Our consumption of alternative meat will overtake the real thing within 30 years. That's the official prediction from Sir Richard Branson, who does happen to have a stake in lab-grown Memphis Meats.
While lab-grown meat is about a decade away from supermarket shelves, meat-like products are proliferating. In Australia, supermarkets are stocking more and more brands of plant-based patties, sausages, mince, chicken and seafood.
It is not just vegans and vegetarians reaching for alt-meats. It is also planet-conscious eaters who still want a decent burger. With billions of dollars invested and skyrocketing demand, meat-free meat is far from a fly-by-night trend. It is here to stay. But we do need to be considering what's in these products, understanding whether they're truly a healthy alternative and holding them to a higher standard. Because, as we found in our taste test, many supermarket products fall short.
The state of plant-based meat
Internationally, Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are the biggest alt-meat players, both releasing their first patties months apart in 2016. The latter – which is only currently available in American restaurants – "bleeds" thanks to a genetically engineered, plant-based molecule called heme. Aussie-made patties, sausages and mince from The Alternative Meat Co. launched in Coles in May and are controversially located in supermarkets' meat sections alongside Beyond. Farmers and agricultural ministers have called for bans on allowing alternative meat companies to label their products as meat. This follows legislation in France, where meat and dairy labels can no longer be used on vegan alternatives, while Missouri recently became the first American state to pass a law preventing producers from calling products meat if they haven't come from livestock or poultry.
Roy Morgan research revealed that nearly 2.5 million Australians (more than 12 per cent of the population) follow diets that are "all, or almost all, vegetarian".
No wonder the meat industry has started to back alternatives. Nestle is gearing up to launch a plant-based burger in a few months under its Sweet Earth brand, while McCain just backed a vegan start-up called NUGGS, founded in New York by a 19-year-old. In Australia, the Hungry Jack's founder Jack Cowin invested $1 million to create a vegan burger in time for summer, developed in partnership with the CSIRO, while Australian Plant Proteins recently announced that it will begin fitting out a commercial plant protein extraction facility in Horsham, Victoria, after securing a local investment of $20 million. Ultimately, the closer alternative meat gets to the real thing in price, appearance and taste, the more people will buy it.
Healthier planet, not healthier patty
Mock-meat products are not designed for those on a health kick, but to imitate meat. The Beyond, Impossible and Alternative Meat Co. burgers list 20, 21 and 11 ingredients respectively. To mimic the flavour and nutritional value of meat, natural flavours and colours, non-meat-based proteins, thickeners, preservatives, stabilisers and salts are added – although The Alternative Meat Co. burger doesn't list stabilisers and preservatives in its ingredients. The Beyond and Impossible Burgers have 380 and 370 milligrams of salt per patty respectively, while the Alternative Meat Co. burger has a whopping 640 milligrams. The recommended intake of sodium for adults is between 460 and 920 milligrams a day.
Compared with standard beef patties sold in supermarkets, these alt-meat burgers are far more processed, have less protein and more calories. They have comparable saturated fat but more fibre, as well as higher concentrations of (added) vitamins and minerals. Unlike the Impossible and Beyond burgers, The Alternative Meat Co. patty doesn't contain coconut oil, responsible for the mock marbling effect but criticised for high saturated fat.
Do it for the planet
This month, a major report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated that our appetite for meat is unsustainable. Reducing meat and dairy consumption, the report says, would help curb climate change, saving millions of square kilometres of land from damaging farming practices while reducing carbon dioxide emissions. The report stopped short of suggesting we cut meat from our diets completely. Alt-meats are one solution to cutting back.
Fifty-seven per cent of Australia is used to graze beef, sheep and dairy, while 3.5 per cent is used to grow plant foods. On Beyond Meat's website, a peer-reviewed life cycle analysis conducted by the University of Michigan found that the Beyond burger uses 99 per cent less water, 93 per cent less land, 46 per cent less energy and produces 90 per cent fewer greenhouse gases than a quarter-pound (113-gram) beef burger. Impossible's stats are comparable.
Taste test: Plant-based meat
We sampled more than 25 products across more than a dozen brands from supermarkets and independent grocers. They were rated on appearance, smell, texture, taste and overall meatiness. Points were combined for a score out of 25. All were cooked in an oiled pan to replicate home kitchens and eaten completely unadorned to level the playing field, which is where many fell short. As it stands, most vegan meat supermarket products are at risk of giving the category a bad name. People should try restaurant-level alternative meat to understand its potential, and then hold supermarket products to a higher standard.
Here's what to try, and what to avoid.
Sofia Levin – freelance food writer, Good Food
Shannon Martinez – chef and owner, Smith & Daughters and Smith & Deli
Troy Wheeler – co-owner and butcher, Meatsmith
Daniel Wilson – founder, Huxtaburger (sells The Alternative Meat Co. products)
Amanda Walker – vegan and co-owner, Lord of the Fries (sells Beyond Meat products) and WeirdoughsBurgers
1. Beyond Burger
By far the best alt-meat patty in Oz. The balance of protein and fat mimics the texture of meat and has a realistic, fatty mouth feel. Points were lost for the exterior, which didn't crisp up like real meat.
TW: This is the closest thing to meat I've tasted so far.
AW: You can taste the fat on your tongue. It gives me memories of meat, unlike anything else we've tried.
2. The Alternative Meat Co. Burger
Although taste and texture don't quite match Beyond, this is an Aussie product to be proud of. It's tasty, but so it should be with double the sodium of comparable products.
DW: The other one [Beyond] is still better. This one tastes more vegan.
AW: This one tastes too meaty for me.
3. Fry's Chicken Burger
It's tricky to taste the chicken for the crumb (according to the pack, 18 per cent of the product), but there's a hint of garlic and a wallop of comfort from this patty's crunchy exterior.
