Food for thought

For heaven’s sake… no more vegan nuggets or meatless burgers

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Getty/Richard Drury
Image: Getty/Richard Drury

Related tags vegan Vegetables Meat alternatives

The industry must move on from its obsession with attempting to make plants copy meat.

Don’t go yelling at me on Twitter. But yes, we probably do eat too much meat. As someone who craves a tender, slow-cooked lamb joint more than anything, I take zero pleasure in admitting this. I also crave tobacco and lost weekends of binge drinking but have learned begrudgingly over the years these aren’t activities to make a regular habit of. Not that I’m comparing eating meat to smoking or boozing. Creatine, carnosine, B12, heme iron... just a few of the nutrients you can’t get from plants. Try telling the story about that simply awful​ time you went to a café that had no vegan milk alternatives to the stunted kids in India.

I’m no anti-meat-eating propagandist. But the evidence yells we need to eat more plants and fewer animals if we want a sustainable food future.

Again, please don’t shout at me on social but I also love vegan food. My secret love affair began after stumbling the worse for wear on a vegan food truck at Glastonbury. I realise this sounds like the most pretentious story ever. Let me explain. The queue was the only short one I could find, despite the festival’s now erroneous reputation for attracting lentil munching, sandal basher types. There was no look of judgment from the blue-haired girl behind the counter at my beer and burger-stained t-shirt. I knew not what to order. But the kind and gentle soul filled me with an array of brightly coloured foods I barely recognised, bar the odd chickpea, all without a juicy animal carcass in sight.

There was something pickled here. Something spicy there. Something squidgy. A crunchy thing. Hell knows what it was. But hell was it good and with change from a fiver to boot. I went back to the same stall at the festival, hunting it down like an exited dog with a scent, for the next three years in a row (before realising all-in-one holidays offer sunshine, showers and edgier headliners for half the price).

No reader, I didn’t marry her. My point is this: where is this food in NPD? Yes, I want to cut down on meat (saving it for special occasions, apparently like Anglo-Saxon kings​, will probably make it even more special. And regenerative agriculture may not feed the world, but sustainably farmed meat boy does taste better). But I don’t want the lazy and ubiquitous vegan nuggets. I don’t want a highly processed meatless burger made with imported soy and pea. Bring me real food. Bring me colour. Bring me variety. Bring me new textures and unfamiliar flavours. To quote another food-loving lush: c’mon, let’s be having you!

Moving on from mimicry

The demise of Pilgrim’s Food Masters’ meat-free alternative brand Taste & Glory, which has just announced it will remove itself from UK retailers from Spring 2022​ blaming too much competition on the market, sadly illustrates the problem. The industry must move on from its fixation with alternatives designed to appropriate the texture, flavour and appearance of real meat. Most people are not interested in mimicking​. Like me, they want new experiences that make these novel things called plants the hero of the plate.

This argument has been raging for a while now​. But there is still evidence of a gaping gap in the market for products that make plant foodstuffs the exciting, delicious, affordable option I know they can be and that you don’t need to be Yotam Ottolenghi to be able to cobble together.

Many others agree. Listen to New Nutrition Business Director Julian Mellentin’s excellent podcast questioning the true scale of the market opportunity presented by meat alternatives.

Europe’s plant-based meat sector appears in rude health, for instance. Retail sales in western Europe rose 19% to a record €2.4 billion in 2021, according to food sustainability NGO the Good Food Institute.

In North America, though, sales stayed flat last year in value terms at $1.4 billion (€1.3 billion) and when the US sneezes, Europe catches a cold. Mellentin estimates the meat-free sector in the UK grew 15% to £607 million in 2021 which may be the highest growth rate in Europe. But overall meat-free is struggling to break 2% market share of the protein market everywhere, owing to, his words, “under-performance on taste, texture and overly long ingredient lists​”.

Meat replacements ‘clash badly’ with food culture

The true scale of the market opportunity for meat-free alternatives is a 'big niche' at best, he reckons, because plant-based meat substitutes ‘clash badly’ with food culture. This is particularly so in Southern Europe. “They know what real food is​,” Mellentin wisecracked. Case in point, Spain Nestle's flagship Garden Gourmet meat replacement brand has seen its market share fall from 33% in 2021 to 16% in 2022, according to Nielsen figures. Furthermore, meat-free alternatives, according to Mellentin, under-perform on consumer expectations as most brands are using old technology that isn't up to the job.​​

The sector can grow, the consultant notes, but it will need new technology and better ingredients. That will need a big investment in R&D, mostly from the big ingredient suppliers.

What’s more, the companies in the sector are propelled along by an investment community, complains Mellentin, which piled into brands thinking it would be an easy way to make a fast buck. They were wrong then and they’re wrong now, he argues.​ “Most companies specialising in plant-based substitutes don't make any profit and have no credible path to profitability, so that will result in the frenzied marketing of the past 5 years being reined back at some point,” ​he stated. Ouch. But he adds, quite rightly, that plant proteins, from fava beans to chickpeas and lentils, are a ‘great addition’ to the human diet. Yet food makers need to rethink the best ways to get this stuff into our everyday diets.

Too expensive?

I asked the Vegan Society for examples of recent NPD that makes real vegetables, grains and plants an exciting and tasty option for consumers.

The team kindly came up with the following: Chef Akila, which makes gourmet curries that are freshly frozen and delivered to homes; Root Kitchen, Planty, Soulful, Allplants and Vibrant Vegan, which all deliver frozen vegan ready meals to doors; plant-based recipe meal kit companies Grubby and Planthood; Irish company Strong Roots, which sells plant-based frozen foods and healthy meals for home cooking; and Tofoo Company.

What stands out here? Most of these options, delicious yes, do come with a price premium and are D2C subscription services. More mainstream appeal is needed, particularly during a cost of living crisis​.

It doesn’t need to be this way, says Vegan Society spokesperson Francine Jordon. It’s a common misconception that vegan recipes are more expensive, she stresses, and the society is keen to remind us just how cost-effective a healthy, nutritious and balanced vegan diet can be. “Some of the cheapest ingredients like rice, vegetables and beans are staple vegan foods, so the lifestyle is economically possible for everyone,” ​she said. She notes that Asda has a selection of fairly simple ready meals such as sweet potato curry, three bean chilli and tofu burritos. Sounds like exactly what I enjoyed at those hazy Glastonburys. I’ll pass on the B12 supplements, but more of this sort of thing please.

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Love it

Posted by Ronnie Joss,

Sick also of the billions going into me-too products- more and more burgers. People will lose money, jobs, hopes for a better future. I agree that new types of recipes and flavour combos are needed. After all, it is a creative industry !

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Yes Yes Yes Yes

Posted by Simon Wright,

I could not agree more

And that is without mentioning hydroxymethylcellulose

Here is my blogpost on why don't vegans eat more vegetables

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