Meat alternatives

Eating less meat is better for your health and the environment. We looked at 14 products to find out what was in them and how well the claims stacked up.

Alternative meat products

Eating less meat is better for your health and the environment. However, if serving up tofu and lentils risks a dinner-time mutiny, meat alternatives could help fill the gap on your plate. We looked at 14 products to find out what was in them and how well the claims stacked up.

Vegetarians have been getting their protein fix from soy-based sausages and vegetarian mince for years. But these products have now gone mainstream as manufacturers cotton on to consumers’ rising concerns about what they’re eating and how it affects the planet.

At your supermarket you’ll find chicken-free “chicken” strips and chunks, beef-free “beef” chunks, and bacon-style rashers that claim to look, cook and taste like the real thing.

These products aren’t marketed just to vegetarians. Beyond Meat says its faux chicken and beef products “allow you and your family to eat more, not less, of the traditional dishes you love, while feeling great about the health, sustainability, and animal welfare benefits of plant protein”. Sunfed Chicken Free Chicken claims to be “good for you, good for the planet, good for the animals”.

What's in them?

Nine of the 14 products used soy or a soy and wheat mix as the protein source. Sunfed Chicken Free Chicken Wild Meaty Chunks Original and Beyond Meat Beyond Beef Crumbles Beefy are made with pea protein.

The protein content of the products ranges from 13g to 36g per 100g compared with about 25g for chicken and 30g for beef. Sunfed’s Wild Meaty Chunks Original has the highest protein content (36.1g/100g) of the products in our survey – gram for gram, more than a beef rump steak.

University of Otago associate professor in human nutrition Sheila Skeaff says you also need to consider the quality of the protein you’re eating.

“Animal proteins are higher quality because they contain all the essential amino acids, which your body can’t make and must be sourced from food. Soy protein is one of the exceptions – it’s a higher-quality protein compared with other plants, such as pea or wheat, which may be low or lacking in one or more amino acids,” she says.

She adds that for most active adult Kiwis, getting enough essential amino acids isn’t an issue as we eat a varied diet that contains plenty of protein.

The amount of protein in non-meat foods

Food Protein (/100g)
Nori seaweed sheet 38.8g
Cheddar cheese 24.4g
Peanut butter 22.4g
Almonds 20.1g
Tofu 14.2g
Cottage cheese 13.7g
Rolled oats 13.5g
Egg 12.2g
Chickpeas 5.3g
Greek yoghurt 4.6g
Quinoa 4.4g
Whole cow's milk (blue-top) 3.3g
Soy milk 2.6g

Source: The Concise New Zealand Food Composition Tables, 12th edition 2016

Compared with chicken or beef, plant-based meats are lower in saturated fat. The “chicken” products have 1.6g or less saturated fat per 100g. Chicken thighs have 3.3g and drumsticks 2.2g. It’s a similar scenario with the “beef” products. Beef has a saturated fat content of about 2.7g – most of the “beef” products in our survey have less than one gram.

They’ll also contribute to your fibre intake. Fry’s Meat Free Chicken Style Strips and The Alternative Co’s Chicken Free Strips and Beef Free Chunks contain more than 5g of fibre per 100g. Beef and chicken don’t contain any fibre.

The Alternative Co’s Beef Free Chunks contain more than 5g of fibre per 100g. Beef and chicken don’t contain any fibre.
The Alternative Co’s Beef Free Chunks contain more than 5g of fibre per 100g. Beef and chicken don’t contain any fibre.

Some products we bought had lengthy ingredients lists. For example, Beyond Meat’s chicken strips contain water, soy and pea protein isolate, rice flour, canola and sunflower oils, maltodextrin, natural flavour, salt, titanium dioxide … the list goes on. Maltodextrin is used to thicken the product and bind the ingredients, while colourings and flavourings make the products look and taste more appealing.

Salt was a common ingredient. All but one of the products in our survey had more sodium than beef or chicken. A rump steak has about 55mg per 100g compared with Viana Organic Cowgirl Steak’s 900mg – that’s 40% of the recommended upper daily limit. Four other products – The Alternative Meat Co’s products, Ta Ching Vegan Lemon Chicken and Whole Perfect Food’s chicken cubes – also have high sodium levels (more than 600mg/100g).

