Plant-based alternatives are helping the shift to more sustainable diets but they don’t all need to mimic meat, says Eugene Wang.
Hardly a day goes by without news of a new alternative to meat, or a study showing the need to shift our consumption patterns towards eating less meat and more plants. I still very much believe in the necessity of this shift towards truly sustainable diets and the role of plant-based meats in this.
It won’t be easy and much rests on the innovations the food industry can provide – and that includes tantalising new products to help sway more and more people towards plant proteins. But I do wonder if making these ‘meaty’ is the way to go.
Simulating meat is not the right strategy for the meat alternative sector. Why? For one, if you are trying to make your plant-based foods taste meaty it can appear to consumers too processed (long ingredients lists on meat alternatives are already an issue for consumers, and the scrutiny over processed and ultra-processed foods will only intensify). In mimicking meat so closely you are also adding costs (pricing is crucial during a cost of living crisis, and when cultured meats are moving closer to traditional meats in their price points). On top of that, it is really hard to make perfect meaty flavours with completely natural and non-GMO ingredients.
Simulating meaty flavours initially made sense for the whole industry. Not only has it helped create more interest and discussion, it also helps people to adopt the ‘plant-meat’ concept more easily. It’s certainly still an easier way to get more consumer buy-in to this concept, and faster (and there are plenty of flexitarians and meat reducers to pitch new products at).
But this is not a sustainable long-term strategy. So, what really should be the future for meat alternatives made from plants?
Well, we always tell our kids ‘try to be yourself and not to be someone else’. So why are we doing the exact opposite to our foods? You just can’t dress up a kitty and call it a tiger. I think it’s time to give plant-based meat its own personality. Make it unique to its true self but still tasty. It doesn’t have to taste like meat (that can put vegetarians off too). But it can still taste good, be nutritious and minimally processed so that people want to keep eating it.
Tofu and seitan are two wondrous examples our ancestors created centuries ago. When tofu and seitan were created, there were no technologies to help make these products taste like meat. So the people who created them naturally had to give them a unique taste and texture that is different from meat. And it still worked. In fact, it worked brilliantly. Many people worldwide are enjoying tofu and seitan today. These products are wonderful sources of plant-based proteins. And most people will agree tofu and seitan are very natural and minimally processed.
Did you also know there are more than 10 different textures (and even flavours) of tofu being consumed in Asia? Can we do the same with new plant-based meats? Making them tasty, but not ‘mocking’ the real meat. The taste factor is especially easy to solve in any foodservice channels: chefs are already working their magic on tofu and seitan, so give them the right texture and shape and they will turn a plant protein with no meaty flavours into a wonderful dish.
Which begs the question for foodservice operators: why choose plant-based protein with added synthetic flavourings and higher costs when you can have something more natural. It mightn’t be close to the ‘real thing’ – meat – but there’s no reason it can’t be really tasty.
Eugene Wang is co-founder and CEO at Sophie’s Bionutrients, which uses microalgae to produce plant-based foods.