I have been tasting and following the development of alternative protein products for some years, having first tasted the Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger in the USA in 2017. I am a traditional meat eater who wants to occasionally choose a healthier or more sustainable option. I am not fanatical about alternative proteins or meat for that matter, but I am curious and want to make some contribution towards sustainability and climate change. I am not interested in what the strict vegan rules are.
I recently ordered room service in a Melbourne Hotel and chose the Beyond Burger to see how it was being presented and to try the latest version (there have been many upgrades to the formula). But I got a call from the hotel kitchen after a few minutes, apologising because although they had the burger patty, they did not have vegan mayonnaise or vegan cheese to go with it. After clarifying that I was not Vegan and did not care about any of that, I was delivered a Beyond Burger with ‘normal’ condiments and sides rather than choosing a different menu item. This is a good example of how this evolving food type is yet to be fully understood by diners and chefs.
This is not an unusual theme. Restaurants are still coming to terms with how to present these new meal items. Naturally the hotel’s well-trained chef had flagged this item as vegetarian on the room service menu. However, the target market is not always vegans or vegetarians who together only represent less than 10% of the population in Australia.
Of course, a Vegan ordering the same item will expect a completely vegan meal including the condiments. So, what should the chef do? Should he follow strict vegan guidelines so that the entire meal is strictly vegan? Or should he offer a vegan version and a ‘standard’ version? The best mayonnaise uses eggs, the best cheese is dairy based. So, isn’t it OK I that I just swap out the meat patty for a more sustainable version but still enjoy cheese and condiments?
Alternative or Plant-based proteins are one of the fastest-growing industries in the world, attracting investment from major food and meat companies as well as hundreds of start-ups. Private investments in the alternative protein space have climbed to $6 billion USD in the past decade, over half of which was raised in 2020 alone.
This is probably the largest change in the food industry in human history! The scale is enormous and growing rapidly.
The target market are ordinary meat eaters, or flexitarians, that are motivated to reduce their intake of traditional meats. They are typically totally unaware of the vegetarian rules of food preparation and aren’t strict about the rest. Some might even be happy to have a slice of bacon on top of the plant-based patty!
Restaurants are jumping on the trend and are increasingly offering alternative protein dishes. Burger chain Grill’d has been serving Beyond Meat burgers for several years and has recently introduced the Impossible Burger to its alternative-protein menu. Traditional QSR’s have also been exploring plant-based options, including Hungry Jack’s meat-free Rebel Whopper or Mad Mex’s Baja BBQ Vegan Chicken burrito. KFC is even on the verge of launching a plant-based version of its trademark fried chicken, following several successful trials in overseas stores.
DO ALTERNATIVE PROTEIN PRODUCTS NEED TO BE SERVED UNDER STRICT VEGETARIAN RULES?
The answer to this question will of course depend on who you ask. Vegetarians will say absolutely definitely, yes.
The Australian foodservice industry is still figuring out how best to serve these products. When Hungry Jack’s first began offering its Rebel Whopper in 2019, it received backlash from the vegan community for cooking its plant-based patties on the same broiler as regular Whopper burgers. Similarly, McDonalds pulled its McVeggie burger less than two years after it was first introduced, following complaints of the same issue and insufficient sales.
But for flexitarians, who are increasingly driving the demand for alternative proteins, does it matter if the veggie patty is cooked on the same grill as meat?
Time will tell.