Is vegan food finally worth eating?

A new range of products might actually tempt you away from that juicy steak

There’s a good chance that in a poll of the sexiest words in the English language, veganism would come out right down the bottom. You almost certainly won’t have a lot of time for it. The vast majority of men in the UK are thoroughbred carnivores – meat-eating folk still make up 97 per cent of the UK’s population. But with signs vegan food is finally getting its act together, that might be about to change.

Seriously. A host of vegan meat products (yes, we know it’s an oxymoron) have hit the market recently and, unlike previous incarnations (da-dum-tsh!), some of them are not only genuine alternatives to animal products that taste, feel and look like meat, they could even be good enough to tempt hardcore steak eaters away from a blood-soaked plate of chateaubriand. Next generation veganism is on and, say its fans, here to stay.

vegan food

Rudy's Dirty Vegan Diner hot dog

At the beating heart of the story is Rudy’s Dirty Vegan Diner. The Camden Market eatery is on a mission to convert vegan-sceptics with a menu of mouthwatering junk food that, they say, doesn’t just compare with meaty alternatives, it competes. The key ingredient is seitan, a wheat gluten that’s the main protein found in meat, and they use it to create vegan versions of classic comfort food: hot dogs, burgers, buffalo wings, pastrami Reuben sandwiches, even ribs.

‘It’s more like nostalgic comfort food,’ explains Ruth Mumma, co-founder of Rudy’s. ‘It’s also a good way to reach out to non-vegans. We have non-vegans who come and they don’t even realise it’s vegan. And it’s good to show them that vegan food can taste amazing. You can bring it mainstream.’

But can you, though? In the interests of approaching this scientifically, I went to Rudy’s to find out, my palette drenched in skepticism. It quickly dried up. Rudy’s hot dog sausage is the spit of its frankfurter cousin (even if there’s not a lot of meat in that either), and the pastrami is a doppelgänger for the original – in fact, I’d go so far as to say Rudy’s Reuben is one of the best I’ve ever eaten.

It’s not all entirely satisfactory, though. When it came to the the ribs, I wasn’t convinced. It’s just so difficult to replicate the texture and mouthfeel of real meat.

vegan food

'The Beyond Burger' from Beyond Meat

Not that that’s stopping people trying. Beyond Meat is an American organisation that’s hoping to transform the vegan meat market through products such as the recently launched ‘The Beyond Burger’, a patty that replicates the exact look and feel of meat. It even bleeds, with the help of a little beetroot juice.

The burger, currently on sale at Honest Burger, and about to hit Tesco’s meat aisle – not its vegetarian section – is produced by braiding together plant-based protein, fats and minerals to re-create the basic architecture and texture of meat.

Is this a recipe for success? Honest Burger’s version certainly looks like the real thing and, built into a burger with (vegan) Swiss cheese, lettuce, gherkins and mustard, it could probably pass by most punters unnoticed. But then on the palette it doesn’t really taste like beef, or lamb, or any other red meat you’d traditionally make into a burger for that matter. It could have been any of them, or none at all.

‘We aren’t telling people not to eat meat – I think that would be a massive mistake,’ says Ethan Brown, the founder and CEO of Beyond Meat. ‘We’re simply suggesting that they have a new type of meat. Once we break the code and get to the point where it’s indistinguishable from animal protein, I think you will see a shift.’

vegan food

Biff's Jack Shack buffalo wings

This mission to take meat alternatives to a wider audience of non-vegans is shared by Biff’s Jack Shack, a food van that pops up regularly around London. Its vegan chicken wings and burgers are all made from jackfruit. ‘We decided on using jackfruit as the base for our meat-replacement after we fell in love with it in Indonesia,’ explains Biff’s co-founder Crista Bloom. ‘We realised that its incredible meat-like texture could make an excellent chicken substitute.’ Biff’s jackfruit wings even come on a sugarcane bone for that authentic touch.

Will it convince a host of smart-thinking men to give up their post-pint platter of chicken wings? Well, maybe. ‘We wanted to use the same eye for detail that so many meat-based kitchens have, to create meat alternatives that don’t compromise on taste or experience,’ explains Bloom. ‘Our mission is to be indulgent but inclusive – we want to thrill dedicated carnivores as well vegans.’

Could that happen? ‘Looking forward, I think we’ll see the meat-free movement going from strength to strength due to the emergence of more creative plant-based food items,’ explains Bloom. ‘I think we’ll see a rise in the vegan population in the UK, but there’ll be a bigger uplift in people who, five years ago, would never have thought about choosing a vegan option, but will happily eat meat and dairy substitutes on a regular basis. I believe this is going to grow into all areas of our culture – from fine dining to Friday night takeaways and people’s shopping baskets.’

If that sounds horrific to you, consider this. According to a 2009 survey, livestock accounts for 51 per cent of our greenhouse gas emissions. And then there’s the business of feeding our swelling population – we need protein. In 1997, we ate 235 million tons of meat, and by 2030 it’s predicted that will have risen to 400 million tons. We need new sources of protein to supply our increasing appetite – and it doesn’t look like the traditional route is a sustainable solution. Vegan meat, particularly this new, tastier vein of the stuff, could provide the answer.