As well as being high in sodium, the Ta Ching product has more than 24g of sugar, due to the sauce it comes with. The Alternative Meat Co’s products come in a marinade but they have much lower sugar levels. The Gardein products have an optional sauce sachet – using the sachet bumps up the products’ salt and sugar content.

Some meat alternatives promote their iron and zinc content. The iron in these products is different from that found in meat. “Meat, chicken and fish contain haem iron, which is better absorbed by the body,” says Dr Skeaff. “Plant foods contain non-haem iron, which is not absorbed as well, so you need to eat larger quantities.”

Plants also contain phytates, which can inhibit the absorption of iron and zinc.

Plant-based products are pricier than meat, although that may change as the market grows. According to Statistics NZ food price data, 100g of porterhouse or sirloin steak sets you back $2.80 per 100g and chicken breasts $1.47. The cheapest “chicken” product costs $2.50 per 100g. Most of the “beef” products are more expensive than the real deal.

Plant vs. animal

Product Price (/100g) Protein (/100g) Sat fat (/100g) Sugar (/100g) Fibre (/100g) Sodium (/100g)
Sunfed Chicken Free Chicken Wild Meaty Chunks Original $4.33 36.1g 1.2g 0.5g 2.4g 530mg
Chicken breast $1.47 31.2g 1.5g 0g 0g 65mg
The Alternative Meat Co. Beef Free Chunks Lightly Smoked $3.75 19.9g 0.9g 5.8g 6.5g 630mg
Beef sirloin steak $2.80 28.5g 4.0g 0g 0g 55mg

Good for the planet

Numerous studies have shown plant-based diets are better for the planet compared with diets high in animal products. The Plates, pyramids, planets report, published by the Food and Agriculture Organisation and Food Climate Research Network in 2016, stated there was increasingly robust evidence that dietary patterns with low environmental impacts could be consistent with good health – in other words, diets that emphasise plant-based foods and eating meat in moderation (if at all).

A study published in 2017 in the Journal of Cleaner Production analysed 369 published life-cycle assessment studies (a measure of the environmental impact of a product) for 168 foods. It concluded grains, fruits and vegetables had the lowest greenhouse gas impact and meat from ruminants (beef and sheep) had the highest impact.

A 2016 Oxford University study found that moving towards more plant-based diets could reduce food-related greenhouse gas emissions by 29 to 70% by 2050.

Plant-based diets also have the potential to reduce pressure on water resources. The Water Footprint Network (a global collaboration promoting sustainable water use) cites research showing the water footprint per gram of protein for beef is about six times larger than for pulses such as soybeans and peas. For chicken, it’s about 1.5 times larger.

New Zealand’s meat industry has acknowledged the threat of alternative proteins to its bottom line. In February, it published a report about alternative proteins and how it could respond.

Nick Beeby, Beef & Lamb NZ general manager market development, sees a future for both meat products and alternative proteins. But he said New Zealand’s grass-fed beef and sheep population won’t be growing in size. “Our focus is to market our products as being farmed as naturally as possible, rather than the industrialised farming systems we see overseas,” Mr Beeby says.

Poultry Industry Association of New Zealand executive director Michael Brooks thinks there’s room for both chicken and a protein substitute. “The poultry industry has a lower carbon footprint and water usage than other meat products,” Mr Brooks says.

Dr Skeaff says plants will always have a smaller carbon footprint than animal products. “Even when you consider the transport of soybeans by ship to New Zealand, the carbon footprint is still lower than eating meat that’s from New Zealand.”

Taste test

We put six chicken alternatives to the taste test. Each product was tasted by three meat-loving men and two women. Each person was blindfolded and assessed the product for taste, smell and texture. After sampling the meat-free chooks, our tasters then took off their blindfolds and commented on the product’s appearance. The panel didn’t know what product they were tasting and we also included regular chicken (this was the unanimous favourite).

Results

Overall, the panel weren’t clucky about any of the alternatives. But Whole Perfect Food’s Stir-fried Vegetarian Chicken Cubes and Sunfed Chicken Free Chicken Wild Meaty Chunks Original got the thumbs up over the others.

Top: Sunfed Chicken Free Chicken Wild Meaty Chunks Original was the meatiest-looking product. Bottom: The Alternative Meat Co. Chicken Free Strips Lemon & Thyme gave an impression of "fake food".
Top: Sunfed Chicken Free Chicken Wild Meaty Chunks Original was the meatiest-looking product. Bottom: The Alternative Meat Co. Chicken Free Strips Lemon & Thyme gave an impression of "fake food".

