Rise of the 'semi-vegetarians'

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Sales of meat alternatives are increasing. But who is eating protein substitutes and why?

"I find that I used to adore meat, but now a meat substitute burger does it for me, when I have it with onions and ketchup, it does the job. I guess it reminds me of the taste," David Finney admits.

He turned his back on meat seven years ago, and uses meat alternatives for variety in his meals.

Duncan Smith, a vegetarian for 19 years, says the versatility of the food makes it easy to eat with others. "If someone is cooking a dinner, you can have what they have minus the meat."

The UK market for meat-free products such as tofu, sausages, burgers, and imitation chicken fillets was most recently put at £786.5m a year, up 7.7% from five years earlier. A further 10.3% increase is expected over the next five years, according to market research company Key Note.

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But this boom in meat-free products is no longer being driven solely by vegetarians.

Just 6% (3.8m) of the UK population identified themselves as "mainly" vegetarian (eating fish but not meat) in 2011, and 3% (1.9m) as completely vegetarian.

So who is fuelling the rise?

Su Taylor from the Vegetarian Society says it's "people with differing motivations", which could be health, environment, animal welfare or just "trying something different".

They include "meat reducers" - people who may have bought in to campaigns such as "Meat Free Mondays" and are trying to reduce their carbon footprint.

IT consultant Alex Evans is one such follower, and says he now has "more meat-free days than not".

"The great thing with the campaign is that it only asks people to cut out meat one day a week, so I'm free to eat meat on other days.

"By cutting down on meat I now eat more vegetables as main meals, whereas before I thought vegetables could only be used as sides."

Who eats what:

Shopper examines tomatoes
  • Vegetarians do not eat any meat, poultry, game, fish, shellfish or by-products of slaughter.
  • Lacto-ovo-vegetarians eat both dairy products and eggs; this is the most common type of vegetarian diet.
  • Lacto-vegetarians eat dairy products but avoid eggs.
  • Pescatarians will include fish and/or shellfish in their diet but not meat.
  • Vegans do not eat dairy products, eggs, or any other products which are derived from animals.
  • Omnivores eat animal products and food from plants.
  • Meat reducers eat less meat on ethical and environmental grounds
  • Semi or demi-vegetarians will occasionally include meat or poultry.

"I think a lot of meat-eaters are becoming semi-vegetarian," Duncan Smith explains.

"Eating meat is something ingrained from childhood. To stop eating it, means a complete change in habits, and it's very hard," he says.

The UK's brand leader Quorn has a 56% share of the meat-free market, and is now marketing its food in a different way to a different set of consumers - omnivores.

Quorn is made from mycoprotein, a member of the fungi family grown and mixed with egg whites to create textured imitation meats.

Chris Wragg, the marketing director at Quorn, says its research shows 69% of UK households are "open to" a meat-free meal.

Quorn is now aiming at "healthy eaters", those looking to lower their cholesterol, and weight watchers seeking to reduce their fat and calorie intake.

"Historically our audience has been a vegetarian one that eats meat-free, and adds Quorn in to their diet, but increasingly we are seeing weight managers or slimmers, and healthy eaters."

As mycoprotein converts carbohydrates into protein, the food "has got to be more benign" in terms of sustainability compared to meat, says Tim Finnigan, the firm's research and development director.

In order to measure this, Quorn is working with the Carbon Trust to assess the carbon footprint of mycoprotein-based mince in comparison to beef mince.

Soya is another key ingredient in many popular meat-free protein products, such as tofu, says Su Taylor.

It is often criticised as being unsustainable, due to tropical forests being cleared to plant soya beans.

"We hear a lot about the destructive global farming involved," she says.

However it is important to remember that meat production may be even less sustainable, as so much grain has to be grown just to feed the livestock that produces the meat. "It is such an inefficient way of producing food for people," she adds.

Quorn Toulouse casserole Producers of meat-free products are targeting "healthy eaters"

Many soya growers and manufacturers are now part of the sustainable soya movement, she says, which is working to prevent "ecologically unsound soy production".

But Cardiff-based chef Deri Reed, also known as The Ethical Chef, says more needs to be done. "Soya is definitely unsustainable. You could be drinking oat milk (instead of soy milk), as it's locally produced, and doesn't cost much more."

A bigger hurdle preventing a general uptake of meat-free products is the issue of taste.

Alex Evans says some can be "a little off-putting". "It does depend on the range. There are some tasty option out there, you just have to find the right ones," he says.

TV producer Nickie Omer only eats meat a maximum of twice a week. Yet she thinks meat substitutes are "awful".

Meat-free foods:

  • Tofu: Also called bean curd. Made from cooked soya beans, is quite bland in flavour and responds well to marinades. It's also high in calcium, vitamin E, protein, and low in saturated fats, and is cholesterol-free.
  • Mycoprotein: A naturally occurring protein brewed from a member of the fungi family, Fusarium venenatum. It is grown in a fermenter, fed on glucose syrup and given oxygen to aerate, and nitrogen is added to create protein. It is low cholesterol and low in fat.
  • Textured vegetable protein (TVP): A soya flour that has been processed and dried. A substance with a sponge-like texture, TVP is available either cut into small chunks or ground into granules which resemble minced beef, and can be flavoured to resemble meat.
  • Wheat protein (seitan): Derived from wheat gluten (the protein part of the flour). The gluten is extracted from wheat and then processed to resemble meat.

"I find many meat substitutes like veggie sausages are too processed and lack flavour," she says. "I don't see the benefits in terms of taste or nutrition. There is so much good vegetarian food out there... I think meat replacements are redundant."

Chef Simon Rimmer agrees: "In my opinion meat substitutes are pointless. If you want to eat meat, just eat meat!"

But meat eaters can be won over to like meat substitutes if they eat them often enough over a long period of time, found a recent study by researchers at Wageningen University in The Netherlands.

They asked 89 non-vegetarians to eat Quorn, tofu or a "meat reference" (chicken fillet) for 20 meals over 10 weeks.

Initially chicken was liked the best, but over the course of the study more than half the participants increased their fondness for tofu, according to the results published in the Food Quality and Preference journal.

Others believe eating vegetable-based meals with natural protein sources are better alternatives.

Deri Reed is one such advocate.

"I think they (meat-free products) probably don't appeal to the adventurous veggie, what vegetarian wants a meal that looks like a chicken? Can you not use the natural proteins that we've already got?" he asks.

Quorn kebab Quorn says 69% of British households are "open to" having a meat-free meal

"The best meat alternatives are protein sources direct from nature herself, and perhaps we should be teaching people the skills how to make delicious meals from these ingredients, such as nuts and beans."

His recipe for courgette fritters has been a hit thanks to "the right marketing" at his farmers' market stalls, where he aims to convert meat eaters over a vegetarian meal.

"If you're going to sell a curry, sell it as a tikka masala curry, don't mention it's made of Quorn or if it is chicken.

"People come up to the stall, and say 'I'm not vegetarian, I can't eat that', but when they don't realise it has no meat, they come back and I might have made a difference. I love converting people."

The next few years could herald an even bigger change in the meat-free market.

Scientists in the Netherlands are hoping to create a more efficient alternative to rearing animals.

They have grown small pieces of beef muscle in a laboratory, the first step towards synthetic meat that may be acceptable to some vegetarians.

That tissue is still an animal by-product, meaning many people would still find it unethical to eat. But that may change if it can be grown from cells taken from a still-living animal.

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