Taste: The great pretenders
Jeremy Iggers, Star Tribune
October 6, 2005
It's not nice to fool Mother Nature.
But when it comes to meat substitutes, a lot of consumers want to be fooled.
In university laboratories and corporate research centers, food scientists are closing in on the holy grail of applied food technology: meat substitutes that look, taste and chew like the real thing. The first of these "third generation" meat analogs -- Morningstar Farms Steak Strips and Chik'n Strips -- has just arrived in some local supermarkets, and other brands are on the way.
Unlike the current crop of meat substitutes, which are engineered to taste like hot dogs, hamburgers and other processed meat products, the new products are supposed to simulate the taste and texture of real muscle meat.
How good are they? The results of an informal taste test suggest that although the food technologists have made a lot of progress, they still have a way to go.
The number and variety of meat analogs in supermarket refrigerators and freezer cases has exploded in recent years: not just imitation hamburgers and soy-based hot dogs, but deli slices, chicken nuggets, fake bacon and mock duck. Over the past decade, these mostly soy-based "second-generation" products have made the leap from food co-ops and health-food stores to mainstream supermarkets. Their sales have gone from $167 million to $537 million a year nationwide.
First-generation products include tofu and tempeh (made from soy beans) and seitan, made from wheat gluten, all of which have been around for centuries, although until recently they were little known outside Asia. Most aren't considered analogs, since they don't resemble meat, although there are a few Asian specialty products that are artfully made to resemble pork, beef, chicken or shrimp.
Who makes this stuff?
Some of the biggest names in the American food industry are now big players in analog meats: Boca Burgers, founded by a restaurateur in Fort Lauderdale, is a subsidiary of Kraft Foods, while Morningstar Farms is owned by Kellogg. Texturized vegetable protein (also known as TVP), a key ingredient in many meat analogs, is actually a registered trademark of agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland, which processes soybeans and sells soy products to food processors.
And many of the best-known brands of fake meat have sprouted brand extensions. Tofurky, which built its reputation on molded imitation turkey roasts, popular at Thanksgiving, now has a product line that includes Italian sausage, kielbasa, jerky, burgers and deli slices. Boca's line of products now includes vegetarian pepperoni pizza, lasagna and chili, and Morningstar Farms, which built its reputation on vegetarian burgers and breakfast meats, now offers imitation corn dogs, Chik'n nuggets and breaded Parmesan Chik patties.
How do they taste?
Most of the analog chicken nuggets we sampled in our blind taste test didn't have a lot of chicken flavor, but then again, neither did the real chicken nuggets we tasted, which were chicken tenders from Burger King. All of these products are highly seasoned, and part of the trick of making fake meat taste like real meat is using the same seasonings.
For the record, the Burger King nuggets tasted more like real chicken than the fake nuggets, and our tasters liked them better. Our panel of tasters praised Quorn's peppery morsels as "delicious" or at least "not bad," but commented that Boca's nuggets were "crispy" but had "no taste."
Most tasters also had no difficulty tasting the difference between Burger King's quarter-pound hamburger and its vegetarian rivals. Although they liked the real burger best, several gave high marks to Morningstar Farms Harvest Burgers, which finished second in their rankings, with Boca Burger rating third. "It's not beef, but I think that's just fine," said one taster about the Morningstar Farms burger. "It's not offensive."
The fake hot dogs fared worst. Or wurst. Tasters immediately recognized the John Morrell chicken and beef franks as the genuine article, and were scathing in their comments about Lightlife's Tofu Pups and Quorn's Dogs, which are manufactured from a laboratory-cultured fungus called Fusarium venenatum.
We also cooked up batches of Morningstar Farms' two new third-generation meat analogs, Chik'n Strips and Steak Strips, stir-fried with a packaged veggie mix. Reviews were mixed. Both had a meatier, chewier texture than the other products we sampled, but nobody was fooled. Of all the analogs we tasted, the most convincing fake was probably Gardenburger's meatless riblets in a smoky barbecue sauce, whose flavor had a striking resemblance to that of the meat in McDonald's McRib boneless barbecued pork sandwiches (now discontinued).
How do they make it look like and taste like meat?
Flavor actually has two components -- taste and aroma -- says food scientist Keith Cadwallader of the Illinois Center for Soy Foods at the University of Illinois. And most of the characteristic flavor of foods is from the aromatic component. Flavorings from plant sources can mimic those aromatic components. Glutamic acid, also known as MSG, is an important element of many flavors, but in particular the flavor of meat.
