Meatless meat

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Let’s face it: People really like meat and efforts to convince meat eaters to consider vegan diets haven’t been very successful, up until now. But now comes vegetarian meat aimed at replacing the real thing.

The aim of plant-based “meat” is for it to be so similar to cook and eat as the real thing that it is virtually indistinguishable. It is made from plant proteins, usually wheat, pea or potato. Natural colorings like beetroot juice usually provide the “blood”.

These days, most people would probably agree that eating less meat is a good thing, if not for the environment then at least for their bodies. Accordingly, plant-based companies have become appealing to vegans.

It’s not that the concept of imitation meat is new. For as long as there have been vegetarians – or people too poor to buy meat – there have been mock meats of one kind or another. The difference with the new fake meats is that, thanks to developments in food technology, many of them have become uncannily realistic in both texture and appearance.

Many Saudis, at risk of obesity, are switching to veganism. Being vegetarian in a country where almost all restaurants serve meat products can be hard. But there are currently several places around Saudi Arabia that serve vegan/vegetarian options and it is understood that the Kingdom will open at least 10 vegan restaurants by 2020.

However, with the arrival of these new dishes comes an increasing debate about what is “meat”. Saying a food is plant-based does not mean it’s made with whole vegetables, and therefore healthy. These meat-free burgers, like many vegan food products, are full of derivative ingredients such as protein isolated from plants. Obviously, soy on its own hardly tastes like beef or chicken. There are chemicals put in the soy which gives it that taste. Vegan meats are perceived as automatically being healthier even though meat-free burgers contain on average even more salt than meat burgers: 0.89g per serving as against 0.75g.

The novelty of these products means that their effects on humans are relatively untested.

In the meantime, concerns about the environmental and health impact of our diets have seen interest in vegetarian and vegan foods grow. Concern for health is one of the main reasons people are now buying vegetarian burgers in such quantities. The catch is that there is not necessarily anything particularly healthy about a vegan burger. Many see them as just another set of overly-processed industrial foods.

These artificial foods might not deserve the reputation they have, just because they are vegan. The key is that any food that has been highly processed should be eaten mindfully – not necessarily avoided completely – but not to be eaten five days a week due to the high salt content and most likely the list of additives and preservatives in them.

However, if vegan fake meats are not healthier, then why eat them? Maybe the most pressing question is why people remain so hung up on meat being the yardstick for their meals. Given that most meat is so highly processed, why do they still prize it so much? Meats such as chicken, lamb and beef are all rich in protein, but they can also raise blood cholesterol levels and can be associated with cancers, diabetes, heart disease and strokes.

A vegan, meat-free future is probably not imminent. For now, leading plant-based meat-alternative companies have only been able to carve out a narrow niche with burgers and ground beef. But surging interest in meat alternatives from restaurants and consumers, as well as significant investments in the industry from the meat giants, is reason to believe that both plant-based and lab-grown meats will appeal to hardened meat-eaters.


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