• Time was, vegetarians got a plate of vegetables, generally over-cooked and soft, with little flavouring but lashings of cheese sauce. Vegans got the same without the cheese sauce.

    It’s all different now. There’s a load of plant-based protein alternatives – and you don’t even have to go to the health shop to buy them. They’ve taken up residence in a supermarket near you. And a restaurant, coffee bar, deli. They’re everywhere.

    There’s more than a handful of companies bringing them to market – and they’re getting tastier all the time, as more and more people eat less and less meat.

    Outcast Foods was one of the first off the bat. Founder Guy Greenblat says: ‘Competition has increased dramatically and there are now far more options available, which is great for consumers. There is something for everyone.’

    But before him, there was Fry’s, the granddaddy of plant-based protein alternatives, or meat analogues. It’s been in the game since 1991 – and it has a market share of over 80% to prove it. It has always used non-GM plant proteins, says Tammy Fry, marketing director of Fry Family Foods. That’s right, it’s a family company, and has always been.

    ‘From day one it appealed to families who were either complete veggies, or were cutting out meat a few times a week for religious reasons,’ she said.

    Since those days, being vegan has become something of a trend.

    ‘We definitely saw the benefit of the growing trend of plant-based,’ says Tammy. ‘We started to see an upswing as early as 2018. 2020/2021 was a massive year for us. That being said, the plant-based meat category has been impacted by global economic trends. As most things have. So locally our growth steadied.

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    ‘The growth in adoption of reduced meat diets is absolutely inevitable – but plant-based meat brands around the world have seen that they can’t just ride on the wave of “trendy”. They need
    to create good products that satisfy flexitarians and they need to find ways to make plant-based more accessible and affordable, especially in South Africa.’

    For Outcast Foods, it was a happy accident. ‘We started early and happened to be on trend by mistake; this helped to establish the brand. Competition has increased dramatically and there are
    now far more options,’ says Guy.

    The company has been making plant-based protein options for five years. ‘We only really started on the burgers three years ago. Before that it was other plant protein meals like falafel. We have just launched a new frozen burger patty that we are very excited about and are getting incredible feedback from adults and kids.

    ‘It has some meatiness but is not pretending to be meat, yet meat eaters from 20 to 70 are also loving it.’

    What’s It Made Of?

    The short answer is plant protein. Veganista (veganista.co) breaks it down, saying grains, vegetables and spices. Soy is still the main ingredient in most vegan meats today.

    There’s wheat and peas, or pea protein, the newest ingredient. There are vegetable oils for the sizzle and starches from vegetables such as potatoes to bind it all together.

    But Is It Healthy?

    What are the health implications of plant-based meat substitutes, you ask. They are, after all, heavily processed.

    ‘This is a topic very close to my heart,’ says Guy. ‘I do believe there may be issues that will come up in future as the substitutes that are more realistic are usually heavily processed in a variety
    of ways.

    ‘The processes are also getting more complex as realism is the target. It is a new wave of processed food being marketed as good for you and the environment. It may be better than meat, we really don’t know; time and long-term studies are needed.’

    But he’s happy. ‘I am still glad that we have these super-realistic meat alternatives as they help many people make a better choice for the animals and environment.’

    Tammy says: ‘Our take on this is that Fry’s, or any meat analogue products, should always form part of a balanced diet. Meat analogues are not a replacement for vegetables. Whole food diets are of course fundamentally better for you – but the reality is that people are busy and sometimes it is just easier to pop a sausage in the air fryer.

    ‘If that sausage is made from non-GM, plant-based proteins, it is higher in fibre, lower in cholesterol and has no hormones or antibiotics and the like found in some meat products.’ Independent studies have found there is a tendency for meat-reduced or plant-based diets to be higher in nutrients because people tend to eat more varied meals and more veggies.

    Why Are Folk Choosing Vegan?

    Consumer buyer behaviour around plant-based is complex. In the EU/USA and Australia, consumers tend to choose plant-based for environmental reasons. In the UK, they lean more towards health.

    Fry’s research has found that South Africans tend to be eating less meat for health reasons too. ‘The vegan market is still cutting out all animal products for animal ethics primarily – and will explore all manner of plant-based, from whole foods to meat analogues. But finding products that have the taste, texture and application of meat is a bit less of a priority,’ says Tammy. ‘The flexitarian market – those who are reducing meat, but not cutting it out entirely – are very driven by products that give them a fantastic “meat-like” experience.’

    In South Africa, flexitarians are mainly doing it for health reasons, but globally they’re choosing meat alternatives to reduce their impact on the planet, she says.

    Guy puts it down to living your best life. ‘I think in the past it was seen as too radical for most. Now we live in a radical world and people want to live their best life and feel like they are making a difference. These people would not be 100% vegan; maybe they predominantly lead a plant-based lifestyle but still consume some animal products from time to time.’

    But why do vegans even need a meat analogue product? Perhaps it’s because people who give up meat ‘for the environment’, not the animals, are looking for a ‘meat-like experience’.

    ‘People are looking at it from an environmental perspective and most people who used to consume meat will be looking for a meat-like experience. I think for some, the drive for a replicated experience is stronger and these are the people driving the trend. Perhaps some are simply looking for something satisfying and tasty and easy to prepare,’ says Guy.

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    Photo: Pexels

    The last word goes to Tammy: ‘We don’t believe we should be avoiding the comparison to meat – we believe that this comparison is what is going to change the food system (big statement,
    we realise). Long term, we have to be able to produce better and better products if we are going to persuade flexitarians to eat less meat in a significant and meaningful (and sustainable) way.’

    And Then There Was The Lab

    Don’t like plants? How about cultivated meat? Brett Thompson, co-founder and CEO of NewForm (previously Mzansi Meat Co) believes the product his company is developing will be able to answer the concerns many people have about plant-based proteins. Concerns such as taste, texture, process, what goes into it.

    NewForm cultivates meat. It starts with a punch biopsy, taking a 6 × 6 mm sample from the animal – the animal is given a sedative and a long-acting painkiller. And this needs to be done only once.

    The sample is taken to the company’s cultivator room, where the science boffins replicate an environment and treat the sample exactly as the animal would – food grade materials is fed into the cells, which consume these as it would happen in the animal’s body. And in a month, you’ve got a burger.

    ‘The final product is just muscle tissue and cultivated fat,’ says Brett. ‘There aren’t any sort of additional chemicals added.

    The goal is to have a completely clean process that is creating a healthier protein, without things like some of the bad fats and cholesterol.

    A cultivated burger has the taste and texture of a burger made the conventional way.

    It’s more sustainable, is better for the environment and uses fewer resources, adds fewer pollutants, uses less energy. There’s also the lack of food-borne zoonotic diseases, a big plus.

    Getting people to eat cultivated meat, however, will be a tough sell. But Brett and his team believe they will be successful.

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    Cannellini bean and courgette burgers with roasted cashew mayo, pickled beetroot and shaved carrot

    Written by Lorraine Kearney and published in Food&Home Spring 2023.

    Feature image: Pexels