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26 November 2021

Plant-based meat alternatives: what are your options?

From tofu and tempeh to Beyond Burgers, which vegan and vegetarian alternatives are best for taste, health and the environment?
JD
Jane Darling

Meat is a traditional part of the UK diet, and with good reason. It’s packed with high-quality protein, iron and B-complex vitamins. It also contains micronutrients essential for human health, such as zinc, selenium and phosphorous.

Evidence is building, however, that high meat consumption is not so great for the environment, due to the amount of land needed to grow animal feed and the fact these crops can use scarce freshwater resources. Plus, cows and sheep in particular have relatively high greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.

Research indicates that, in most cases, plant-based diets have less environmental impact than those based on meat. When we asked Which? readers about their diets, more than half said they’d cut down on meat compared with 10 years ago. Nearly a quarter said their main motivation for this was environmental, sustainable or ethical.*

In the UK, the choice of plant-based meat alternatives has boomed in recent years. You'll now find products that aim to recreate the taste and texture of meat, as well as more traditional alternatives.

Read on to find out more about vegan and veggie meat substitutes, including how to cook them, which are the healthiest and which have the lowest environmental impact.

*July 2021 survey, 1104 respondents

Tofu, tempeh, seitan and more

While newer plant-based alternatives increasingly try to mimic meat products (for consumers cutting down on meat or switching to flexitarian diets), there are plenty of plant-based products you can use instead of meat that don't necessarily have a meaty taste or texture. 

Most are relatively high in protein, and are based on either soya (tofu and tempeh), mycoprotein (fungi, best known as branded Quorn) or wheat gluten (seitan).

The cheapest way to buy tofu is as a plain block, typically costing between £1.70 and £2 for around 300g (Tesco Wicked Kitchen, Sainsbury's SO Organic, The Tofoo Co). This is about right for three servings. A similar weight of lean mince or bacon costs around £1.50.

As with many foods, you pay for more processing, such as marinating, dicing and added flavours. For example a 200g block of smoked Taifun tofu with almonds and sesame seeds will set you back around £3.50.

Tempeh and seitan remain less mainstream and pricier for the time being. Buying online gives the best selection, as most these products still aren't stocked that widely in supermarkets.

Tofu

What is it? Tofu has a long history, with written records in China of tofu-making going back more than 2,000 years. Also known as bean curd, it’s made from soya beans and water, plus a coagulant to  hold it all together. Firm tofu is the most commonly used type in the UK, but softer ‘silken’ tofu is also an option.

How healthy is it? Tofu is quite high in protein (about 13%) and contains all nine essential amino acids. It’s low in carbohydrates and contains about 7% fat. If you buy tofu with seeds or nuts added, this boosts the healthy fat and protein content. Tofu also contains calcium in a significant enough amount to be a good boost for vegans. It also has useful quantities of iron, manganese and phosphorous.

How versatile is it? Firm tofu is bland, but responds well to being marinated, then fried. It’s possible to buy tofu pre-marinated, ready for throwing into a stir fry or curry with your veg, nuts and noodles. Smoked tofu is another option. You may find it mixed with seeds (for example, Taifun). This can be sliced and used straight from the pack in sandwiches, or as part of a salad – a good alternative to cheese. 

Silken tofu (brands include Clearspring, Yutaka) is unpressed, which means it’s higher in water, lower in protein and has a soft, creamy texture. Soft silken tofu is good for desserts or for giving a protein boost to smoothies.

Tempeh

What is it? Tempeh is a traditional Indonesian fermented food, made of soya beans and a fungus called Rhizopus. It tends to be chewier than tofu and has an ‘earthy’ flavour. Like tofu, it really needs to absorb other flavours to make it tasty.

How healthy is it? Tempeh is very high in protein – around 19%. It's also high in fibre (about 9%) and has around 10% fat. It can be a good source of B vitamins. It’s fermented which can make it easier to digest. It also contains probiotics - live bacteria that can help to improve or restore the natural balance of gut bacteria.