The Whole Perfect cubes tasted a bit like fried chicken. They were moister than some other products and fried up nicely. Sunfed was the meatiest-looking product, although it was crumbly when cooked, and chewy. The panel thought it tasted like chicken with crispy coating or chickpeas.

Our tasters thought the other four products (The Alternative Meat Co. Chicken Free Strips Lemon & Thyme, Beyond Meat Beyond Chicken Strips Grilled, Gardein Teriyaki Chick’n Strips and MorningStar Farms Chik’n Strips) were rubbery and chewy and gave the impression of “fake food”. These products also looked the least like chicken.

Verdict

Would our tasters buy these products again? Only one (who thinks dinner isn’t dinner without meat) would rather have these products than no meat at all. Another would consider them if she had vegetarians coming for dinner.

Products compared

Chicken-style products

Product Price[sort; asc] Protein (/100g)[sort;desc] Sat fat (/100g) Sugar (/100g) Fibre (/100g) Sodium (/100g) Main protein source Origin
Beyond Meat Beyond Chicken Strips Grilled $5.87 23.5g 0g 0g 3.5g 388mg Soy, pea USA
Fry's Meat Free Chicken Style Strips $2.76 18.3g 1.4g 0.2g 5.4g 516mg Soy, wheat South Africa
Gardein Teriyaki Chick'n Strips $4.97 18.7g 0.0g 0g 2.7g 320mg Soy, wheat Canada
MorningStar Farms Chik'n Strips $4.57 27.1g 0.6g 0g 2.4g 541mg Soy, wheat USA
Sunfed Chicken Free Chicken Wild Meaty Chunks Original $4.33 36.1g 1.2g 0.5g 2.4g 530mg Pea New Zealand
Ta Ching Vegan Lemon Chicken $3.00 19.0g 1.5g 24.5g 2.0g 828mg Soy, wheat Taiwan
The Alternative Meat Co. Chicken Free Strips Lemon & Thyme $3.75 20.3g 0.9g 5.5g 5.9g 630mg Soy Australia
Whole Perfect Food Stir-fried Vegetarian Chicken Cubes $2.50 13.6g 1.6g 0.8g ns 786mg Soy, wheat China

Beef-style products

Product Price[sort; asc] Protein (/100g)[sort;desc] Sat fat (/100g) Sugar (/100g) Fibre (/100g) Sodium (/100g) Main protein source Origin
Beyond Meat Beyond Beef Crumbles Beefy $5.35 23.6g 0g 0g 1.8g 509mg Pea USA
Gardein Sizzling Szechuan Beefless Strips $4.99 15.3g 0.7g 0g 1.4g 347mg Wheat, soy, pea Canada
MorningStar Farms Steak Strips $4.64 27.0g 0.6g 0g 2.4g 506mg Soy, wheat, hydrolyzed vegetable (soy, corn, wheat) USA
The Alternative Meat Co. Beef Free Chunks Lightly Smoked $3.75 19.9g 0.9g 5.8g 6.5g 630mg Soy Australia
Viana Organic Cowgirl Steaks $6.49 28.7g 2.2g 1.6g 4.1g 900mg Wheat, soy, tofu Germany
Whole Perfect Food Veg Beef Chunks $2.50 20.0g 1.8g 0.8g ns 78mg Soy China

GUIDE TO THE TABLE PRODUCTS are listed alphabetically within groups. PRICE is per 100g and based on what we paid and an online survey in March 2018. NUTRITION (per 100g) is from label or website information. ns = not stated. Information for Gardein products does not include the optional sauce sachet. MAIN PROTEIN SOURCE from ingredients list. ORIGIN is from label or company information. May relate to where the product was manufactured, rather than the origin of the ingredients.

Labels not compliant

Five brands in our survey – Beyond Meat, Gardein, MorningStar Farms, Ta Ching and a Whole Perfect Food product – didn’t have labelling compliant with the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code. To be sold here, products must have a nutrition information panel that lists the energy content (in kilojoules) and other nutrients per serve and per 100g. These products only state the energy in calories and nutrition content per serving so it’s difficult to compare them with other products without breaking out the calculator.

