Fake meat—once almost exclusively from textured soy—was typically mealy, and the taste tended to be bland and garlicky, either serving as a placeholder for a cover-up sauce or overwhelming everything in its path. Neither could satisfy the craving for toothsomeness or umami that (formerly) only came from animal protein.

Today, while most animal protein analogs are still made from soy, ingredients such as mushrooms, nuts and grains (i.e., almonds, amaranth, oats or quinoa), and even eggplant are providing alternatives for meat that satisfy those primordial protein cravings. Also, new technology in gums, flavorants and sodium-replacers are making these trompes l’papilles foolproof foolers.

According to Mintel Group Inc., “The future trends for meat substitutes will focus on indulgence, health (as in fortification and enrichment) and convenience. Low fat, high protein, added vitamins and minerals, as well as omega-3 fish oils, vitamin B and iron-enrichment on meat-free products will be the most important demands of the consumers.” The research group also noted the increasingly positive consumer reaction to “organic, eco-friendly and animal welfare-related labels” on products.

“Many people want to decrease their overall meat consumption for health, economic or environmental reasons,” states Marie Osmunson, founder and CEO of Chez Marie Inc., makers of vegetarian burgers. “They are the driving force behind the growing ‘meat alternative’ category.”

From a business standpoint, this consumer demand translates to more than $500 billion in annual meat analog sales. Boca Foods Co., one of the original veggie burger-makers, started in 1979 as Sun Burger and has been a subsidiary of Kraft Foods Inc. for the past decade. The brand, by itself, has sales of around $100 million per year.

The rapid increase in demand for vegetarian options was fueled by a perfect storm of environmental, philosophical/religious and, finally, food-safety considerations. This led to a surge in consumer interest in meatless meals. This new category of “sometimes vegetarians” (a.k.a., “flexitarians”) hit like a tidal wave. Fortunately, food and ingredient technology also reached a new level of artistry, allowing processors to come up with not merely satisfactory substitutes, but substitutes that truly satisfied.

With the fat stripped out of a powdered, high-protein source, a combination of heat (about 300-400˚F) and pressure allows the product to be extruded into any number of shapes and textures, from chunky to fibrous strands. But, processors rarely did; instead, they used the more common flakes, chunks and crumbles that could soak up triple their gram weight in sauces or meat juice. Animal protein analogs began as cheap extenders to lower the cost of meat in institutional production or to serve the very small population of vegetarians.

Flavor, texture, chew, cooking, contrast, umami, aroma—all must come together perfectly to hit that “satisfaction” factor. Kellogg Co.’s Morningstar Farms has been the most advanced and adventurous pioneer in the field, able for decades to successfully accomplish this, and across an incredible range of offerings—burgers, sausages, meatballs, hot dogs, chicken patties (breaded and grilled). Morningstar products use a combination of tapioca starch, wheat and corn gluten, plus cellulose, modified corn starch, maltodextrin and lecithin as texturants and stabilizers.

While it’s the “Grande Dame” of the meatless meat world, and can boast perfect pitch when it comes to fooling the palate for taste and texture, Morningstar Farms is unusual in that its products are not vegan. The company uses egg protein and/or dairy derivatives, such as casein and whey, in most of its products.

Also using dairy in some of its products (its burger is completely vegetarian) is Dominex LC, a processor that takes advantage of the natural umami characteristics of eggplant to produce a line of vegetarian alternative products from this “meaty” cousin of nightshade (Solanum melongena). Its meatball surrogate includes skim milk and Parmesan cheese for flavor.  The combination of eggplant and soy protein, plus native rice starch and methylcellulose, replicates the flavor and textures of its designated delegates.

Something Fishy

Celebrating its 15th year, VegeUSA LLC has a greatly expanded line of Vegetarian Plus branded meat and poultry alternates. The company uses soybean fiber, as well as soy protein, plus wheat protein and/or tapioca starch and other modified starches. But, VegeUSA also dropped a line into the waters of fake fish. Fish and seafood analogs are a trickier proposition, because the textures and flavors are so very different from land critters. However, smart use of fibers and starches, plus egg whites and seaweed to give a slightly gelatinous component identical to fish, adds the right flavor-note, resulting in something many consumers wish the real swimmers had: a little less fishiness. The use of nori  in the fake salmon filets to replicate both the flavor and texture of salmon skin is truly ingenious.

“Some vegetarians who try our products have commented on the texture and say it’s different than the other vegetarian ‘meats’ they’ve tried,” admits Bethany Ugarte, product manager for VegeUSA. “This is because most vegetarians will eat dairy, so they can enjoy products with whey protein in them. Whey will give a different texture—not good or not bad, just different—to meat substitutes, in comparison to wheat protein, which our products contain.”