How versatile is it? Tempeh is usually sold as marinated pieces, whole blocks (plain or flavoured) or as patties. If you go for the plain type, cube it and marinate before steaming, baking or frying. Brands include The Tofoo Co, Plant Power, Better Nature and Impulse.

Mycoprotein (such as Quorn)

What is it? Mycoprotein isn’t technically plant-based as it’s made from the mycelium of naturally occurring fungi. These are long thread-like structures that grow underground. Mycoprotein has been available in the UK since 1985 under the brand name Quorn, and is one of the most well-established vegetarian meat alternatives.

How healthy is it? Mycoprotein is around 11% protein, contains all essential amino acids and has a decent amount of fibre too (5-10%). It’s low in fat, sugar and salt, and is a good source of calcium. It also works as an alternative for people allergic to soya. Vegans should note that egg or milk is often added to improve the texture of mycoprotein products.

How versatile is it? While tofu can be bought in a block and added to home-cooked meals, mycoprotein often comes as the main ingredient in pre-prepped fast foods such as sausages, burgers and breaded nuggets. You can also buy it in small pieces, which you might use in place of chicken pieces and as mince, for making things such as meat-free spaghetti bolognese or shepherd’s pie. 

Quorn also sells fish-free seafood substitutes including fishless fingers, fillets and scampi.

Seitan

What is it? Sometimes called wheat meat, mock meat or listed as ‘vital wheat gluten’ in ingredients info, seitan consists of wheat gluten and water. It’s a traditional component of Asian and Buddhist diets, and generally has a meatier texture than tofu or tempeh. Its mild, savoury taste means you’ll need to add flavour via marinating.

How healthy is it? Seitan is very high in protein – up to 20%, but it doesn’t contain the full range of amino acids (it’s missing lysine), which can be remedied by eating pulses or nuts alongside it. It’s low in fat and contains 9% carbohydrate. If you’re allergic to soya, then seitan can still be on the menu. If you’re sensitive to gluten, however, steer clear.

How versatile is it? Seitan won’t jump out at you from the supermarket shelves, unless you go to Waitrose which stocks seitan burgers, koftas and slices. Ocado sells seitan in jars (Biona brand), marinated in ginger and soya sauce, for adding to stir-frys or salads. Go online and there’s more choice: LoveSeitan makes seitan pepperoni for people who want a ‘meaty’ vegan kick on top of their pizzas.  

Vegan mince, bacon and chicken pieces

There are increasing numbers of plant-based alternatives to supermarket staples such as mince, bacon and chicken, as well as processed foods such as meatballs, burgers and sausages. 

Many of these processed products are made of soya beans or a mix of plant-based proteins, but don't come under the banner of tofu or tempeh.

You’ll often find the term ‘textured vegetable protein’, or something like it, on the ingredients list. For example, Linda McCartney’s vegetarian sausages are made of textured soya protein, and Cauldron Cumberland sausages are made with textured vegetable protein, which includes soya and wheat.

Some products mix in pea protein with the soya, such as This Isn’t Bacon and Moving Mountains burger.

Others major on pea protein, and swerve the soya completely: for example, Tesco’s Plant Chef Cumberland Style Bangers, Meatless Farm’s burgers and sausages and Beyond Burger. 

The peas in question are yellow split peas, rather than green peas. These are high in protein and have a usefully neutral taste, so strong flavouring isn't needed to disguise unwanted flavours. They're even used in sweet foods such as the vegan Magnum.

See what our panel of tasters thought of the vegan Magnum vs the original.

Jackfruit: the unlikely meat substitute

Canned jackfruit and a jackfruit ready meal

Out on a limb when it comes to meat alternatives is the intriguing jackfruit that has lately been turning up on restaurant menus, in ready meals and among the cans on supermarket shelves. It's often used as a substitute for pulled pork.

What is it? Jackfruit is a large tropical fruit native to Asia with a stringy texture and neutral flavour. The unripe fruit is starchy and savoury, and has a ‘meaty’ mouthfeel.

