What is the most sustainable alternative to meat?

20 May 2022 by

With a raft of new sustainable products claiming environmental credentials, we ask how operators are checking the green status of their suppliers' products

From 3D-printed faux meat and bleeding burgers, to fake fried chicken and everything inbetween, there doesn't seem to be a week that goes by without a launch of the "hottest new plant-based product".

The plant-based market is big business and it's tapping into an ever more environmentally-minded consumer. According to a YouGov poll conducted on behalf of Veganuary at the end of last year, a third of people in the UK are interested in eating a plant-based diet. Meanwhile, a report by the EU-funded Smart Protein project stated that plant-based meat alternatives are leading the UK plant-based food sector, with sales in 2020 totalling €502m (£428m), followed by milk alternatives at €231m (£197m).

Those suppliers offering meat alternatives are best placed to attract the increasing numbers of ethical and health-conscious consumers stricken by the climate change headlines who want to do their bit by eating less meat.

According to Nielsen Ad Intel, advertising spend on plant-based frozen and ready meals alone accounted for £15m in the UK market in 2021, while you only have to look at the eye-catching packaging of these products, often with green-coloured branding, to see how they are trying to catch the attention of well-meaning consumers.

And it's not just the supermarkets that are having to fit all the new products hitting the shelves – hospitality is also a key market for these new products with consumer interest translating onto menus. In fact, according to the Lumina Menu Food Trends Report almost half (48%) of dishes across menus last spring and summer featured a dish claiming to be sustainable, including vegan meals, which account for 39% of claims.

James Buckley, director of culinary for Levy UK & Ireland, is a big advocate of ramping up veg intake in our diets for health benefits and to reduce the amount of meat we consume. But when it comes to plant-based eating, the take-up is very varied for his end-consumers. He says for the large dinners and exhibition events around 30%-35% of diners demand plant-based options, favouring veg-led dishes such as celeriac pastrami and cured butternut squash.

Meanwhile, in Levy's sports and events stadiums the demand for vegan food stands at around 10%-20%, "so we do need these [meat-alternative] products which work in a bun".

What lies beneath the eco-credentials

Buckley says operators should dig a little deeper into what exactly is in these meat-alternative products before adding them to menus. "It might look fit for purpose, but find out what lies beneath. You really want that veg to be in the top three ingredients to have any nutritional benefit."

Buckley also advises to steer clear of problematic ingredients such as palm oil – even if suppliers are insistent they are from a sustainable source – and to question the origin of all ingredients: "Soy beans from the Middle East are much more likely to be more sustainable than those farmed in South America. But at the end of the day, if it's produced in the UK it's a win-win."

He adds: "It's important to take time and give critical feedback to suppliers, because the people selling these products will push that feedback back up the line about why they couldn't sell it, and if demand isn't there they will have to re-think."

Chris Ribaudo, culinary director at Blue Apple, has been quizzing his suppliers about CO2 emissions of meat alternative products compared to locally sourced beef.

"As a chef, myself and my colleagues generally believe putting food like pulses on an aeroplane would be a lot more detrimental from an emissions perspective when you compare it to locally reared British beef from a small farm nearby. But after speaking to one of my suppliers, plant-based alternative meat manufacturer Heura Foods, they calculated that the CO2 emissions from a 1kg locally sourced piece of beef 5km away stood at 59.4kg, while 1kg of peas transported 8,500km around the world only produced 0.9kg of CO2. What they're claiming is that a cow from 5km away is far more damaging than something that has been transported over thousands of kilometres, which opened up a whole debate."

He adds: "What makes this more difficult is that there is a lot of conflicting information out there and the industry needs more standards in terms of measuring these emissions so we can make informed decisions." But Andy Aston, head of wellness and nutrition at Baxter Storey, points out that sustainability can't simply be narrowed down to CO2 emissions alone.

"We're faced with the reality that livestock account for between 14%-18% of global CO2 emissions, but the rearing of beef alone is also responsible for around 60% of global deforestation," he says, noting how the food supply chain is a delicate balance.

