Few things in life are as simple – or as pleasurable to eat – as a burger.
That first bite, the rich, meaty and slightly charred flavours, mixed with smooth, salty cheese, the sharpness of onion and the tang of veg and sauce.
If this sounds vaguely obsessive, it’s because I’ve not eaten one since going vegetarian four years ago. Do I miss them? Clearly.
Five Guys, Shake Shack, Byron, The Handmade Burger Co – I once enjoyed them all.
My personal go-to was the McDonald’s classic Double Cheese Burger – it just hit the spot, quite perfectly.
The Moving Mountains burger is among a new wave of meat-substitute products said to look, smell and taste just like the real thing. They have same texture in the mouth as minced beef, say manufacturers
I’ve no regrets about quitting meat. I was put off by stories of horse meat in beef products and organic chicken that was anything but. Then there were reports of the vast quantities of antibiotics used on animals reared by the meat, poultry and fish industries – a major contributor to the global threat of drug-resistant bacterial infections.
However, I found bean burgers a bit of a letdown. They promise much but often seem to be either so dry that they suck the moisture from your mouth, or dissolve into a baby-food-like mush as you eat them.
And don’t even get me started on restaurants that try to pass off a Portobello mushroom sandwiched in a bap as a burger.
Of course, there are meat-substitutes made from soya, wheat or Quorn, a substance derived from an edible fungus, of which I’ve never been a fan. They are generally flavourless, and more akin to eating Play-Doh or rubber than meat.
There’s also something inherently disappointing about one food pretending to be another. Badly.
But now the alt-meat burger is undergoing something of a reinvention…
THE FAKE MEAT REVOLUTION IS HERE
Increasingly available in high street burger restaurants, and, in the case of the Beyond Meat burger, in supermarkets, there is a new wave of meat-substitute products said to look, smell and taste just like the real thing. They have same texture in the mouth as minced beef, say manufacturers.
Some, if you cook them right, even ‘bleed’ like a real burger. But they are 100 per cent vegan.
Last week, Burger King started stocking the vegan Impossible Burger in a move to attract 1.6 million vegans and vegetarians in Britain today and 22m who describe themselves as ‘flexitarian’
The success of these products, initially in trendy burger joints, has snowballed. Now fast-food mega-chains are getting in on the act.
Last week, Burger King started stocking the vegan Impossible Burger, and Nestle launched their soya and wheat protein Garden Gourmet Incredible Burger.
In addition, the Harvester chain has starting selling the Moving Mountains Burger – the fabled ‘bleeding’ vegan patty.
And they are not just aiming at the 1.6 million vegans and vegetarians in Britain today.
Companies are hoping to court the 22 million who describe themselves as ‘flexitarian’: part-time non-meat-eaters who opt for veggie meals and products in an attempt to boost their health.
A third of Britons now claim to have ‘meat-free days’, citing ‘health reasons’ and concerns for the environment as the main reasons.
Further down the line, with food-industry analysts warning that our insatiable desire for ever-cheaper meat is unsustainable, we could soon all be happily munching on lab-manufactured ‘beef’ burgers that have never even been near a cow.
Perhaps concerned that alt-meat is ever more difficult to distinguish from the real thing, earlier this month the European agriculture committee moved to ban producers of vegetarian food using descriptions usually deployed for meat, suggesting that veggie burgers should be renamed ‘veggie discs’.
So what is actually in these burgers (or discs), and do they really taste like meat?
To find out, we analysed exactly what the manufacturers put in their patties – and spoke to UK food-technology experts about how something so strikingly similar to beef can be made from plants.
With the help of leading dieticians, we examined the nutritional content to find out whether new-wave vegan meat substitutes are actually better for us – or even good for us at all.
And, most importantly, we tried them ourselves.
LOOKS, SMELLS AND TASTES LIKE MEAT… BUT IT’S NOT
Any scepticism I had about the plausibility of turning protein powder and some vegetables into a convincing burger evaporated when I ate a Moving Mountains Burger at our local US-style diner, Dirty Bones.
The patty is made from a blend of soy, wheat and pea protein, mushroom, beetroot juice – for colour – and coconut oil.
Nestle launched their soya and wheat protein Garden Gourmet Incredible Burger (pictured) this month
My memory of meat may be hazy, but I honestly think I’ve had less beefy-tasting beef burgers. It had the firmness and give, and that soft, yet chewy and slightly fibrous texture that real minced meat has.
Visually, it was equally convincing. The outside was brown and slightly glossy, inside it was a juicy pink and textured, with a few flecks of white – just like a real beef burger cooked medium rare.
At one point I had to check with the waitress that she hadn’t accidentally given me a ‘real’ burger.
For a more rigorous taste test, I ordered the patty on its own.
Naked, it was slightly less convincing. There was a subtle, slightly bitter flavour that beef perhaps doesn’t have. But again, compared to a McDonald’s burger, for instance, it was way meatier.