Vegetarian Plus products use a base of soy protein, but, acknowledges Ugarte, “Soy needs a binder, either wheat or whey, and cannot stand alone. Since whey is dairy, we use wheat to create our perfectly textured beef, chicken, pork, fish, etc., items.” The difference in texture, not only taste, reflects a great deal in not only what ingredients are used, but the amount in which they are used, according to Ugarte.

“An item can have a different taste and texture with the same ingredients, but different amounts of each ingredient. In shrimp, konjac powder [an Asian sweet potato] is really what makes the buoyancy so much like the real thing,” says Ugarte. “If we used wheat or soy, the texture would just be more of a land animal texture.”

Yves Veggie Cuisine Inc. uses glucomannan, the polysaccharide fiber extract of konjac, in its seafood analogs. Its imitation shrimp also relies on potato starch and whey protein to hit the right texture for shellfish. The company, another imitation-meat pioneer, has been active since 1985, making pizza lovers happy by creating one of the first commercialized meatless pepperoni products. It achieves the right density with soy protein isolates, in conjunction with wheat gluten and wheat starch.

Variety and Spice

The same Yves, Yves Potvin (who created the first veggie hot dog back in the 1980s), today is the head of Garden Protein International Inc., maker of Gardein foods. Gardein products are made through a proprietary process with a blend of slow-cooked soy, wheat and pea proteins, as well as organic flour from high-protein ancient grains—kamut, amaranth, millet and quinoa. The formulations also include potato starch, modified vegetable gum, and organic beet and carrot fibers. Starting 10 years ago with just a handful of selections doubling for chicken and beef, the company rapidly joined the front of the pack with multiple offerings in both frozen and fresh formats, and featured an impressive variety of “cuts.”

Gardein also attained the marketing coup of forming strategic alliances with QSRs and a recent partnership with Light Cuisine. Product development focuses on ethnic and on-trend flavors, including such items as Korean-style BBQ, Tuscan “chicken” breasts, chipotle lime-breaded “chicken” strips, Buffalo wings, and marinara and Marsala offerings.

Variety allows processors of meat substitutes to appeal to a wider consumer population. This variety extends not only to the type of meat replicated but the offerings within the categories of beef, chicken, poultry or seafood substitutes. The leading companies making these products, such as Gardein, Morningstar Farms and VegeUSA, have been aggressive in developing and releasing new products in multiple categories and for multiple uses. Everything from breakfast sandwiches and wraps to sushi to pulled “pork” and spare ribs have been filling shelves to serve as heat-and-eat meals, side components or meal-starters.

“VegeUSA makes sure every product is different from the other,” says VegeUSA’s Ugarte. “Even our Ginger Chicken and Kung Pao Chicken are different from each other. In addition, we always pair our vegan meat with a sauce designed especially for that item, to compliment not just the flavor, but also the texture and profile we are imitating.”

Lightlife Foods Inc. is another original presence in the vegetarian meat-substitute field, entering its 35th year. The maker of the original Tofu Pup soy hot dogs bases most of its offerings on soy, vital wheat gluten and soy isolates. Its products also include such mainstream texturants as carageenan, and xanthan and guar gums, as well as the more singular, such as fermented rice flour. Hot dogs, sausages and deli slice analogs have been joined by imitation poultry cutlets, burgers and frozen entrées.

Goodbye, Gluten

While soy is the orbital center for most meatless offerings, followed closely by wheat derivatives, especially gluten, a backlash against both of these ingredients has led some developers in a different direction. The big breakthrough in non-soy-, non-wheat-based alternate proteins can be said to belong to Quorn Foods Inc. The company’s products are built from mycoproteins—fungi. While fungus is not the most appetizing word in food production, in this case, the filamental fungus, Fusarium venenatum, is similar to any other edible fungus, i.e., mushroom. (It should be noted that Quorn products are made in facilities that produce wheat ingredients, so even without gluten sources in its formulations, the products might not be suitable for persons with celiac disease.)

For Quorn’s meat-replacement products, mycoproteins make perfect sense, when one considers the two ingredients used to describe the concept of umami are meat and mushrooms. Quorn starts with a fermented Fusarium biomass that has been grown in oxygenated water in sterile tanks. Glucose is used to feed the cells, and vitamins and minerals are added to enrich its nutritional value. After extraction, it’s heat-treated and dried. Egg white is added as a binder, and trace amounts of pea fiber also are added.

