Plants are what my food consumes.
Plant-based burgers are all the rage in 2020, but meat substitutes date back to at least 965. Will we ever invent the perfect proxy – or should we forget about meat altogether?
Another year, another skirmish in the culture war. The launch of Greggs’ latest offering, a plant-based steak bake, has revived the kerfuffle that surrounded the bakery chain’s vegan sausage roll. Amid a flurry of hot takes and taste tests, up popped Piers Morgan to complain: “A ‘meatless’ steak is not a bloody steak.”
Meanwhile, some vegans have been complaining about KFC and Burger King adding plant-based burgers to their menus. One animal rights activist told the Guardian last week: “They’re trying to buy us off with these products, and pretending they’re our friends.” Happy Veganuary, everyone.
This may seem a peculiarly modern obsession – can science produce something that has a similar taste, appearance and texture to meat, but isn’t meat? – but it has been simmering for over a millennium. As early as 965, the frugal-minded Chinese magistrate Shi Ji was promoting tofu as “mock lamb chops”, according to William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi’s study, History of Meat Alternatives.
The Chinese often used tofu (made from soya) and seitan (from wheat gluten) because of their availability and physical properties. “You can manufacture them into squishy, lightly fibrous substances,” says Malte Rödl, a research associate at the University of Manchester’s Sustainable Consumption Institute. By the 1620s, the process was so advanced that Buddhist monks at a banquet had to be reassured: “This is vegetarian food made to look like meat.”
In Victorian Britain, where the first vegetarians were motivated by health concerns as well as a belief that eating animals was immoral, meat, though expensive, was central to an aspirational diet. So early vegetarian propaganda emphasised the poor quality of most cheap meat, as well as the virtues of self-denial and thrift – not so different from the modern fixation with “wellness” and minimalism. The debate among vegetarians over how much to sacrifice their ideals in order to appeal to those still eating a “mixed diet” is also reminiscent of the current scepticism about fast food chains.
“The Victorian vegetarians were very concerned with not wanting to be like meat-eaters,” says Rödl. “Some people say: ‘We shouldn’t give in,’ but then other people say: ‘We need to become more popular.’”
But the repetitiveness and simplicity of a diet of mostly vegetables hamstrung the efforts of reformers, with the Daily News reporting in 1897 that the vegetarian movement had yet to “make their fare appetising”. And so, from the late 19th century, meat substitutes started to emerge, made from nuts, seeds or grains.
Many came via the Seventh Day Adventist church in the US. As director of the church’s Battle Creek Sanatarium in Michigan, Dr John Harvey Kellogg pioneered several meat substitutes, among them protose, “a nut-cereal preparation” which, he said, resembled meat “to a considerable degree … having a slight fibre like potted meat”.
But in general throughout history, meat substitutes have suffered from the curse of comparison to “the real thing”, says Rödl – as though there were even one single “thing” to aim for. “All meat tastes differently depending on how it is cured, who manufactured it, what spices are added,” he points out. “There might be some meat that you like, or don’t like, but you wouldn’t say it’s not meat, because it’s from an animal – but for meat alternatives, that argument doesn’t work.
“If people don’t like it, they’ll say it’s not like meat, therefore it’s not good. As soon as you know it’s not an animal that you’re eating, you are immediately more critical.”
The idea of meat alternatives as a second-rate option was reinforced during wartime, when consumption of less meat was either encouraged or mandated through rationing. During the first world war, “nut meat” was advertised in national newspapers, and even wholegrain bread was marketed as a meat alternative, on the strength of having a higher protein content than white bread. These “meatless and less-meat” diets predictably receded in peacetime.
During the second world war, soya was used to replace or fortify products – though not very palatably. Soya was left with an image problem that persisted until the 1960s, when the US company Archer Daniels Midland developed the “meal extender” textured vegetable protein (TVP), offering all the protein but less of the unpleasant aftertaste.
In 1971, Frances Moore Lappé’s bestseller Diet for a Small Planet was credited with making vegetarianism fashionable in the US. Seth Tibbott, then a college student in Ohio, was among those to convert, although plant-based products were not widely available at the time. He recalls eating “soy grit burgers”: ground-up soya beans combined with wheat flour and fried: “They tasted horrible, but they digested worse. I was very keen to find a soy product that digested well and tasted good.”
In the 1980s, he went into business producing tempeh, made from fermented soya beans. “It wasn’t very profitable,” he admits. “It was way before there was any interest in plant-based foods, that’s for sure.”