MEAT-FREE: Barney Calman and Eve Simmons sample alt-burgers at Dirty Bones in Kensington, west London
Moving Mountains is the brainchild of entrepreneur Simeon Van der Molen, who also founded EcoZone, the green cleaning product brand.
Why, I wonder, would someone who doesn’t eat meat want to eat something that looked, smelled and tasted exactly like, for want of a better term, animal flesh?
‘Our product isn’t just aimed at vegans or vegetarians,’ he admits. ‘It’s also for people who want to eat more healthily.
‘If someone is eating five burgers a week, and they’re worried about their cholesterol levels, they can keep eating burgers and get their cholesterol lower by swapping beef for our burger a few times a week.’
Vegan maybe… but one burger had twice the fat of a Big Mac
By Eve Simmons, Deputy Health Editor
There is no doubting the scientific input needed to make juicy, meat-free burgers that are uncannily like the real thing. But how does the new generation of alt-meat burgers perform when it comes to health… and taste?
Cals: 247. Saturated fat: 18g. Sugar: 0.6g. Protein: 14.4g. Fibre: 4.1g. Salt: 1.2g.
WHAT’S IN IT? A mix of pea, wheat and soy protein combined with mushrooms, chicory and tomatoes. Flour, oats and barley provide bulk and almost five teaspoons of coconut oil per patty binds the ingredients together.
It has plant-based bulking agents, plus sugar syrup, spices and lemon juice and added Vitamin B12. Beetroot juice gives colour.
VERDICT: One patty alone contains twice the saturated fat of a Big Mac, thanks to the coconut oil. It also packs more calories, sugar and almost three times the salt of a Tesco Finest beef burger.
The addition of a brioche bun and sauce takes it up to about 600 calories – more than half a margherita pizza.
However, there is the addition of Vitamin B12, essential for healthy blood vessels, and the same amount of bowel-friendly fibre as in a potato.
TASTE test: I’m not a burger fan. But I was surprised how meaty-tasting this was – and the texture and redness inside the patty were extremely convincing. This was the best of the bunch in terms of flavour.
HEALTH RATING: 2/5
BEYOND MEAT BURGER
Cals: 255. Saturated fat: 3.8g. Sugar: 0.2g. Protein: 19.6g. Fibre: 0.5. Salt: 1g.
WHAT’S IN IT? Mainly powder made from pea protein – it makes up a fifth of the burger. Coconut oil appears again, as does potato starch, yeast, sunflower oil, beetroot and gum Arabic – a popular thickener often used in sweets like chewing gum, plus a bulking agent made from a substance found in bamboo.
VERDICT: Although it’s the highest in calories, the Beyond Meat burger has the lowest saturated fat of all alt-meat burgers and half that of a real burger.
Sugar content is about the same, as is fibre, with salt fractionally higher.
Linia Patel, a dietician specialising in public health, says that pea protein lacks the array of amino acids that meat has and which are needed to successfully build protein in the body.
She says: ‘By choosing this burger over beef, you are substituting protein-rich meat for a poor-quality vegetable protein.’
This burger loses points for its lack of vitamins too.
A typical beef burger boasts important vitamins such as B12, B6, E, D and K, as well as iron and thiamine. Beyond Meat’s burger has none of these added but is injected with Vitamin C, which you won’t find in a typical beef burger.
TASTE test: In a word, bland. Served in a bap with a large amount of cheese, sauce and onion, it’s flavourful. But on its own, the patty tasted of nothing much. Burger lovers in the office were similarly unconvinced.
HEALTH RATING: 3/5
Cals: 240. Saturated fat: 8g. Sugar: less than 1g. Protein: 19g. Fibre: 3g. Salt: 0.37g.
WHAT’S IN IT? A concoction of almost 20 different ingredients that include powdered soya, coconut oil, sunflower oil, potato protein, yeast and vitamins.
Next, there’s a range of additives, such as the bulking agent methylcellulose, preservatives, flavourings and wheat starch.
But the crucial ingredient is ‘heme’, the compound that gives red meat its distinctive colour, juicy texture and taste. They claim their burger is nutritionally equivalent to meat.
VERDICT: It has six times the fibre of a regular beef burger, and an extra two grams of protein.
One patty also offers twice the recommended daily intake of Vitamin B12, essential for healthy blood vessels, and the same quantity of disease-fighting zinc as you’ll find in a beef burger.
It has similar amounts of saturated fat, sugar and calories to a real burger.
Linia Patel says potatoes and soya protein lack the amino acids that meat has, and these are vital for keeping muscle and bones healthy.
And there are question marks over how well the vitamins and heme are absorbed. ‘We know all the B vitamins in meat work together to be absorbed well by the body,’ says Patel. ‘We don’t know if the same is true for this version.’
TASTE test: The skinny, sinewy patty is slathered in spicy burger sauce which masks its lacklustre flavour. It does smell and look just like the McDonald’s equivalent, but the dull taste is incomparable. I continue chewing, waiting for my taste buds to awaken, but there’s no response.
