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Ethics Aside, Are Fake Meats Any Better for You? MH Investigates

·10-min read

Veganism, you may have noticed, is having something of a moment. The meat-free market, now valued at £572m, is expected to be worth £658m by the end 2021 – that’s a lot of soya burgers. And it’s not just vegans buying them. According to a recent poll, half of UK adults have attempted to curb their meat intake in the past six months.

The likes of Linda McCartney aren’t the only ones leading the charge. Tesco and Asda have launched popular vegan ranges. Whole Foods is shifting bucketloads of vegan ice cream. Vegan wines are now a thing (fish bladders are routinely used as fining agents, since you ask). Even that bastion of cheat-day indulgence, the pizza parlour, has caved: Pizza Express now offers vegan cheese.

Despite the growing legions of green eaters, however, it doesn’t look like we’re ready to give meat the chop just yet – at least, not in all forms. As the movement grows, it’s also evolving. Where once vegans may have been content with a lunch of lentils, the new wave of converts are creating their own kind of “meat culture”. In Sheffield, Make No Bones café boasts of vegan kebabs. Sgaia in Glasgow sells vegan pastrami. In east London, too-cool-for-school hangouts such as CookDaily and Temple of Seitan are gaining hipster credentials by serving up everything from meat-free pad thai to spicy “chickn” patties with burger sauce.

Until recently, it was assumed that any mass exodus from the meat aisle was a matter of conscience, inspired in no small part by documentaries, such as Cowspiracy and Food, Inc, that criticise industrialised livestock farming. But the latest figures suggest that our motivations are now more divided. According to the market researchers Mintel, less than a quarter of those reducing their meat intake are doing so for the sake of animal welfare or the environment (apologies, Morrissey). Instead, health and weight loss are the most commonly cited motivators.

Which begs the question: is “vegan” synonymous with “healthy”? A couple of years ago, a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported that eating less meat and more fruit and veg could save eight million lives per year. But it’s that last bit that’s crucial: almost all studies into vegan diets advocate eating more plants, not merely swapping sausage for soya. Ethics aside, are synthesised proteins any better than a bloody steak?

Playing Chicken

Despite the recent hype, meat alternatives are nothing new. Their story arguably begins in the late 19th century, with John Harvey Kellogg – a man better known for adding a little snap, crackle and pop to your breakfast. A religious figure and health advocate, Kellogg started experimenting with meat alternatives as a way to help his neighbours stick to vegetarian diets. He began by boiling leftover wheat and serving it as a protein source to patients of a nearby sanitarium. In 1949, Worthington Foods tried selling two canned imitation meat products: Soyloin Steaks and Meatless Wieners. Unsurprisingly, they never caught on.

Fast-forward to the 1960s. Fuelled by Cold War paranoia, cautious politicians prompted a search for alternative food sources. It was then that British scientists discovered fusarium venenatum: a high-protein fungus, which later formed the basis of Quorn, launched in 1985.

Another few decades later, headlines decrying meat as a cause of cancer, heart disease and other afflictions have put faux meat back in the spotlight. Add to this the surge in popularity of south-Asian cuisines (often rich in tofu), as well as the bloggers and athletes advocating veganism, and it’s easy to see why abandoning meat has become so fashionable.

Today’s trending fake meat – and the base ingredient of most vegan dudefood – is seitan, a wheat extract made to mimic the texture of meat. Nowhere is the trend more alive than at Hackney’s Temple of Seitan, which is where I’ve arranged to meet co-owner Pat O’Shea. His shop is the epitome of anti-wellness, with its heavy metal soundtrack and walls adorned with cartoon skulls.

The vibe is “greasy chicken shop”, rather than hippy lentil joint. It is also remarkably busy for a Tuesday morning. A man who looks like Jarvis Cocker in disguise comes in and photographs the menu. Since turning vegan, he tells me, the only meat he has had a craving for is fried chicken. He hopes that Temple of Seitan can fix this.

Accustomed to Melbourne’s bounty of vegan-friendly Asian restaurants, O’Shea and his wife, Rebecca, were disappointed when they landed in London four years ago. They, too, had a longing for vegan fried “chicken”. So, rather than delve into the usual plant-based foods, they decided to explore meat alternatives. Rebecca got to work on seitan-based faux chicken and, after a successful stint in a food van, the couple now own two restaurants in the capital, with plans for a third under way.

The secret, O’Shea tells me, is in the preparation. “Tofu is too smooth. It doesn’t give you the same firm mouth-feel. Seitan on its own actually tastes quite chickeny, but it’s the nostalgia of the chicken-shop environment and our salty, crunchy coating that make it work.”

But does it really taste like chicken? The nuggets, it must be said, do not – they taste like stuffing, which only reminds me of a dinner plate straining under the weight of a Sunday roast. The burger, however, complete with all the trimmings (“bacon”, vegan cheese, pickles), does a reasonable job of imitating a quarter-pounder. While neither measures up to the real thing, they might be enough to evoke the memory of meat in diehard vegans. And that’s the point. However, nostalgia aside, there’s no pretence that this is anything but a cheat meal. A side of chips and a Coke is a side of chips and a Coke, after all.