How healthy is it? Like most fruits, the jackfruit is largely carbohydrate, so it’s not a great protein source compared with meat, mycoprotein or soya-based foods. It is, however, a good source of vitamin C and also contains B vitamins. It’s very low in calories. 

How versatile is it? Jackfruit can be found in most supermarkets. The pale young flesh is sold canned, preserved in brine. However, if you choose to make a meal of it, you’ll want to bulk it out, as a whole tin is only 42 calories. Some supermarkets also sell jackfruit in veggie ready meals, such as curry and chilli. Head online, and you can find it sold by The Jackfruit Company in a darker-coloured dried form that’s readier to absorb flavours.

Advanced plant-based food: Beyond Burger, Impossible Burger and more

The new wave of vegan meat alternatives is largely aimed at meat lovers looking to switch for environmental reasons to a more flexitarian or meat-free diet. These products aim to closely mimic the taste, texture, look and cooking qualities of meat. 

It started with burgers, but has swiftly expanded to sausages, meat pieces and even fish such as salmon and tuna.

While big brand burgers kickstarted the trend (take a look at key players below), supermarkets are jumping in with cheaper own-brand offerings such as Co-op’s ‘GRO - The Incredible Burger’ and Sainsbury’s ‘Ultimate Plant Burger’. Head to our guide to the best vegan burgers to see which of these plant-powered supermarket burgers impressed in our taste test.

How are advanced plant burgers made?

Common ingredients of these newer-style burgers are soya beans or peas, wheat, coconut oil and beetroot juice. In order to achieve the meaty texture, these ingredients have heat and pressure applied, that together denature (change permanently) the natural plant proteins and create fibrous protein structures that more closely resemble those in meat.

Plenty in our vegan burger taste tests found this convincing, but one criticism levelled at these new-style products is that they're a type of ultra-processed food, and therefore aren't necessarily healthier than the original.

The Beyond Burger

What is it? Hailing from the US, and now available in McDonalds as well as supermarkets, this is a plant-based patty crafted from split-pea protein, mung beans and brown rice protein. It contains no soya protein. For fat, it uses canola oil, coconut oil and cocoa butter. Its red hue is supplied by beetroot juice. This is meant to make it look more convincingly meaty, so it's not one for the squeamish.

How healthy is it? The Beyond Burger is around 17% protein, including all nine essential amino acids. It is a good match for a regular burger with the bonus of less saturated fat. It’s low in carbs (about 3%) although not as low as meat. However, it’s undeniably highly processed and contains 18 separate ingredients.

When we taste-tested the Beyond Burger against rivals, we found that some cheaper supermarket ones beat it, so don't discount less well-known alternatives.

Moving Mountains Burger

What is it? UK brand Moving Mountains has produced a plant-based patty based on pea and soya protein, which also contains mushrooms and wheat gluten. It uses coconut oil for fat and beetroot juice for colour.

How healthy is it? This burger is 14% protein, about the same as a regular burger, but less than some veggie burgers: a Linda McCartney soya burger and the Beyond Burger both have more. This burger gives you a hefty dose of saturated fat because of its reliance on coconut oil. It’s also highly processed and contains a whopping 21 ingredients.

It put in a good showing in our vegan burger taste test.

Impossible Burger

What is it? The Impossible Burger is a soya-based phenomenon from the USA that's made plenty of headlines. There, it’s available in supermarkets as well as the likes of Burger King and the Hard Rock Cafe, but it hasn’t reached UK shores yet.

How healthy is it? It’s high in protein, and has about half the fat of a regular burger, although only a little less saturated fat. It's not available in the UK as it contains soy leghemoglobin. This is made by a genetically modified yeast, and enables the burger to ‘bleed’ as if it were beef. Leghemoglobin has been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) but, as yet, the Food Standards Agency has not licensed it for consumption in the UK. 

Plant-based fast food: see what vegan options Mcdonalds, Burger King and KFC offer and how they compare

Are plant-based meat alternatives healthy?

Plant-based foods aren't made equal, so you can't assume they are healthy just because they include plant-based ingredients.

