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Plant-based meat alternatives

What are they made from, are they healthy, and which ones taste best?

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Once the exclusive domain of vegetarians and vegans, plant-based meat alternatives are now being marketed to 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 what are they made from? Do they actually taste like meat? And are they as healthy as some manufacturers claim?

In 2019, we reviewed and tested six plant-based burger patties and three plant-based minces sold in Coles and/or Woolworths to answer these questions.

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What's in plant-based meat?

We looked at the ingredients list of plant-based mince and meat patties from The Alternative Meat Co, Beyond Meat, Coles, Eaty, Funky Fields, Naturli, NextGen2, Unreal Co and Veef.

Some of the more common ingredients in these products, 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
  • salt
  • 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.

Is plant-based meat healthy?

The packaging claims and even the concept of plant-based meat alternatives 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."

Salt content

According to Dynan, one issue is salt content. A single plant-based patty can contain as much as 50% of a person's daily intake of sodium. 

"Add a bread roll, cheese and some sauce, and you've met your sodium quota in just one meal," she says.

raw beef and plant based patties on wooden board

Pick your protein. Beyond Burger (left), Next Gen 2 (right), regular beef burger (back).

Protein content

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.

cut open cooked beef and plant based patties on wooden board

What's your beef? Beyond Burger (left), Next Gen 2 (right), regular beef burger (back).

Plant-based pluses

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."

So swapping out a regular commercial meat patty for a plant-based alternative at a barbecue or when eating out might leave you nutritionally better off.

"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.

"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.

raw beef and plant based mince on wooden board

It certainly looks convincing: Naturli Minced (left) and regular beef mince (right).

Does plant-based meat taste like real meat?

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."

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.

Which plant-based meats are best?

Of the nine plant-based meat alternatives we taste tested in 2019, the following burger patty and mince products came out on top.

For full details of all products we looked at, check out our review of plant-based meats.

Beyond Meat Beyond Burger

Beyond Meat Beyond Burger Plant-Based Patties

  • CHOICE score: 66%
  • Country of origin: USA
Taste-testers say:

"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

Naturli Minced 100% plant-based

  • CHOICE score: 51%
  • Country of origin: Denmark
Taste-testers say:

"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:

CHOICE home economist Fiona Mair 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."

How we test

people looking at packs of vegan meat in a kitchen

Preparing samples for the taste test.

Products

We tested plant-based burger patties and minces that were 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). 

people blind tasting vegan meat samples in a kitchen lab

Taste testing for CHOICE is serious business!

Tasting

A total of 42 people took part in our 2019 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 of the patties according to pack instructions. We prepared a Bolognese sauce with each mince, using the same ingredients and following any cooking instructions on the 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. 

a survey form with comments and vegan meat samples in plastic containers

Testers tasted, commented and rated each coded sample.

Scores

The CHOICE score is made up of taste (70%) and nutrition (30%). We calculated 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.