Then, in 1995, spotting a gap in the market for Thanksgiving, he created a turkey substitute from wheat protein and tofu – and named it Tofurky. “It really hit a chord,” he says. “No meat alternative had caught fire in the way Tofurky did then, and in the way that Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger are catching fire now. It just became part of American culture.”
But the potential of soya, and TVP in particular, was viewed with scepticism in the UK. A 1975 Guardian editorial headlined “A soya point” arched an eyebrow at the faux-bacon, ham and sausages on sale in the US, noting: “No one has yet managed to produce a meat flavour which is totally convincing, particularly beef.”
In 1960s Britain, meat alternatives had been mostly associated with the hippy movement, and the macrobiotic food trend from Japan. Gregory Sams, who is credited with inventing the veggie burger, fashioned a patty from seitan at his London restaurant Seed, which was frequented by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Later, in 1983, Sams’ sesame- and soya-based VegeBurger got a commercial release; an Observer report remarked on its “pleasant texture” and “agreeable, if a little bland” taste.
Then, in 1985, along came an undisputed hit in the form of Quorn, a low-cost meat substitute based on a microorganism in the fungi family and a process of fermentation. It had been 20 years in the making – one decade in development, another awaiting food safety approval. Key to its popularity were the meat-free mince, sausages, patties and even pepperoni and nuggets that could be seamlessly subbed in for meat products. Today it features in Greggs’ sausage roll and steak bake. Rödl says people are far more receptive to plant-based proxies for processed meats than they are to, say, a soya steak (although, he adds, there are now really nice ones available).
“Where we started with the Quorn pieces and vegetable pie, we now have over 120 products in the UK market,” says spokesman Alex Glen. This makes it “very easy for people to replicate their animal diets”. Yet, until relatively recently, Quorn was mostly targeted at vegetarians and vegans, rather than “meat reducers”: people who have no intention of giving up meat altogether but want to eat less, typically for health reasons. That market emerged in the 1990s, says Tony Watson, who in 2012 founded the soya-based brand Meat the Alternative.
The former butcher saw “the writing on the wall” and switched to working on improving meat analogue technologies for the DuPont organisation. Those technologies have not changed much in the past 15 years, says Watson – pea is increasingly being used as a meat substitute, but still “has a long way to go” with regards to texture – but the market has, with “phenomenal” growth in the number of consumers eating less meat in the past two years.
YouGov research carried out for Waitrose last year found that a third of Britons were eating less meat and fish than two years ago, with 32% planning to reduce their consumption even further. Just about every high-street chain, including Pret a Manger and Wetherspoons, is increasing their meat-free offerings as result.
But Watson says it is frustrating to see many companies “throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks”, being overly led by the tiny but vocal vegan community (less than 1% of the British population, he points out) and producing poor-quality products not suitable for meat-reducers. He expects many small meat-proxy producers to be driven out of business by rivals with bigger budgets for product development or marketing.
Among the biggest are Impossible Foods and Beyond Burger (which became a publicly listed company last year), both offering plant-based patties that are sweeping fast-food menus in the US and UK for their similarity to beef – down to the “blood”. Their success and the momentum it is creating for meat alternatives “has great impact for sustainability”, says Rödl.
But it also highlights a strange paradox underpinning the centuries-long pursuit of the perfect meat proxy: by trying to seamlessly remove meat from our diets, we are actually reinforcing its importance. “There’s this kind of association of meat and the good life – a bit of luxury, a nutritious diet – that means people want to replicate it in vegetarian terms,” says Rödl. “Because meat is so entangled with how we understand diets historically, it’s really hard to imagine ways outside of it.”
He points to a vegetarian sausage producer he interviewed for his PhD thesis on meat alternatives. She had no desire to replicate the texture or flavour of meat in her vegetable-only products – but nonetheless spoke with pride of the traditional “springiness” of the casing. In other words, she was congratulating herself on enveloping her meat-free product with something modelled on animal intestine.
When we successfully replace meat with a meat-free substitute, we overlook the possibility of a diet that is free of it altogether. “It just kind of keeps this idea of meat-eating as the centrepiece,” says Rödl – of food culture, if not our diet. Counterintuitively, the strange and storied history of the hunt for the perfect proxy really proves the point: “We don’t have an exit strategy from meat.”
Seth Tibbott’s memoir, Search for the Wild Tofurky, will be published in April.