In fact, the likes of Beyond Burger and Moving Mountains have a long list of ingredients, which is often an indication of ultra-processing, and a food that’s many steps away from the original wholefood. The plain versions of tofu and tempeh are simpler, consisting of soya beans, water and little else - a firming agent in the case of tofu and, for tempeh, the inoculated fungus, Rhizopus. The most basic seitan we've come across has a few more ingredients alongside wheat gluten, such as chickpea flour and flavouring.

Processed or fast food has its place in busy lives when convenience is high priority. But there’s no denying that the healthiest diets are those that are based on unprocessed wholefoods. Preparing vegetables from scratch, adding in wholegrains, beans, seeds and nuts and keeping ingredients such as salt and sugar to a minimum all comes highly recommended by nutritionists.

Manufacturers are recognizing this, and there's a move towards simplifying products to make them more appealing to those wanting something less processed, without losing the taste and meaty texture. Ultimately, it's worth approaching plant-based burgers the same way you would the real thing - to be eaten in moderation.

Traditional vegetarian-style bean burgers - which don't try to mimic meat - undergo less processing, contain more wholefoods and tend to be healthier. For example Sainsbury’s spicy bean burgers cost just £1.75 for four 'quarter-pounders' and contain a wider range of vegetables than Sainsbury's Plant Pioneers - meat mimics that will set you back £2 for two smaller burgers.

Soya and health

Soya has, from time to time, hit the headlines with scare stories that have linked its consumption to an increased risk of breast cancer or hormonal issues in men. Cancer Research UK states that there is no good evidence that eating soya products increases or decreases cancer risk. And while soya products such as tofu contain isoflavones, which are like a mild version of the human hormone oestrogen, there's no valid evidence that they have any unwanted effects on men.

Soya is, however, a good plant source of protein and calcium, and there is evidence that diets rich in soya may help lower LDL (bad) cholesterol. 

Nutritional comparison: beef burger vs plant-based alternatives

In the table below, we’ve highlighted how a regular beef burger stacks up nutritionally against a range of plant-based burgers. 

In terms of calories and fat, meat tops the table, but Moving Mountains' plant-based burger delivers the heftiest dose of saturated fat. A soya-based burger gives the biggest protein hit, plus a decent amount of fibre, but it’s also the highest in salt. 

Product (per 100g)1Main type of proteinEnergy (kcal)Fat (g)Saturates (g)Protein (g)Fibre (g)Salt (g)
Birds Eye original beef burgerBeef297258.515<0.5<1
Quorn quarter pounderMycoprotein18493.215.94.71.8
Linda McCartney quarter pounderSoya225314.81.1217.31.3
Waitrose vegan seitan burgerSeitan1383.21.811.22.1<1
Beyond BurgerPea25218.65.6171.30.75
Moving MountainsPea, mushroom, soya2, wheat227019.817.614.351.1
Impossible BurgerSoya2212127173<1

Table notes:
Since the weights of the burgers vary, quantities listed are per 100g to enable direct comparison.
2 Soya and wheat are among the 14 allergens listed by the Food Standards Agency that must be highlighted on labels. Seitan is made of wheat.

Which? nutritrionist Shefalee Loth says: ‘Many people assume that plant-based burgers are healthier than their meat alternatives, but that’s not always the case. The Moving Mountains burger contains more than twice as much saturated fat as a beef burger per 100g. It’s also important to appreciate that beef is a good source of iron and other nutrients that many of these plant-burgers won’t contain’.

How environmentally friendly are plant-based meat alternatives? 

Meat’s sustainability credentials have been increasingly under the spotlight in recent years. A much-quoted study (Poore and Nemecek, 2018) estimates that 14.5% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions come from meat production alone.

While this report quotes a global average, and the UK fares much better in terms of the environmental impact of the meat it produces, most experts agree that consuming less meat and more plants is beneficial for the environment at various levels. 

Eating plants removes the extra step of feeding plants to animals, and the land, water and other resources used in raising animals, such as antibiotics, are not required.

