Few things in life are as simple – or as pleasant to eat – as a hamburger.
That first bite, the rich, meaty and slightly charred flavors, mixed with soft, salty cheese, the sharpness of onion and the tongs of vegetables and sauce.
If this sounds vague obsessive, it’s because I haven’t eaten it since I became a vegetarian four years ago. Am I missing them? Clearly.
Five Guys, Shake Shack, Byron, The Handmade Burger Co. – I once enjoyed it.
My personal go-to was the McDonald’s classic Double Cheese Burger – it just hit perfect.
The Moving Mountains burger is one of the new wave of meat replacement products that are said to look, smell and taste just like in real life. They have the same texture in the mouth as minced meat, manufacturers say
I don’t regret stopping meat. I was put off by stories about horse meat in beef products and organic chicken that was anything but. Then came reports of the huge amounts of antibiotics used in animals kept by the meat, poultry and fish industries – an important contribution to the worldwide threat of resistant bacterial infections.
However, I found bean burgers a bit of a disappointment. They promise a lot but often appear to be so dry that they suck the moisture out of your mouth or dissolve in a baby-like paste while you eat them.
And don’t even let me start in restaurants trying to pass a Portobello mushroom into a hamburger.
Of course there are meat substitutes made from soy, wheat or Quorn, a substance derived from an edible fungus that I have never been a fan of. They are generally tasteless and look more like eating Play-Doh or rubber than meat.
There is also something inherently disappointing about one food that pretends to be another. Bad.
But now the alt-meat burger is undergoing something of a reinvention …
FALSE MEAT REVOLUTION IS HERE
Increasingly available in high street burger restaurants, and, in the case of Beyond Meat burger, in supermarkets, there is a new wave of meat replacement products that are said to look, smell and taste just like in real life. They have the same texture in the mouth as minced meat, manufacturers say.
Some, if you cook them well, ‘bleed’ even like a real burger. But they are 100 percent vegan.
Last week Burger King started to stock up on the vegan Impossible Burger to attract 1.6 million vegans and vegetarians in Britain today and 22 million people who describe themselves as “flexi fare”
The success of these products, initially in trendy hamburger tents, has a snowball effect. Now fast-food mega chains are taking action.
Last week Burger King started to stock up on the vegan Impossible Burger and Nestle launched their Garden Gourmet Incredible Burger soy and wheat protein.
In addition, the Harvester chain is starting to sell the Moving Mountains Burger – the legendary ‘bleeding’ vegan patty.
And they don’t just focus on the 1.6 million vegans and vegetarians in Britain today.
Companies hope to try the 22 million people who describe themselves as “flexi fare”: part-time non-meat eaters who opt for vegetarian meals and products in an effort to improve their health.
A third of Britons now claim to have “meat-free days,” citing “health reasons” and caring for the environment as the main reasons.
Further on, with food industry analysts warning us that our insatiable desire for ever-cheaper meat is untenable, we could all be happily chewing laboratory-produced “beef” burgers that have never been near a cow.
Perhaps concerned about the fact that alt meat is becoming more and more difficult to distinguish from the real thing, the European Agriculture Committee moved earlier this month to ban producers of vegetarian food using descriptions that are mostly used for meat, suggesting that vegetarian hamburgers must be renamed ‘vegetarian slices’.
So what’s in these hamburgers (or slices), and do they really taste like meat?
To find out, we analyzed exactly what the manufacturers put in their pasties – and talked to British food technology experts about how something so striking about beef can be made from plants.
With the help of leading dietitians, we examined the nutritional value to find out if new-wave vegan meat substitutes are actually better for us – or even good for us.
And more importantly, we tried them ourselves.
LOOKS, SMELL AND TASTES LIKE MEAT … BUT NOT
Every skepticism I had about the plausibility of turning protein powder and some vegetables into a convincing hamburger evaporated when I ate a Moving Mountains Burger in our local American-style dinner, Dirty Bones.
The pie is made from a mixture of soy, wheat and pea protein, mushrooms, beet juice – for color – and coconut oil.
Nestle launched their Garden and Gourmet Incredible Burger soy and wheat protein this month (photo)
My memory of meat may be blurry, but I honestly think I have had fewer beefy beef burgers. It had the firmness and taste, and that soft, yet tough, and slightly fibrous texture that really chopped.
Visually it was just as convincing. The outside was brown and slightly shiny, inside it was a juicy pink and textured, with a few white spots – just like a real beef burger cooked medium rare.
At one point I had to check with the waitress whether she had accidentally given me a “real” hamburger.
For a stricter taste test, I ordered the patty alone.
