The truth about meat pies

Very few meat pies are tasty or packed with meat, while the majority are a very unappetising prospect.
 
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01 .Introduction

meat pies

They’re an Australian icon – eaten at the footy, ready as a quick snack in service stations, fresh in bakeries and available in all shapes and sizes at the supermarket. According to the 2009 annual report by Retail World, single serve pies were worth $127.1 million in grocery value and around 18,500 tonnes in grocery volume. Patties and Sargents dominate the sector. Patties makes Four’N Twenty, Herbert Adams, Patties and Snowy River pies while Scotts, Big Ben and Sargents pies all fall under the Sargents umbrella.

CHOICE analysed 20 meat pies, looking at their meat content and on-pack nutrition information, as well as examining the meat contents for gristle. We covered most of the national brands stocked in the frozen section of the supermarket. Eleven of the pies were also included in a taste test. Meat pies have been redefined by the Food Standards Code to include "meat flesh". And since our last test in 2006, there seems to be an improvement in meat content as some manufacturers have lifted their game to go beyond the standard 25% requirement.

There’s no chemical test specifically for ‘meat’. What’s measured is protein, and the meat content (as a percentage of the whole pie, not just of the filling) is calculated from this. As long as it’s declared on the label, manufacturers can also include soy protein in the filling. However, the analysis doesn’t distinguish between protein from meat and protein from vegetable protein. In our last test, we measured levels of soy protein in the filling, but found that most pies had only trace amounts. So we didn’t analyse the pies for soy protein this time.

How we analyse

Laboratory analysis We send the pies to an external laboratory to analyse their meat content. Three samples of each pie are tested and the results averaged. This test determines if the pies meet the FSANZ standard.

Nutritional analysis Using the information on the label, we record the energy, total fat, saturated fat, sodium and weight of the pies.

Physical analysis (for gristle) Our tester, Fiona Mair, puts the contents of the pie in a sieve, washes away the gravy with water and then makes observations of gristle in the meat. Unfortunately, this is a difficult test - the meat is usually minced so finely it makes detection tricky.

Taste test A panel of 20 CHOICE staff members taste-tests 11 of the 22 pies. All 22 pies couldn't be tested as we simply couldn't get enough tasters. We select the pies to be taste-tested by type - we choose the 'traditional' style pies available frozen from the supermarket. We also try to cover all the major brands. The pies are prepared according to packet instructions; half a pie is presented to each panellist on a plain plate, with no brand identification. Panellists individually consider the appearance and taste of the pies filling and pastry, and give it an overall rating based on whether or not they would buy the pie.

 
 

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To find out how much meat is actually in the pies, we sent them to a laboratory to be analysed.  We also dissected the pies to examine the quality of the filling and found detection of gristle difficult. Most brands contain predominantly mince, so there’s no way of telling what kind of meat it is by observing the filling as we did. Of the pies that claimed to have chunks of meat, our tester found that there weren’t many chunks and the filling was predominantly mince. Gristle was detected in all the pies, but only in relatively small amounts. While unpleasant, gristle, generally connective tissue and blood vessels attached to the meat, is allowed by the Food Standards Code. The only standout observation was a splinter of bone in the Black & Gold pie.

 meatpie_table

All of the pies tested are ok to eat occasionally in terms of total fat and sodium. While 13 of the pies have too much saturated fat, following our traffic light system the rest are only amber traffic lights for total and saturated fat as well as sodium. Four’N Twenty Lite meat pies have the Heart Foundation Tick of approval, but this doesn’t necessarily mean they have the least amount of saturated fat. That honour goes to Patties Gluten-free meat pies - unfortunately the most expensive pies on test, but suitable if you have a gluten intolerance.  The Heart Foundation’s Tick program follows nutrition criteria to represent choices that are lower in certain nutrients (saturated fat, sodium) than other foods in the same category. However, manufacturers need to pay to participate in the program, and in many cases, even when their products comply, manufacturers may choose not to (see Food Endorsement Programs). Always use the nutrition information panel to help you choose the healthiest pie.