"The industry is seeing a growing market for meat substitutes but where we may be reducing our carbon footprint in one area, such as less reliance on animal protein, we risk tipping the scales towards increased deforestation due to the demand for palm oil or more farming land for soy or pea protein."

Like Buckley, Aston sees a market for the meat-substitute products in venues like stadiums and small pub groups. "But there is a growing trend for greenwashing with marketing used to make these products ‘trendy' and ‘sustainable'; when some plant-based burgers could have up to 26 ingredients from across the planet, not all necessarily ‘healthy'," he says.

"Seasonality, skills and craft-driven training are the things chefs are always taught. And you know what chefs are like, something comes onto the market and everyone is raving about it, but you need to take a step back and think, it's not meat, so you need to be careful. The market is saturated right now. Not to say it's all bad, meat-substitutes such as Quorn can be a great gateway to a more plant-based diet, particularly those leaning towards a more flexitarian lifestyle."

He adds: "While it's important to embrace new food trends, the approach to ingredients needs to remain centred on fresh, locally sourced produce with dishes created by highly trained, skilled teams. Giving chefs the knowledge and the tools to understand food provenance and the confidence to work with the best quality ingredients which are sustainable, nutritious and above all, taste good."

The high cost of plant-based

Neil Rankin is a chef who has spent a lot of time learning about food provenance, which led him to create Symplicity Foods, which produces plant-based burgers and sausages as well as a raft of other products using minimal ingredients and simple methods.

He warns operators to remember they're not buying veg when they're buying a plant-based product, but often a product which has individual elements which collectively must be more expensive than most meat. "If it's as cheap as meat, somebody in that supply chain is not making enough money," he says, pointing to the labour, travel, insurance and tax costs that all add up when working with multiple ingredients.

He explains that in terms of pricing you can't compare a 100% beef burger with a plant-based alternative, "they're not like-for-like products".

"If you buy the best piece of beef you can buy, that might cost you £30 a kg, while a tomato is £3 a kg. But to make that tomato look like beef, you need to take the water content out of it and process it and that will then cost over £30 a kg," says Rankin. "It's like comparing flour and bread – bread costs more than flour and comparing beef with plant-based protein is the same. You can't compare a single item like beef with something that's manufactured, even if it's a simple production like bread, which we all understand."

To keep control of costs, Rankin says Symplicity products use the minimal number of ingredients to achieve the required result, while employing as much of each raw ingredient as possible. For example, his plant-based burger is made from eight ingredients – mushrooms, beetroot, onion, wheat flour, burger wheat, miso, potato and citrus fibre.

Catherine Hinchcliff, head of corporate marketing, marketing & insights at wholesaler Bidfood, agrees that plant-based meat alternatives are likely to have more ingredients and processes than their meat counterparts: "This is because more ingredients and processing of the plant-based protein (like textured wheat protein) is required to mimic the flavour and texture of meat, along with additional fibre or thickeners, before you even add the ingredients that make up the final recipe, whereas you would not expect to have to process or add much more ingredients to animal protein to obtain the meaty properties desired."

Stepping back in time

It's this meaty effect that many of the brands are desperately trying to mimic in an attempt to attract more meat eaters to a vegan lifestyle.

While Buckley admits the innovation with some of these products is impressive – take Redefined Meat, which 3D prints its ‘beef' flank and other meat substitutes, so the product has fat marbled throughout the fibrous texture – he does find it ironic that instead of cooking vegetables the industry seems to have gone back towards eating more processed food.

"Before all these processed fake meats came out, we were desperate to get processed meats off the supermarket shelves. I remember being presented with a microwavable burger 10 years ago which was 30% beef and 60% soya and I said ‘I'm not serving that to my customers – I wouldn't serve it to my kids'. But you have to admire the innovation."

He says: "If we hadn't gone crazy with the way we eat chicken and beef in inhumane ways around the world, that would still be sustainable. We got greedy, everyone jumps on a bandwagon, when we should have just eaten what was around us and what the earth intend­ed us to eat."

Aston agrees: "For me, the reality is, as human beings, we never seem to be satisfied any more."

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