or soy; specifically the proteins in them. Labs separate the proteins from the fats to arrive at a particular texture. Many plant-based foods also contain seitan, a processed-wheat gluten that is low-fat, low-carb, high-protein.
The fat of the matter. Protein by itself will never do the trick. Oils — typically coconut or peanut — are added next, to make the mock meat feel juicy and tender. Methylcellulose, starch and gums are blended in to bind proteins and fats for better texture. Next come the colours, spice mixes, yeast extract, sauces and seasonings that can turn a bland food into a halfway-familiar flavour. Steaks and burger patties might be infused with beetroot juice, for that rare-meat look. Meats also contain certain essential nutrients that plants do not. So fortifications such as vitamin B12, Omega 3 fatty acids and iron are added in.
The in-betweeners. Labs are increasingly experimenting with mushrooms. They have an earthy savoury taste, they hold juices well and can mimic gamey textures. To make plant-based foods taste distinctly fishy, seaweed is a common addition. Both are cruelty-free, but neither is biologically classified as a plant (since fungi and algae exist in a space between plant and animal). So labels typically advertise these mock meats as generically meatless, rather than plant-based.
On the shelf. Because much of the innovation has been occurring in the West, beef substitutes are currently the focus. There are meatless versions of ground beef, koftas, meatloaf, minced-meat stuffing. Chicken, which is moist and can be shredded, is trickier to mimic. That’s why most chicken substitutes come in the form of ready-to-fry nuggets. Plant-based sausages are generally made from the proteins in millet and lentils, date paste, hemp seeds and potato starch. As for bacon, coconut-flesh comes closest. Egg substitutes, typically made with mung bean, can be scrambled into an omelette, but the eggy taste has been hard to replicate.
Weighing the options. Plant-based food, even though it’s ultra-processed, is easier on the planet and is cruelty-free. But most surveys indicate that diners switch to vegetarian options because they want to eat more healthily. In which case, it’s not yet clear if they’re the answer. Processing and densely packing vegetable proteins into a meat-mimicking meal call for high levels of sodium and oil. Many substitutes might pack in more calories, salt and fat than an equivalent portion of meat.
In fact, a factsheet issued by the World Health Organization in 2021 states that frequent consumption of ultra-processed plant-based meat substitutes can have negative health impacts, including obesity and raised cardio-metabolic risks.
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