Naked it was a little less convincing. There was a subtle, slightly bitter taste that beef may not have. But again, compared to a McDonald’s burger, for example, it was much meatier.
FREE: Barney Calman and Eve Simmons taste alto burgers at Dirty Bones in Kensington, West London
Moving Mountains is the brainchild of entrepreneur Simeon Van der Molen, who also founded EcoZone, the brand for green cleaning products.
Why, I wonder, would anyone who does not eat meat want to eat something that looked and smelled and tasted exactly like, for lack of a better term, animal meat?
“Our product is not only aimed at vegans or vegetarians,” he admits. “It’s also for people who want to eat healthier.
“If someone eats five hamburgers a week and worries about their cholesterol levels, they can keep eating hamburgers and lower their cholesterol by trading beef a few times a week for our hamburger.”
Vegan maybe … but one hamburger had twice the fat of a Big Mac
By Eve Simmons, deputy health editor
There is no doubt about the scientific input needed to make juicy, meat-free hamburgers that seem eerie to the real thing. But how does the new generation of alt meat burgers perform when it comes to health … and taste?
TO MOVE MOUNTAINS
Cals: 247. Saturated fat: 18g. Sugar: 0.6 g. Protein: 14.4 g. Fiber: 4.1 g. Salt: 1.2 g.
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 pie binds the ingredients together.
It has vegetable fillers, sugar syrup, herbs and lemon juice and added vitamin B12. Beet juice gives color.
VONNIS: One patty alone contains twice the saturated fat of a Big Mac, thanks to the coconut oil. It also contains more calories, sugar and almost three times the salt of a Tesco Finest beef burger.
The addition of a brioche sandwich and sauce costs around 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 fiber as in a potato.
TASTE test: I am not a civilian fan. But I was surprised how fleshy this was – and the texture and redness in the pastry were extremely convincing. This was the best of the bunch in terms of taste.
HEALTH ASSESSMENT: 2/5
Cals: 255. Saturated fat: 3.8 g. Sugar: 0.2 g. Proteins: 19.6 g. Fiber: 0.5. Salt: 1 g.
WHAT’S IN IT? Mainly powder made from pea protein – it makes up one fifth of the burger. Coconut oil reappears, as does potato starch, yeast, sunflower oil, beetroot and gum arabic – a popular thickener commonly used in sweets such as chewing gum, plus a filler made from a substance found in bamboo.
VONNIS: Although it is the highest calorie, 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, like fiber, with salt fractionally higher.
Linia Patel, a dietician specializing in public health, says that pea protein lacks the range of amino acids that meat has and that are needed to successfully build protein in the body.
She says: “By choosing this hamburger over beef, you replace protein-rich meat with poor-quality vegetable proteins.”
This burger also loses points due to the lack of vitamins.
A typical beef burger has important vitamins such as B12, B6, E, D and K, as well as iron and thiamine. Beyond Meat’s burger has not added any of these, but is being injected with vitamin C, which you will not find in a typical beef burger.
TASTE test: In a word, boring. Served in a bap with a large amount of cheese, sauce and onion, it is tasty. But the pie did not taste much in itself. Lovers of hamburgers at the office were not convinced either.
HEALTH ASSESSMENT: 3/5
Cals: 240. Saturated fat: 8 g. Sugar: less than 1 g. Proteins: 19 g. Fiber: 3 g. Salt: 0.37 g.
WHAT’S IN IT? A brew of almost 20 different ingredients that contain soy powder, coconut oil, sunflower oil, potato protein, yeast and vitamins.
Then there is a series of additives, such as the filler methyl cellulose, preservatives, flavorings and wheat starch.
But the crucial ingredient is “heme”, the compound that gives red meat its distinctive color, juicy texture and taste. They claim that their hamburger in terms of nutritional value corresponds to meat.
VONNIS: It has six times the fiber of a normal beef burger and another two grams of protein.
One patty also offers twice the recommended daily intake of vitamin B12, essential for healthy blood vessels, and the same amount of disease-fighting zinc that you will find in a beef burger.
It has comparable amounts of saturated fat, sugar and calories as a real burger.
Linia Patel says that potatoes and soy proteins lack the amino acids that meat has, and these are vital for keeping muscles and bones healthy.
And there are question marks about how well the vitamins and heme are absorbed. “We know that all B vitamins in meat work together to be properly absorbed by the body,” says Patel. “We don’t know if the same applies to this version.”
TASTE test: the lean, wiry pie is spread in spicy hamburger sauce that masks its matte taste. It smells and looks like the McDonald’s equivalent, but the boring taste is incomparable. I keep chewing, waiting for my taste buds to wake up, but there is no response.