Another soy-less and wheat-less “Q” launched recently was Qrunch (Qrunch Foods LLC.). Non-triticale (wheat and wheat-origin) grains are used as a base, in this case quinoa (hence the “Q” in “Qrunch”). Qrunch patties are not only soy-free, they contain no corn, nuts, egg or dairy. The primary ingredient actually is millet, followed by quinoa. Depending on the flavor variety, the formulation might be boosted with legumes, such as pinto beans. In addition to other vegetables for flavor and texture, Qrunch patties use arrowroot starch and psyllium seed powder. Psyllium is rich in the insoluble fiber mucilage, a highly hydrophilic molecule that forms a viscous gel, making it a favored texturant. Psyllium also is a beneficial fiber for health, favored for an ability to reduce cholesterol and lower glycemic response.

Replacing soy and wheat can pose challenges, as not all plant proteins are alike. Hemp seed is being considered by some manufacturers. In fact, Chez Marie recently announced it has such a product on the way. But, the combination of unique texture provided by soy and wheat makes them hard to replace. Lupin beans have garnered some interest; however, more development is needed, as the bean does not contain the same hydrophilic abilities as soy proteins and fiber, making it less able to gel and stick together.

While Sol Cuisine Inc.’s veggie burgers are not soy-free, its developers brought almonds, lentils, spelt, amaranth and tapioca into the mix. It also uses modified vegetable and xanthan gums for texture and binding. The advantage of this approach is a higher fiber content (6g per serving) than most of its competitors in the vegetarian burger category.

In fact, the effort to cater to a more targeted population of allergen avoiders and other focused consumers has led a number of processors to change formulations to exclude eggs, dairy, wheat and GMOs. A few even proclaim their lack of corn syrup. Boca Burgers decided to go egg-free in 2009 and completed that transition in 2011. Other companies are complying with various certifications, switching to organic ingredients and even using “gluten-free alternative” as a label declaration.

While the “sometimes vegetarian” might not mind a bit of egg or cheese in a meat substitute, the trend for a completely animal-free approach has pushed most meat-proxy processors to go vegan, as well. VegeUSA has limited its offerings to only a handful that can’t qualify as vegan.

“The brand has seen continued sales growth in the frozen, vegetarian food category, in particular with our vegan items,” says Tina Soong, company CEO. “Because of this, we have developed a new production facility with a dedicated production line just for creating vegan-formulated items. Our goal is to actively respond to this consumer trend and continue providing great-tasting, vegan, meat-free alternatives with excellent texture and appearance.”

With the elder statesmen of meat-free alternative proteins working in conjunction with ingredient technologists to continue advancing the accuracy of their renditions of meat, poultry and seafood, the potential for increased main-streaming of fake meat is certainly at an all-time high. As companies position themselves in strategic partnerships (such as Gardein’s with Lean Cuisine and Chipotle Grill, and Chez Marie with Burgerville restaurants), the lines should pleasantly blur.

Already, it can be safely said, flexitarianism is moving beyond being a trend and toward a daily way of life for many consumers. Ingredients and techniques that allow for versatility and, most critically, accuracy in mimicking animal protein will put these foods at center plate more often.

Test-tube Steak Boogie

A few years ago, enterprising researchers investigated the problem of ecology and ethics, in regards to animal protein, and experimented with growing meat in vitro. Still in the experimental stages, the efforts revived earlier research by NASA. The concept was simple: Since muscle cells are grown in labs all the time for the purposes of studying diseases and pharmaceuticals, why not ramp up production to a level where whole “steaks” can be grown from a few cells taken painlessly from a living cow, pig, chicken or sheep? Researchers at Maastricht University, The Netherlands, have helped lead the way, and labs have managed to grow “lamb” samples. The Future Food (www.futurefood.org) portal hosts information-sharing and dialogue to maintain an ongoing investigation of the concept.

According to the portal authors, “Theoretically, this process would be efficient enough to supply the global demand for meat. All this would happen without any genetic manipulation, i.e., without the need to interfere with the cells’ genetic sequences.” The portal authors openly point out that, “Producing cultured meat for processed meat products, such as sausages, burgers and nuggets, should be comparatively simple, whereas cultured meat [that is] more highly structured, such as for an in vitro steak, is considerably more of a challenge. A steak is made of muscle tissue, which is threaded through with extremely long, fine capillaries that transport blood and nutrients directly to the cells. It is much more difficult to reproduce such a complex structure than it is to put together the small balls of cells which grow to larger balls of cells which, in turn, become in vitro chicken nuggets.”

For food manufacturers, while this might seem to hold promise of the best of both worlds—ecologically and ethically responsible animal protein—it leaves open the question of whether it will be necessary, considering the acuity with which today’s food technologists replicate animal protein with plant-sourced ingredients. After all, cows eat plants; plant-based meat alternates merely cut out the middleman. Or animal.