Our analysis found You’ll Love Coles to be the only pie on test that fails to meet the minimum 25% requirement of the Food Standards Code, containing just 22.7% meat. However, the manufacturer disputes our results, and provided their own independent analysis showing the pie meets the standard. When we tested a second batch of Coles pies, our original findings were confirmed. It's puzzling that the You'll Love Coles pie has almost 10% lower meat content than Coles Smart Buy which is less than half the price. The manufacturer says this variation relates to the different species of meat used. Smart Buy uses a combination of beef and mutton meat, which is of cheaper cost and higher in fat content whereas You'll Love Coles contains all beef.

Mrs Mac's, Sargents Premium Chunky Beef Royale and Herbert Adams Pepper Steak Chunky pies barely make the minimum requirement, all containing just over 25% meat as required by the Food Standards Code. In our last test of meat pies in 2006, Big Ben Extra Tasty, Sargents Traditional and Black & Gold pies failed to meet the standard. We're pleased to see these manufacturers have since lifted their game to meet the 25% requirement.

FSANZ Standard

Since our last review of meat pies in 2006 Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) have improved the definition of a meat pie. Previously, a meat pie had to contain 25% 'meat', which could include parts of the animal such as snouts, ears, tongue roots, tendons and blood vessels.

Now, under the Food Standards Code, a meat pie must contain a minimum of 25% 'meat flesh'. Meat flesh includes the skeletal muscle of any slaughtered animal as well as any 'attached' animal rind, fat, connective tissue, nerve, blood and blood vessels. But it doesn't have to be beef, muscle meat from buffalo, camel, cattle, deer, goat, hare, pig, poultry or sheep can be used to manufacture meat pies and doesn't need to be specified on the label. When it comes to offal however, the presence of brain, heart, kidney, liver, tongue or trip must be declared on the label. Offal can also include parts of the carcass such as blood, pancreas, spleen and thymus. Thankfully none of the pies on test declared the presence of offal.

How we analyse

Laboratory analysis We send the pies to an external laboratory to analyse their meat content. Three samples of each pie are tested and the results averaged. This test determines if the pies meet the FSANZ standard.

Nutritional analysis Using the information on the label, we record the energy, total fat, saturated fat, sodium and weight of the pies.

Physical analysis (for gristle) Our tester, Fiona Mair, puts the contents of the pie in a sieve, washes away the gravy with water and then makes observations of gristle in the meat. Unfortunately, this is a difficult test - the meat is usually minced so finely it makes detection tricky.

Taste test A panel of 20 CHOICE staff members taste-tests 11 of the 22 pies. All 22 pies couldn't be tested as we simply couldn't get enough tasters. Taste testersWe select the pies to be taste-tested by type - we choose the 'traditional' style pies available frozen from the supermarket. We also try to cover all the major brands. The pies are prepared according to packet instructions; half a pie is presented to each panellist on a plain plate, with no brand identification. Panellists individually consider the appearance and taste of the pies filling and pastry, and give it an overall rating based on whether or not they would buy the pie.

Herbert Adams King Island Gourmet Premium Beef Pies take the gong for most meat at 38.5%, followed by Elmsbury Bakehouse Premium Grain Fed Beef Pies (Aldi) and Snowy River Meat Pies. Of these, Elmsbury has comparatively lower amounts of fat and sodium, making it our Best All-Rounder pie. Although it's not the cheapest on test, it's good to see the quality Aldi is offering in a premium pie that's nutritionally a better choice. Bear in mind, however, that Australian pasture-fed beef is a more sustainable choice than grain-fed beef.