Soy sauce is a natural source of glutamates, while yeast and some mushrooms have meatlike flavors that can be used to give vegetarian products the taste of meat, said Barbara Klein, also at the Center for Soy Foods.
Texture is trickier. It is very difficult to get vegetable protein to behave like meat, but this is an area where food scientists have made considerable progress in recent years, Cadwalla-der said. To turn soybeans into fake meat, soy flour is mixed with water to form a batter that is then extruded through a die under high pressure and temperature. The process realigns the protein structure of the soy into strands, giving the soy a meatlike texture. The soy protein is then dried, rehydrated and cooked.
Of the meat analogs that are currently widely available, the imitation chicken products seem to come closest to the taste of the real thing (i.e., processed chicken nuggets and patties) in taste and texture. Klein recently conducted a study with schoolkids that found that kids liked the soy nuggets almost as well as the ones made from poultry. That suggests that the kids couldn't really tell the difference.
Third-generation products that first appeared in supermarkets were Morningstar Farms' Steak Strips and Chik'n Strips by Garden Protein International of Canada, using a more advanced version of the extrusion technology. Yves Potvin, Garden's president and inventor of the strips, compares the extrusion process to making noodles with a pasta machine.
Other third-generation products are in the pipeline. Archer Daniels Midland's NutriSoy Next brand of whole-muscle meat analogs are scheduled to arrive in supermarkets by early next year, either under an ADM house brand, or under the brand of a company they supply.
Professor Mian Riaz of Texas A&M's Food Protein R&D Center says the new technology can produce analogs that "exactly resemble the meat you buy from the butcher -- same moisture content, same fat content, same mouth feel."
Who eats fake meat?
"Baby boomers, people that are health-conscious, not necessarily vegetarians. It's a broad group of people," said Cadwallader of the Illinois Center for Soy Foods. "You have some people who are vegetarians who don't really care to eat meat but they might like the texture and the flavor. And then there are other people who are trying to get away from meat, and would like an alternative that tastes like meat."
Most meat analog consumers are mainstream shoppers, but tend to have higher than average levels of income and education, says Peter Golbitz, president of Soyatech, a publishing and consulting company based in Bar Harbor, Maine. Those consumers, more prevalent on the East and West coasts, are willing to pay a premium for meat analogs because they perceive them as a more healthful choice. The vast majority are not vegetarians, although they choose vegetarian alternatives on a regular basis.
Are fake meats more healthful?
In a word, yes. A 100-gram (approximately 3.5 ounces) Tofurky kielbasa contains less than half the fat of a typical pork kielbasa (12 grams vs. 28), and no cholesterol. Lightlife's Smart Bacon has less than one-quarter the fat content of the genuine article. And Morningstar Farms burger patties have one-fifth the fat of a comparable serving of ground beef, and nearly as much protein. Other health issues also may be a factor in the growing popularity of meat analogs. For example, sales of meat analogs spiked in Great Britain after mad cow disease made headlines.
The cost of meat alternatives will come down, the same way that the cost of soy milk has come down, Golbitz said. Eventually, meat analogs will be less expensive than meat. The raw materials involved are much less expensive. "People who buy meat aren't paying the true cost of meat," said Golbitz. "They are not calculating the cost of land degradation, water usage and environmental costs. If those costs were factored in, the cost of meat would be a lot higher."
He predicts that as more consumers become aware of the environmental and health impact of our meat-based diet, the popularity of vegetarian alternatives will increase. "We have serious chronic health issues in the U.S. based on overuse of animal proteins. The real price is much higher than the cost of just meat itself, to the subsequent burden on our health care system," Golbitz said. "Whether it is in our generation or the next, we are going to have to switch to more plant-based diets."
Where to buy?
The most popular brands of meat analogs, such as Boca, Morningstar Farms and Gardenburger can be found in the refrigerator shelves and freezer cases of most local supermarkets and food co-ops. The "third-generation" steak and chicken strips from Morningstar Farms can be found at Rainbow and Target Superstores and are expected to arrive in other local supermarket chains soon.
Nearly every Asian market carries a brand or two of mock duck, often labeled as braised gluten. One local Chinese restaurant, Evergreen Taiwanese (2424 Nicollet Av. S., Minneapolis, 612-871-6801), specializes in vegetarian dishes made with gluten-based imitations of beef, pork, chicken, shrimp and squid. (Meat and seafood dishes also are served.) A selection of these frozen imitation meats and seafoods, imported from Taiwan, is for sale in a freezer near the entrance of the restaurant.
Jeremy Iggers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.