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Vegan and non-vegan: Can you taste the difference?

Veganism is a trend that’s growing fast. It’s one which retailers and food manufacturers should ignore at their peril.

Barrie Dowsett

Chief Executive Officer


10 minute read

Whether you’re grappling with Veganuary or dived into plant-based yumminess years ago, no vegan wants to feel restricted in what they can eat.

Latest research by the Vegan Society shows that UK vegans quadrupled in number between 2014 and 2019, up from 150,000 to 600,000.

It’s a trend that is continuing to grow fast. It’s one which retailers and food manufacturers should ignore at their peril.

As peoples’ dietary habits are changing, manufacturers are combining science and food production techniques to find the “I had no idea it was vegan!” holy grail.

Indeed, more and more businesses across the UK are dipping their toe in the vegan market. But what exactly can they do to make vegan food so authentic? We’ll take a look.

Who's going plant-based, and why?

With global climate change and sustainability issues a hot topic, there’s a growing interest in drastically cutting the amount of animal-derived products we consume. From milk to cheese, meat to cakes, the vegan market is already worth over 500 million euros in the UK alone.

In terms of demographics, it’s typically something that’s more prevalent in younger people rather than over 50s, although again this is changing.

As well as environmental issues, there are all sorts of other reasons why veganism is exploding. For some it’s down to concerns about animal welfare, whilst others simply want to improve their health or lose weight. For manufacturers, the challenge lies in developing products like meat and cheese that not only taste like the real thing, but look and feel like it too.

To cheese or not to cheese

Cheese is a pretty heavyweight staple of the UK diet. The vast majority of people convert to veganism either in their teens or adulthood, and many say that cheese is something they miss most.

Producing vegan cheese is an opportunity that food manufacturers have jumped on over the years - with mixed success. Some vegan cheese is soft and creamy like Dairylea, whilst others are hard and grateable like parmesan or cheddar. And of course, there’s also everything in the middle - but no animal products are allowed.

Vegan cheese (as well as milk and yoghurts) can be made with ingredients like plant milks, sunflower or sesame seeds, soybeans or various nuts. It also typically contains nutritional yeast, tapioca, coconut oil spices and even potato.

All sounds great (grate?) in theory, but vegan cheese - or sheese as it tends to be known - is infamously known for not exactly tasting like the real deal. A quick Google search throws up numerous articles about the sometimes unpleasant taste, with one vegan asking "How do you make vegan cheese not taste gross?"

It’s a challenge indeed, but manufacturers are now making huge in-roads.

During manufacture, a milk protein called casein is used in both non-vegan cheese and lactose-free products But casein contains animal by-products. So instead, manufacturers are honing their use of non-animal protein, fats, gums and solids in just the right amounts to achieve a tasty cheese-like texture that also melts.

These gums work as "stabilisers" and "emulsifiers" to replace the casein but still bind all the other ingredients together. The cheesy taste and colour comes primarily from starches, oil, flavourings and colourings.

The emulsifiers also contain amino acids that work to bind the fat-rich and water-rich ingredients together. In turn, stabilisers like xanthan gum and carrageenan work like a wall that stops the oil and other ingredients mixing. No more tasteless slop - or, at least, that’s the aim.

The steak fake

When it comes to meatless meat, it’s not just a succulent, realistic flavour that matters. Texture is just as important.

Most vegan meat products are be based on powdered soy protein. The problem with this is that it’s kind of globular, whereas actual meat protein is fibrous. Therefore the challenge for manufacturers lies in altering the molecular structure of the soy for better authenticity. Generally this is done by heating up the soy protein (or exposing it to solvent or acid), before reshaping it.

"When you denature the molecules, they open up and become more fibrous," says Barry Swanson, a food science professor at Washington State University.

"Then you hold them together with a gel, such as carrageenan or xanthan gum, something that will hold a little bit of water, and what you get is something that vaguely resembles a piece of meat.”

Vegan meat may also be made of other ingredients like wheat gluten. It’s stretchier and easy to modify, more closely resembling the chewiness of our favourite Sunday joints and cuts.

Plant-based partnerships

The plant-based food market is fiercely competitive, making company collaboration an attractive way forward.

One such example is Greek filo dough brand Filosophy who partnered with Beyond Meat as a way of entering the vegan market. Essentially, Filosophy provided the (vegan) pastry, whilst Beyond Meat produced the vegan mince for Filosophy’s classic pies. It’s turning out to be a match made in heaven.

Marketing manager at Filosophy, Yannis Portokalidis, has highlighted the massive advantage that collaboration with well-known brand Beyond Meat has been for its first foray into the meatless world.

“Filosophy also has an exclusive agreement to use Beyond Meat in meat pies in the Greek market, which was essential”, he explained. “This is because the category is very tough.”

Filosophy and Beyond Meat plan to carry on with their partnership, branching out into the US vegan market in 2022 and beyond.

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