 

 pies_bestbuy

What our tasting panel said

When it came to taste, our tasters weren’t too pleased. We asked them to describe the pie filling and pastry and give an overall impression. Of the tasters, 80% said there was too much gravy in Mrs Mac’s. This wasn’t surprising – when we cut the pies in half, gravy came oozing out. The other standout – half the panellists said Sargents Traditional Pies were too salty - and they were right; they were right up there for sodium content with 500mg per 100g. When it came to the overall impression of the filling, 65% said they liked Black & Gold, followed by 45% who liked Four’N Twenty Traditional. On the other hand, 80% disliked the filling of Coles Smart Buy. For the other pies, most panellists rated the filling as ‘OK’. One panellist summed up the taste, saying meat pies are “a snack that needs sauce.”

Our taste testers like their pie pastry to be a decent thickness that holds the contents of the pie well and doesn’t break apart in their hands. Around 70% said Four’N Twenty Traditional and 65% said Herbert Adams King Island Gourmet had perfect pastry. Almost half said Mrs Mac’s pastry was too thick, and Scott’s was too thin. Meanwhile, 80% said the pastry of Big Ben Traditional was too doughy and 40% said that Homebrand pies break apart, which we noticed as soon as we opened the packet.

As a final question we asked our panellists to consider if they would buy the pies or not. They were most likely to buy Four'N Twenty making it our Best Taste winner followed by Black & Gold which was also up there for taste. They were very unlikely to buy any of the other pies, particularly Homebrand, Scotts and Coles Smart Buy.

Elmsbury (Aldi) Bakehouse Premium Grain Fed Beef Pie wasn’t initially included into the taste test. However, when it came out as our Best All-rounder we put it through a small taste test, to confirm it had good taste along with its comparative value for money and nutritional quality.

The beauty of making your own pies is that you know what’s going in there and you won’t get any nasty surprises when you bite into them. Our recipe has less sodium than the pies we analysed, providing you make your own stock. However, it doesn’t fare any better for total and saturated fats. Keep in mind that the fat comes predominantly from the pastry and you can lower the amount by making your own pastry. Once the filling is made, you can either freeze the left-over meat or make up the pies and freeze them uncooked, so they’re ready to bake.

Make a meal of it – serve the pies with vegetables like potatoes, carrots and broccoli or make a fresh salad. To retain the most nutrients, stir-fry, steam or microwave the vegetables rather than boiling them. Adding a small amount of oil to the preparation of the vegetables can also enhance the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (Vitamins A, D, E and K). However, keep in mind that, once you start to put salt on your vegies and butter or gravy on your potatoes, you’ll compromise the nutritional quality of the meal. Once the filling is cooked, it makes for a quick, easy and, most importantly, tasty meal.

Ingredients (makes 12 single serve pies)

• 1 tablespoon (tbsp) olive oil
• 1 large brown onion, finely chopped home-made meat pies
• 1 clove garlic
• 1kg lean beef mince
• 1 bay leaf
• 600ml beef stock
• 2 tbsp tomato paste
• 2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
• ¼ cup red wine (optional)
• Salt and pepper to taste
• 1 tbsp fresh thyme
• 3 tbsp cornflour, made into a paste with cold water
• 4 sheets frozen, ready-rolled 25% reduced-fat shortcrust pastry, thawed
• 3 sheets frozen, 25% reduced-fat puff pastry, thawed
• 1 egg, beaten

Method

1. Preheat oven to 220°C, using the top and bottom element as well as the fan.

2. Grease 12 pie pans (8cm x 11cm diameter) or a 12-cup large muffin pan.

3. Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add onion and garlic. Cook for three minutes or until soft.

4. Add mince and cook until browned.

5. Add bay leaf, stock, tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce, red wine, salt and pepper and thyme. Bring to the boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 1 hour with the lid on.

6. Pour cornflour paste into meat mixture, stir until mixture thickens, remove from heat and cool.

7. For the base, cut out shortcrust pastry to the desired shape of the baking dish (cut out pastry 3cm larger in diameter than the pie pan diameter for the overhang). Press into pie pan. Fill with 3 tablespoons of mince. Brush rims with egg.

8. Cut pastry top from the puff pastry (use the diameter of the pie pans to cut around). Place over meat. Press to seal. Trim. Brush with egg.

9. Place pies onto hot tray. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until the pastry is golden.

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