HEALTH ASSESSMENT: 4/5
The Moving Mountains hamburger – enriched with vitamin B12, essential for a healthy nervous system and blood circulation, but only found in meat, offal or fish – contains no synthetic ingredients, he adds. “Even the beef flavor is completely natural.”
MAKING A HAMBURGER
“Completely natural”? It is an interesting explanation, so how true is it?
None of the companies that make new-wave vegan beef burgers reveal their exact production methods for commercial reasons.
With the help of the mentioned ingredients and with the help of technical food adviser Lindsay Bagley we can get an idea.
Like all meat substitutes, the primary ingredients in these hamburgers are proteins – derived from soy, peas, wheat and potato, alone or in combination.
Most vegan products on the shelves of the supermarket use these to make textured vegetable proteins or TVP – a product that was invented in the late 1950s, originally made from soybeans, as an inexpensive way to prepare meat in ready meals. ‘ bulking ‘.
To make TVP, you first need a protein powder, also known as ‘isolate’ or ‘concentrate’. To achieve this, the original soybean, pea, or other plant must first be crushed and ground to remove the indigestible outer shell or hull, and then the natural oils must be removed from the plant through a ‘degreasing’ process.
The most commonly used method is called hexane extraction.
Simply pressing the vegetable matter does not remove enough oil, so a solvent is added. Benzene and ether can be used, but hexane, which is a chemical by-product of crude oil, is the most used.
The solvent is evaporated off with heat, leaving behind a solid residue that can then be ground into flour or “groats” that are approximately 50 percent protein.
Interestingly, defatted soybean meal is also used as glue in some forms of plywood.
But to use it in TVP, it is then further washed in ethanol, acid waters and later alkali, to remove carbohydrates, and then centrifuged and dried to make a concentrated powder that is approximately 90 percent protein.
“This tastes pretty dirty,” Bagley admits, advising companies on food production and formulation.
“Proteins in their naked form have a bitter, astringent taste that is not at all tasty.”
The powders are then mixed with water, oils, emulsifiers and flavorings to mask the bitter taste. And this paste is then placed in a machine known as an extruder.
“These are a bit like pressure cookers – they use very high pressure and heat, which removes some of the unpleasant-tasting substances,” Bagley explains. “What comes on the other hand is a dough or a dry product.
“You can create just about any desired shape and different textures. It can be spun into threads, which can then be compressed into what looks like chicken pieces, or thicker fibers to simulate meat. The options are fairly endless. “
The result of the extrusion process is TVP. But as Bagley explains: “This is not a salable product. It is an off-white color and does not taste like much, so it is mixed with other ingredients to add even more moisture, texture, color and taste. “
Moving Mountains and their competitors have invested millions in refining this process to create a premium and highly realistic product – but the exact details of how a well-guarded secret is.
Impossible Foods burger, rolled out by Burger King in the US but currently not approved for sale in the UK or Europe, is even more high-tech and included genetically engineered yeast to produce a type of iron that is normally left alone found in animal blood.
So on paper, yes, they are made from plants. But “completely natural” it seems to stretch a bit.
How much meat is there 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 rising food costs, old-fashioned butchered meat – of the type that is not bred with antibiotics and prepared by being pumped with water and food colors – can be extravagantly expensive.
Burgers are a cheaper family meal. But how much meat is there in real life? You can discover it with a quick check online. The best British steak burgers from Tesco (£ 3 for four) are 94 percent beef, but their Butchers Choice Burgers (£ 1.35 for eight) only contain 63 percent beef. The rest? Onion, pea flour, water, beef fat, salt, dextrose, yeast extract, sugar, pea flakes, onion extract and black pepper.
When you start viewing chicken products, the picture becomes bleak. One thing cannot be denied: we want hamburgers. According to analysts Mintel, the British spent an astounding £ 5 billion in hamburger restaurants last year, an increase of 7.5 percent in one year alone. The demand has never been so great.
Annually, around 70 billion animals are bred for food and demand is expected to increase by 70 percent by 2050, but the industry would already cause 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
And there is increasing evidence that the consumption of red meat – and in particular processed red meat, such as hamburgers – is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, obesity and colon cancer.
There must be something to give, so can fake meat be the answer?
Like I said before, I didn’t stop eating meat for any other reason than the fact that I don’t trust supermarkets.
But the reason that I gained a lot in my twenties was because of my obsession with fast food.
Vegetable-based or not, hamburgers still have a blow in terms of calories, fat, salt and everything else.
In a sense, fake meat won me over. But I don’t think I’m going back to my old ways.
Well, maybe not too often.