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Should vegetarian food mimic meat? Quorn, Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP) and other strange concoctions!

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Soya fish fingers and soya 'chicky' mince? Give us some credit, please!

This hub is written in response to a recent experience I had, eating out in Hove (that's on the south coast of England, for those of you who live further afield!) I'm for the most part, a lacto-vegetarian although I do, very occasionally, still eat fish and seafood. My teenaged daughter is 100% lacto-vegetarian, and my husband, well he eats pretty much anything you might serve on a plate, but he mostly just goes with the flow. As you might imagine, we tend to choose veggie friendly places when we eat out, so when we heard that a new Vegan restaurant had opened next to Hove Lagoon we headed on down.

VBites has big name clout. It is the brainchild of the ex-wife of a famous singer, but as this hub is not about that, I'll allow the more curious reader to just follow the link. A lot of money and effort has been spent to good effect re-vamping a tired old seaside cafe into a smart and trendy eaterie. That's the good news. The bad news, for me at least, was the menu which was absolutely littered with meat substitute meals, such as soya fish cakes, soya chicken style satay, soya chicky slice sandwich, and soya beefy strips. Ugh!

Now I don't wish to sound self-righteous here, because I often do use meat substitutes in certain meals and recipes. It's convenient, for example, to use ready-made veggie sausages in toad-in-the-hole, or to use quorn mince in a vegetarian version of shepherd's pie. But truthfully, I don't give a stuff whether they taste like meat, or mimic meat in any way other than as an easy to use ingredient in a traditional family meal. I've talked to other long-term vegetarians and they pretty much agree with me. Not eating meat doesn't have to equate to a deprivation when there are so many other tasty things to enjoy. So why pretend things are meaty when they're clearly not?

One of our favourite restaurants in nearby Brighton is 'Bombay Aloo', which operates a vegetarian Indian buffet. The food is cheap, colourful, tasty, and always a pleasure to eat. None of it masquerades as meat. Similarly there are several well-established exclusively vegetarian restaurants in the town such as 'Food for Friends', 'Terra Terra' and 'Waikikamookau' where the vegetarian cuisine is imaginative, wholesome, and utterly satisfying. So why, in the face of all this long-term local tolerance of a vegetarian lifestyle are we now being offered soya chicky mince? It's all a mystery to me, especially as my husband and I both thoroughly enjoyed the two main dishes we had at VBites, chosen, needless to say, from the few non-meat substitute meals on offer there.

Quorn. It's more than just a fungus.

I've not eaten meat now for nearly thirty years. I don't evangelise. Other people can eat what they please, and although I and my daughter live meat-free, I do still cook meat for my son and my husband from time to time. Having said that, I can see that there is a certain logic in more of us adopting a meat-free, or minimal meat meal life-style. The world has become more and more crowded, and the resources required to raise lifestock are apparently far greater than those required to feed ourselves with grain, legumes, and vegetables.

So that said, let's cut to the chase. What are these so-called meat substitutes, and do they have merit in their own right?

The Genesis of Quorn

By 1964 the world’s population had rapidly overtaken UN projections and there were widespread forecasts of a global shortage of protein by the 1980s. As we now know, that global shortage did not occur, but computer modelling has given us similar forecasts for our burgeoning population in the not so distant future.

The late Lord Rank, (J Arthur Rank of movie fame) was then the Chairman of the Rank Hovis McDougall group of companies (RHM), and he began to take a keen interest in the development of a plant based alternative to animal protein. With all the brains and the laboratories of RHM at his disposal, it wasn't long before he came up with a scheme to “turn starch into protein” using some form of fermentation, and he instructed his head of research, Dr Arnold Spicer accordingly.

Quorn is born

Lord Rank set Dr Spicer clear objectives. The new food should be first and foremost safe to eat and of a high nutritional value as well as being tasty and appetising.

The three main characteristics of food quality aside from nutritional value, are flavour, colour and texture. Satisfactory flavour and colour are relatively easy to achieve, but creating 'good' texture was to prove the most elusive aspect of the challenge. After much experimentation, the RHM food scientists eventually concluded that a filamentous micro-organism – a fungus - would aid the creation of ‘good’ texture, and after thorough research, an extensive survey was mounted in 1967 involving some 3,000 organisms taken from global soil samples. Ironically, the organism finally identified as the most suitable for further development came from a garden in Marlow in Buckinghamshire, just four miles from the Research Centre.

By the time Quorn™ food products eventually became available in the 1980s the threatened global protein shortage had failed to materialise. So the Quorn™ range was instead marketed as a selection of nutritious and versatile foods with all the texture and flavour of meat but none of the associated guilt. Sound familiar?

Nutritionally quorn has a lot to offer, being high in protein and dietary fibre, and low in saturated fats and salt, although It does contain less dietary iron than most meats. The manufacturers have promoted it in a variety of meat substitute forms such as sausages, mince, and cubes. In some products it mimics the behaviour of meat so closely as to be almost indistinguishable from the real thing. As a long-term vegetarian, I've come to accept this similarity, and as I mentioned earlier, I do use quorn mince, although I'm not quite so keen on some of the other products in the range.

Soya mince, also known as TVP (Textured Vegetable Protein)

Before the advent of Quorn, Soya mince or TVP (textured vegetable protein) was the mainstay of the meat substitute market. As you might imagine, soya mince is derived from soya beans, and  it can be made into all sorts of burgers, sausages, mince dishes, chicken-type dishes and meaty-tasting things. Astonishingly, it is also now being made into fishy flavoured things too, and in terms of flavour, colour and texture, it is a cheap and satisfying alternative to animal products.

Probably the best known form of soya TVP is minced, like minced beef, which is ideal for popular family dishes such as shepherd’s pie, lasagne, spaghetti bolognese, burgers etc. You can buy it dried (just add water), but the frozen, pre-hydrated version is much nicer. Most of the ready-made meat alike products on the market are soya based, although they generally have plenty of flavourings and other additives to make them into the veggie burgers, sausages and chilli sin carne that we know and love.

Wheat protein, or seitan

Another, less well-known, but still useful meat alike is wheat protein, also known as seitan, which is derived from wheat gluten (the protein part of the flour). The gluten is extracted from wheat and then processed to mimic meat. It is closer to meat in texture than textured vegetable protein and is used as a meat substitute in a range of foods. Being naturally low in fat seitan can be roasted, baked, stir-fried, stewed or even used in sandwiches.

Meat or meat-alike - what's your preference?