But comparing plant-based alternatives for sustainability is far from straightforward.

Soya

For many years soya beans have been a cause of deforestation in Brazil and other tropical areas, which has given the bean a bad reputation. However, soya-driven rainforest destruction has mainly been for the production of animal feed.

In the UK, the WWF highlights Tesco and Waitrose as the two supermarkets showing the most commitment to sustainably sourcing soya. Iceland and Morrisons are at the bottom of this list. Many plant-based brands, including Cauldron, Taifun and The Tofoo Co state that they source their soya beans in Europe or Canada.

Mycoproteins, wheat, beans and peas

Creating mycoprotein does not use up as much land or water as meat production, but it is quite energy intensive. This contributes to greenhouse gas emissions if the electricity does not come from renewables.

Studies of lifecycle analyses for various protein sources see wheat, beans and peas emerge favourably in most sustainability measures, with fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and lower land and water use per gram of protein produced.


 A-Z guide on decoding food labels - how to make sense of sustainability, welfare and safety certifications


Is cultivated or lab-grown meat the future?

Cultivated meat – which also goes by names such as lab-grown, cultured or clean meat – has had a fair bit of publicity of late.

Cultivated meat is made using tissue culture techniques: a few cells from an animal, such as a cow, are nurtured in a liquid growth medium. Here, fed by nutrients, hormones and growth factors, they differentiate and mature into muscle fibres and fat cells, while being supported within an edible structure that holds them in place. The resulting tissues can be processed into burgers, sausages, mince and so on.

There are plenty of potential benefits of this technology over traditional animal raising. Less land and water are needed, and greenhouse gas emissions should be lower. Animal welfare issues and antibiotic use would be virtually nil.

However, there are formidable barriers too. One of these is the technology’s potential to produce meat in the quantity needed at a price people will pay. Another big unknown is how much energy it would use. A recent study estimated that energy use would be less than that needed to produce beef, but potentially more energy-hungry than conventional poultry production. 

Even if the technical challenges are overcome, would people want to eat it? Which? members are divided. In our survey, a third said they’d definitely try it, nearly a half thought they wouldn’t, while the remainder were on the fence*.

If you’re one of those on the fence, there’s probably no rush to make a decision. Even if the technical challenges are overcome, safety and regulatory issues will need to be addressed before cultivated meat can arrive on plates in the UK. 

Currently Singapore is the only place where one kind of cultured meat - chicken nuggets made by the US-based company Eat Just - has been passed for sale by the country’s national food agency.

*July 2021 survey, 1104 respondents


 How to buy sustainable fish - our guide to planet-friendly swaps and which fish are the least sustainable


How to cook plant-based foods safely

While there’s less risk of food poisoning with plant-based meat alternatives, it’s still worth being aware of what to look out for, especially if you're new to foods such as tempeh, seitan or tofu. The packaging will be your best guide, but here are some tips:

  • Tempeh - Should be kept in the fridge and consumed before its use-by date. Fresh tempeh smells mushroomy. If you get an ammonia or alcohol whiff, then it’s going off. White mould on the outside is normal, but if your tempeh is mushy, slimy or crumbly, rather than firm, you should bin it. Tempeh is suitable for freezing for up to a couple of months.
  • Tofu - Smell is again your best guide for judging tofu freshness. Fresh tofu hardly has a smell, so if it smells sour, then it’s going off. Tofu often has a use-by date of a couple of months. It should be refrigerated and kept in an airtight container once it’s been opened. You can also freeze tofu, either as a whole block or chopped into chunks, but expect it to be chewier when you come to eat it.
  • Processed plant proteins - Most processed plant or mycoprotein-based foods, such as burgers and sausages, are sold chilled or frozen. As with any foodstuff, follow the storage, handling and cooking instructions, and consume by the use-by date.

You may come across veggie burgers and sausages (for example Linda McCartney chilled range) that are unsuitable for freezing. 

The company advises that this is because they were frozen as part of the production process, so should not be re-frozen after purchase.