SL: The chicken layer is pretty thin, but the outside is almost buttery.
DW: Almost anything tastes good if you crumb it and fry it.
4. Gardein Ultimate Beefless Burger
A no-fuss patty that would work well in a fast food-style burger, it has a certain nostalgic taste, perfectly round shape and ample seasoning.
SM: It's got that slutty cheeseburger vibe. It would work really well as a dirty cheeseburger.
AW: I love it. It reminds me of something from the original family of vegan burgers.
5. Eaty Gourmet Beef Burgers
Another Australian product worth supporting, this newer range might not taste as much like meat as others, but it hit a home run in the charred outer-edge department.
TW: That's browned up nicely on the outside. It's got a crispy edge.
DW: If you had the texture of this one on the outside of the Beyond Burger, you'd have a much better product.
Strangely, eating this patty reminded the panel of sausage meat. While that might not be a good thing for a burger, it makes it versatile (crumble for bolognese, slice into curries, etc). In a word: inoffensive.
SM: As a burger, it's quite bad. But it would make a decent sausage.
DW: That's sausage mince, in a burger.
7. Unreal Co.'s Beefy Italian Burger
Available in Woolies, these patties score top marks for their homemade appearance and pink tinge from beetroot. The rough texture is a plus, with lots of onion and perhaps a few too many herbs and spices (cinnamon, really?).
SL: I'm a little terrified of that pinkish colour, but it looks great otherwise. Shame it's got that weird sourness.
DW: It almost tastes like Spray 'n' Wipe.
1. 2 Broke Guys Vegami: Spicy Smoked Vegan Pepperoni
There's something to be said for small-batch, handmade mock meat. This hefty pepp is sturdy, retains moisture, has a great kick and crisps up wonderfully around the edges.
TW: It's nice and spicy. It has good texture and holds together really well.
AW: I like the crispy edges. How good would that be on pizza?
2. Beyond Hot Italian Sausage
The panel was impressed by the sturdy, algae casing that set this sausage apart. It has a rustic, butcher-shop appearance, plenty of flavour and lots of sizzle.
DW: It's a bit soft, but pretty juicy.
AW: We sell these in the shop and people love them.
3. Linda McCartney Red Onion & Rosemary Vegetarian Sausages
Confusingly named, these sausages are actually vegan. They're well seasoned, brown nicely and contain 19 per cent onion, which explains the pleasant texture and aroma.
SM: It's absolutely packed with onion. You can see the raw grated onion and it smells like onion.
TW: These definitely have the best texture; they're the most similar to a real sausage.
4. Field Roast Mexican Chipotle Sausage
This brand immediately scores points for appearance, packaged like link sausages and indistinguishable from the real thing. They're tinged red from peppers and have a warming spice hit.
TW: Of the three [Mexican Chipotle, Italian, Smoked Apple and Sage], this is the best because of the spices.
AW: I actually think I like it because it's not very meaty.
5. The Alternative Meat Co. Sausages
Another one from the fridge section, these sausages are scattered with herbs and are quite rustic, but lose points for being overly soft. Definitely one of the "meatier" options.
DW: They're OK. Same stuff, different form.
SL: These are pretty flaccid looking but they taste all right. The filling isn't overly processed but the whole thing could be firmer.
6. Tofurky Original Sausage Beer Brat
All the way from Oregon, these are a little fancy – tofu and wheat gluten snags made with microbrewed amber ale. They look like gourmet chicken sausages and have reasonable depth of flavour, but could really do with some mustard for moisture.
DW: These are still quite rubbery but they leave that greasy feeling on your lips like real meat.
AW: These taste like a classic barbecue sausage to me. They're simple but done well.
7. Field Roast Italian
Not as good as the brand's Mexican Chipotle counterpart, these sausages are made with red pepper, eggplant, fennel seed and a splash of red wine. Bland considering each is 25 per cent sodium.
SL: It's got that whole artisan vibe about it, but as a meat eater, when I bite into something that looks like this I'm constantly disappointed.
TW: It tastes like a traditional stuffing. I'd rather eat stuffing.
Suzy Spoon Rosemary & Garlic Patties
Presumably Suzy's products are better straight from her lauded vegetarian butcher in St Peters, NSW, but these patties have all the refinement of a hockey puck.
AW: I'm really left with the impression that these foods are not meant to be solo items.
SL: God, that's bad. It tastes fake. Can you give something a zero?
The panel wanted to like these plant-based burgers more. They're Aussie-made, sold from the fridge and have an ingredients list that's simple to read. Unfortunately they tasted as bland as they are dry.
SM: That's so dry. I can't chew it.
AW: Oh, wow. You're right. That's really bad.
Suzy Spoon Kale and Cauliflower Sausages
Sorry Suzy, you just don't do it for us. These snags are uncomfortably soft and don't hold together. They taste like a pinch of every dried herb you've neglected in your spice draw crammed into a single, sad sausage.
DW: These have a horrid mouth feel.
TW: They taste exactly like processed seasoning.
Eaty Gourmet Pork Snags
There's something familiar but not-quite-right when you sniff these snags. Processed to textureless, it only takes a second to make the connection to Schmackos. Oddly, the burger patties are quite good.
SM: That actually smells like dog food.
SL: It tastes a bit like it, too. Smelling it makes me physically gag.
Sunfed Foods CFC (Chicken Free Chicken)
New to Australia from New Zealand, although CFC has double the protein of chicken and triple the iron of beef, our panel's colourful spectrum of adjectives ranged from "rubber bands" to "B.O." cardboard-esque.
TW: That's horrible. It tastes like a cleaning cloth.
DW: The texture is like, get out of my mouth, not down my throat.