We asked the retailers what they intended to do about the labels. The retailer of Beyond Meat, Gardein and MorningStar said it was in the process of relabelling these products.

The retailer of Ta Ching and Whole Perfect Food said it was working on relabelling with the manufacturer of these brands.

Member comments

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Dayna J.
21 Jul 2018
Yuck

My partner is into her vegetarian type intake. And we both found these disgusting. the ingredients are a joke. We need to reduce carb and sugar intake full stop meat is a completely viable and sustaining food. I would like to see consumer expose the reality of low fat diets. The world is getting fatter with more medical issues. The anti meat and fat experiment has gone on way to long.

Trudie G.
09 Jun 2018
Meat Alternatives

I don' understand why meat eaters alone were used for this trial. I believe the products would appeal more to vegetarians/vegans so obviously meat eaters aren't going to be impressed. As a vegetarian I tried the chicken product (even though it was very expensive!) and found it awful, mainly because of the flavouring which was not nice at all. If something isn't going to taste nice I don't see the point - likewise I don't see the point of trying to make something 'like meat'.

Dave R.
20 May 2018
Meat Alternatives

I found your article on Meat alternatives very well set out with regard to price & dietary attributes. However for the New Zealand consumer of ruminant protein worried by their environmental foot print it was highly misleading.
The international studies of beef’s environmental foot print almost exclusively deal with feed lot beef. This is understandable since grass-fed beef only makes up a tiny proportion of the traded beef in the world. However, domestic beef in NZ is almost exclusively grass feed .
As you point out meat alternatives are produced from Soy and other food crops. While eating food crops ourselves is way more efficient than feeding them to ruminants, then eating the ruminant; replacing grass-fed meat with meat alternatives is untenable because this “meat” is primarily produced from soy. Soya beans have to be grown on cultivatable land and the world is short of land able to be cultivated sustainably.
Most of New Zealand’s mutton and beef is produced on land too steep to cultivate. If the meat produced on the 5.6 million ha. of NZ hill country were replaced with meat alternatives, the world would need to find approximately 500,000ha more of cultivatable land. The main source of new arable land is in Argentina and Brazil.
While replacing feed-lot beef with meat alternatives makes sound environmental sense; replacing grass-fed meat would have the un-intended consequence of destroying yet more of the world’s rainforests or using fragile soils not suitable for cropping. No-one should condone such an action, especially NZ consumers who have the privilege of eating grass fed beef with a healthy omega 3/omega 6 balance. Beef that is reared without the welfare issues of forcing a ruminant to eat grain, when it’s metabolism has developed to eat pasture [ the livers of animals that spend too long on a feed lot collapse]

Helen B.
19 May 2018
More than happy to eat these alternatives

I live in the South Island and the range of eat alternatives available is extremely limited. I am interested in trying new products as they become available in the mainstream supermarkets. Price is not an issue - I would rather pay more for plant based food than be directly responsible for the death of hundreds of animals each year. At the moment, I believe people who eat a plant based diet fare better with the cheese, yoghurt and aioli alternatives than they do with the meat alternatives.

Karen
05 May 2018
Why?

Having a vegetarian in the family his thoughts are why would you eat a meat alternative (made to look like meat) when it’s meat your not eating!

Murray C.
05 May 2018
Price is still an issue

I was going to try these substitutes last year, but when I found them in the supermarket they were up around $40-$45 per kg. Normally I find meat that is around $10-$20 per kg. That's a significant difference and for me will be a dissuading factor for some time to come.
A substitute has to be cheaper or at least similarly priced to be competitive. If I can still get the real McCoy at a cheaper price there doesn't seem to be any good reason to change.
Reasons to change:
a) The planet - if this is a problem then the price of real meat needs to rise in order to make the substitute a contender.
b) Vegetarians - eat vegetables, there's plenty of them.
PS I'm a convenient vegetarian, I generally like to have vegetarian meals at home, however I'm happy to have meat when eating / celebrating with friends and family - as a treat if you like.

Nyla S.
05 May 2018
Meat v Imitations

ex farmers ... as eaters of copious meats of all ranges ... there is nothing wrong with our health, Dad lived to be 92, eat everything we get advised not to by 'experts' ... we now eat alot less meat because now we buy it, and being retired we dont need as much food anyway, but we still buy quality meat, as you get what you pay for