Move over Linda McCartney and Quorn – there's a new generation of meat alternatives in town.
Once the exclusive domain of vegetarians and vegans, plant-based meats are now being marketed at traditional meat eaters who want to cut down on meat and are looking for plant-based protein alternatives.
Not only do they look like meat, but they're often sold alongside meat in the supermarket – and some even 'bleed' like meat when you cook them.
So do they actually taste like meat? And are they as healthy as some manufacturers claim?
To find out, we test six plant-based burger patties and three plant-based minces sold in supermarkets from brands including Alternative Meat Co, Beyond Meat, Funky Fields, Unreal Co and Veef.
Beyond Meat Beyond Burger Plant-Based Patties
- CHOICE score: 66%
- Price per 100g: $5.29 ($6 per patty)
- Country of origin: USA
"Tasty. Good smoky taste. Very moreish."
"Didn't enjoy the first bite but then I grew to love it, three bites in."
"Not unpleasant. Best option on test."
"Surprisingly nice flavour and texture. Looked nice enough. Smoky flavour."
"Chuck it on some white bread with tomato sauce and you've got a winner."
Good to know:
Five of our six non-meat-eating participants were a fan of this sample, although some found its likeness to meat disconcerting.
"Holy s*** this is like eating real-life animal, the texture is a bit confronting, but it's nice once you remember it's plants. Tastes like beef."
"Is this a Beyond Burger? This is the most meat-like of the samples. Almost disturbingly so. Strong, smoky, meaty flavour. But slightly unnerving for a vegan."
"Meaty flavoured! Nice texture, flavour of the surface reminds me of real BBQ (cooked/burnt flavour with meat)."
Naturli (Funky Fields) Minced 100% plant-based
- CHOICE score: 51%
- Price per 100g: $2
- Country of origin: Denmark
"Good texture, most like mince meat, great flavour."
"I would happily eat this instead of mince."
"Very similar texture to meat. Appears similar to meat, but it's not meat."
"Juicy, tasty, just a little bit chewy."
Good to know:
Fiona Mair, CHOICE home economist, found this the easiest of the mince samples to cook.
"Texturally it was very similar to beef mince," she said. "Where some other products were like paste, this sample separated readily rather than clumping together, and it browned nicely."
It certainly looks convincing, Naturli Minced (left) and regular beef mince (right).
A meaty taste may not necessarily be a selling point if you're vegan or vegetarian. But if you're hoping to sneak plant-based meats into the kids' meals without them noticing, or encourage your carnivorous partner to embrace meat-free Monday, chances are you're looking for a meat alternative that looks, smells and most importantly tastes as close as possible to the real thing.
So for each product our meat eaters sampled in our blind taste test, we asked if they thought it was plant-based or real meat.
Most like meat
Naturli (Funky Fields) Minced (which we served up as a Bolognese sauce) was the most convincing – seven of our 36 meat-eating participants thought it was meat.
Very tasty, good flavour. Possibly turkey mince
People commented on its meat-like texture and appearance, and even many of those who could tell it wasn't meat, still found it a decent imitation.
"Convincing as meat … Think it's veg-based but a tough call," said one. "Enjoyed this one. Closest match," said another.
A couple of people likened it to turkey mince, saying "Very tasty, good flavour. Possibly turkey mince" and "If it's real meat, it's lean and likely turkey."
What's your beef? Beyond Burger (left), Next Gen 2 (right), regular beef burger (back).
As for the patties? Five of our 36 participants were convinced the Alternative Burger from The Alternative Meat Co was meat.
But being meat-like didn't guarantee they liked it, as our taste test results show.
Some of the more common ingredients, other than water, include:
- Vegetable protein from soy, pea, wheat, rice or a combination. This is often listed as 'protein isolate', 'textured vegetable protein' or 'defatted soy'
- Vegetable oil such as coconut or canola
- Starch from potato, tapioca, corn or maize
- Plant/vegetable fibre, often from peas
- Thickener, most frequently methyl cellulose (additive 461) and maltodextrin
- Yeast, mushroom and other vegetable/herb/spice extracts and/or powders
- Natural colour, often from beet
- Natural flavour.
What you'll struggle to find is a whole plant or vegetable.
The packaging, claims and even the concept of plant-based meats scream 'good for you'.
Most products carry protein-content claims, alongside a host of others including 'gluten free', 'vegan friendly', 'no GMOs' and 'preservative free'.
But are they as healthy as the marketing would have you believe?