HEALTH RATING: 4/5
The Moving Mountains burger – which is fortified with Vitamin B12, essential for a healthy nervous system and circulation, but found only in meat, offal or fish – contains no synthetic ingredients, he adds. ‘Even the beef flavouring is completely natural.’
THE MAKING OF AN ALT-MEAT BURGER
‘Completely natural’? It’s an interesting statement, so how true is it?
None of the companies making new-wave vegan beef burgers will reveal their exact manufacturing methods for commercial reasons.
However, using their listed ingredients, and with the help of technical food consultant Lindsay Bagley, we can get an idea.
Like all meat-substitutes, the primary ingredients in these burgers are proteins – derived from soya, peas, wheat and potato, either alone or in combination.
Most vegan products on supermarket shelves use these to make textured vegetable protein, or TVP – a product that was invented in the late 1950s, originally made from soy beans, as a cheap way to ‘bulk’ meat in ready meals.
To create TVP, first you need a protein powder, also known as ‘isolate’ or ‘concentrate’. To obtain this, the original soya bean, pea or other plant must first be crushed and ground to remove the indigestible outer shell, or hull, and then the plant’s natural oils must be removed via a ‘defatting’ process.
The most commonly used method is called hexane extraction.
Simply pressing the vegetable matter doesn’t remove enough oil, so a solvent is added. Benzene and ether can be used, but hexane, which is chemical by-product of crude oil is most commonly used.
The solvent is evaporated away with heat, leaving a solid residue which can then be milled into flours or ‘grits’ that are about 50 per cent protein.
Interestingly, defatted soy flour is also used as a glue in some forms of plywood.
But for it to be used in TVP, it is then washed further in ethanol, acidic waters, and later alkali, to remove carbohydrates and then centrifuged and dried to create a concentrated powder that is about 90 per cent protein.
‘This tastes pretty foul,’ admits Bagley, who advises companies on the manufacture and formulation of foods.
‘Proteins in their naked form have a bitter, astringent flavour that’s not palatable at all.’
Next, the powders are mixed with water, oils, emulsifiers and flavourings to mask the bitter taste. And this paste is then put into a machine known as an extruder.
‘These are a bit like pressure cookers – they use very high-pressure and heat, which gets rid of some of the unpleasant-tasting compounds,’ explains Bagley. ‘What comes out the other end is either a dough or a dry product.
‘You can create just about any shape you like, and a variety of textures. It can be spun into threads, which can then be compressed into what resembles chicken chunks, or thicker fibres to mimic meat. The options are pretty endless.’
The result of the extrusion process is TVP. But as Bagley explains: ‘This isn’t a saleable product. It’s an off-white colour, and doesn’t taste like much, so it’s mixed with other ingredients to add further moisture, texture, colour, and flavour.’
Moving Mountains and their competitors have invested millions into refining this process to create a premium, and highly realistic product – but the exact details of how are a closely guarded secret.
The Impossible Foods burger, which is being rolled out by Burger King in the US but is not currently approved for sale in the UK or Europe, is even more high-tech, and involved genetically engineering yeast to produce a type of iron normally found only in animal blood.
So on paper, yes, they are made from plants. But ‘completely natural’ seems to be stretching it a bit.
HOW MUCH MEAT IS IN THE REAL THING?
OF course, a delicious slice of organic grass-fed beef is as naturally nourishing as it gets
But in an age of spiralling food costs, old-fashioned butchered meat – of the type not reared with antibiotics, and prepared by being pumped with water and food dyes – can be extravagantly expensive.
Burgers are a more affordable family meal. But just how much meat is in the real thing anyway? You can find out with a quick check online. Tesco’s Finest British Beef Steak Burgers (£3 for four) are 94 per cent beef, but their Butchers Choice Burgers (£1.35 for eight) contain just 63 per cent beef. The rest? Onion, pea flour, water, beef fat, salt, dextrose, yeast extract, sugar, pea flakes, onion extract, and black pepper.
If you start to look at chicken products, the picture becomes dismal. One thing can’t be denied: we want burgers. According to analysts Mintel, last year Britons spent an astounding £5 billion in burger restaurants, up 7.5 per cent in one year alone. Demand has never been greater.
About 70 billion animals are reared for food each year and demand is projected to increase by 70 per cent by 2050, yet the industry is said already to cause 14.5 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
And there is mounting evidence that consumption of red meat – and in particular processed red meat, like burgers – is linked to increased risk of heart disease, obesity and bowel cancer.
Something has to give, so could fake meat be the answer?
As I said before, I didn’t stop eating meat for any reason other than the fact that I don’t trust supermarkets.
But the reason I put on quite a lot of weight in my 20s was because of my obsession with fast food.
Plant-based or not, burgers still pack a punch in terms of calories, fat, salt and all the rest.
Fake meat has won me over in a sense. But I don’t think I’ll be going back to my old ways.
Well, maybe not too often, anyway.