The Good and the Ugly

At Sheffield’s Make No Bones, the emphasis is also on fast food. “We make [seitan] steak, kebab meat, ribs and chorizo,” its owner, Dave Shaw, tells me.“They can be served in pie or stew. Our best sellers are barbecue ribs, Philly cheese steak subs and kebabs.” Which sounds delicious, if not exactly nutritious.

Manchester’s V Rev is also open about its anti-wellness menu. “We are a junk food diner, so we don’t create many of our products to be nutritious per se,” explains its owner, Dom Moss. “We prioritise taste and texture, which seitan helps us deliver because it absorbs flavours amazingly.”

While it’s clear that fake meat has come a long way from its health-food roots, many products are still keenly marketed on their clean credentials. Quorn’s unambiguous tagline is “A healthy protein”, and its website is peppered with phrases such as “natural” and “farm to fork”. In the US, however, it recently settled a lawsuit over its use of the term “mushroom-based” protein. Its packaging now reads, rather less appetisingly: “Mycoprotein is a mold...”

Seitan isn’t exactly a vegetable, either. It’s made by washing the starch out of wheat dough, leaving insoluble gluten, an elastic mass that is then cooked. There’s much debate on faux meats’ health value, and dietitians are divided. Oliver Barnett, the managing director of the London Clinic of Nutrition, calls seitan’s gluten an “anti-nutrient”.

Nutritionist Jo Travers is on the fence: “Seitan is high in protein,” she says, “but it lacks certain amino acids. It isn’t a direct substitution for meat, but it can be combined with other plant proteins, such as beans, to get the full range of amino acids.”

I contact Hilary Masin, co-founder of Sgaia Foods, which makes most of its products (“mheats”) from wheat and soya. She tells me that the company’s products contain more protein by the weight than chicken. This is good news for hungry vegans, but such claims about faux meats come with a catch. Plant proteins tend to be low in fat – and therefore also fat-soluble vitamins.

Nutritionist Alice Mackintosh agrees. “Meat and fish have the added benefit of containing other beneficial vitamins, minerals and healthy fats,” she says.“While seitan is a source of iron and calcium, it’s also low in omega-3 fats, iodine, zinc and vitamin B12.”

The most “natural” of the plant meats is, perhaps, tofu – made from soya and by far the least meat-like in taste and texture. “Tofu contains the complete range of amino acids,” says Travers. “But it’s controversial because soya is high in phytoestrogen, which can mimic the [female] growth hormone oestrogen.”

Mackintosh believes there’s an under-appreciated winner in the fake-meat race: tempeh. Like tofu, this Indonesian staple is also made from fermented soybeans but, unlike tofu, the whole bean is retained. “Tempeh is the best choice in terms of health, offering a complete protein source alongside fibre, minerals and vitamins,” she says. “Plus, it has safe levels of phytoestrogens. I still wouldn’t recommend tempeh as your only protein source. But, as far as meat replacements go, it’s the best choice.”

Fake It to Make It

If this dilemma feels familiar, that’s because we’ve been here before. Fears around saturated fat led to the renewed popularity of butter imitation spreads, made with vegetable oil; concerns about sugar birthed chemical sweeteners such as sucralose. “I think that sometimes people become so concerned about not eating particular foods that they end up eating something less natural,” says Travers. The reduced traffic in the meat aisle appears to be the latest iteration of exactly that.

Sugar is perhaps the closest analogy. A moderate intake won’t hurt you; too much of it will. A chemically sweetened snack bar is harmless; relying on them as a dietary prop, not so much. And accepting that not everything requires sweetening? That seems to be a sensible strategy.

Likewise, not every meal needs to be built around a hunk of flesh. A growing body of evidence suggests we should rely more on wholefood plants for protein; pulses, grains, nuts and green vegetables are good sources, too. According to the British Dietetic Association, increasing our consumption of plants and moderating our meat intake could help us lose weight and reduce our risk of diabetes, thyroid problems, heart disease and, in particular, bowel and prostate cancer.

“It is definitely possible to replace meat with a variety of plants,” says Travers.“You just need to make sure you’re doing it smartly. There are some nutrients, such as vitamin B12, that we can only get from animal products, so vegans need to supplement. It’s a case of doing your research.” After all, it isn’t a plant-, meat-or seitan-based diet that does you good –it’s a consciously balanced one.

Vegan junk foods, meanwhile, are going nowhere but up. “People find it hard to let go of things they’re used to eating,” says Sgaia Foods’ co-founder Masin. “[Meat-eaters] might buy a steak from a butcher for a special dinner, and I feel like that’s missing from the vegan community.”

In Shoreditch, CookDaily’s King Cook has a similar message. “I’ve been used to chicken for so long that now and again I want a good, deep-fried vegan chicken. Vegan sausages are OK on their own, but in a nice stew, you can’t tell the difference from meat. Vegan cheese by itself is... meh. Put it in lasagna and it’s lovely. If you’re creative, you can’t tell.”

For most people, replacing meat with processed alternatives won’t be as simple as a straight swap. Just as it would be inadvisable to eat beef for breakfast, lunch and dinner, the same applies to seitan. The answer to more nutritious, integrated eating may be to use meat alternatives alongside what is already in your dietary arsenal. Instead of shunning all animal products or writing off veganism, why not enjoy the best of both worlds? Vegan chicken may not measure up to the real thing, but that’s no reason to dismiss those working to make the movement go down easier. And in the meantime? An extra side of greens wouldn’t go amiss.

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