At the end of the day they're still processed products, with little in common with the plants they're derived from.Nicole Dynan
Nicole Dynan, accredited practising dietitian and gut health specialist, suggests we take all that positive spin with a grain of salt.
"These burger-patty and mince products can definitely provide a convenient option for people who are time poor and wanting an alternative to meat," she says. "But they're still processed foods – they're not the same as whole plant foods that we should be eating more of, like legumes.
"The 'plant-based' and 'high-in-protein' claims are having a halo effect, but they're not telling the whole story."
Worth their salt?
According to Dynan, one issue is salt content. The Alternative Meat Co burger patty, for example, contains 638mg sodium – that's about 70% of a person's daily intake.
"Add a bread roll, cheese and some sauce, and you've met your sodium quota in just one meal," she says.
Some products also contain coconut oil, which bumps up their saturated fat content. The standout is Next Gen 2, which has 13.8g saturated fat in each patty, an amount that will fast track you towards the recommended daily limit.
Pick your protein. Beyond Burger (left), Next Gen 2 (right), regular beef burger (back).
As for protein, all the products we tested adhere to the food standards code in their claims to be a good source of protein (at least 10g protein per serve). But some would need more to make a decent meal, according to Dynan.
"We recommend 20-25g of protein per meal, and some of these products would only provide half that amount," she says.
"At the end of the day they're still processed products, with little in common with the plants they're derived from.
"If your goal isn't just to reduce your meat intake but to also increase your vegetable intake, you'd be better off eating a burger or Bolognese made from whole foods such as lentils, grated carrot and zucchini."
Australian Dietary Guidelines suggest nuts, seeds, legumes, beans and tofu as alternatives to animal foods for everyone, not just for those following vegetarian or vegan diets. These foods boost dietary variety and can be a valuable, affordable source of protein and other nutrients found in meat.
How does it compare with real meat?
On the plus side, plant-based meat can compare favourably with animal meat for certain nutrients.
"Quite often they're lower in fat – particularly saturated fat (with a few exceptions)," says Dynan. "And a number have added fibre, which you won't get from meat.
"But if you're substituting these patties for meat in your menu on a weekly basis as a means of improving your health, you'll probably get more value from eating a piece of good quality lean meat," says Dynan.
The plant-based mince we tested all came in 400g packs and ranged in price from $20 to $27.50 per kg. In comparison, the most expensive beef mince we found on Woolworths online cost $17 per kg.
The plant-based burger patties came in packs of two or four, and ranged in price from $17.80 to $52.90 per kg ($2 to $6 per patty). The most expensive beef patty we found at Woolworths was $28 per kg ($3.50 per patty).
Burger chain Grill'd recently added plant-based Beyond Burgers to its menu. According to its website, the Beyond options range in price from $13.50 to $16, or you can choose any other burger from its menu and swap the patty for a Beyond patty – just be prepared to pay an extra $3.
Preparing samples for the taste test.
We tested plant-based burger patties and minces that are available nationally through at least one of the major supermarket chains. We focused on products that are being sold alongside regular meat in the chilled section and/or are marketed predominantly as 'plant-based' or 'alternative' (beef-style) meats rather than as vegan/vegetarian burgers. To be included, their first ingredient (other than water) had to be a vegetable protein.
Price is based on the pack price in Sydney stores (not on special) in September 2019. We tested a total of nine plant-based products (six burger patties and three minces).
Taste testing for CHOICE is serious business!
A total of 42 people took part in our taste test – 36 who do eat meat and six who don't (identifying as vegan, vegetarian or pescatarian). Participants tasted the samples 'blind' (without knowing the brands) in a randomised order, which was different for each person.
Burger patties and minces were tested separately. We pan fried all the patties according to pack instructions. We prepared a Bolognese sauce with each mince, using the same ingredients and following any cooking instructions on pack. We included a beef patty and a beef mince Bolognese (made to the same recipe) for comparison.
Each plant-based sample was tasted by all 42 participants (although only the 36 meat eaters tasted the two beef samples). For each sample, participants decided if they 'disliked', 'liked' or 'loved' it and wrote comments. The 36 meat eaters were also asked if each sample was plant based or meat based.
Testers tasted, commented and rated each coded sample.
The CHOICE score is made up of taste (70%) and nutrition (30%). We calculate the taste score as an average of all responses, whereby 'dislike' is scaled at 25, 'like' at 70 and 'love' at 100. The nutrition score is based on the product's Health Star Rating, which we calculated from the details in the nutrition information panel and changed to a percentage.