In the six months since making the decision to stop eating meat and dairy products, I've been on something of a quest to find decent-tasting alternatives to some of the foods I used to adore, but can no longer justify consuming. I don't classify myself as a full-on vegan for a number of reasons, but I do what I can to minimise my impact on other life forms and the planet as a whole. But while there are plenty of hardcore vegans who would keel over and pass out at the first whiff of a medium, nicely marbled rib-eye, I am unabashed in my occasional longing for the heady delights of a juicy slab of perfectly cooked cow. I just can't do it, though, not any more.
As veganism spreads throughout the world, food manufacturers have hit the panic button as the effects of a millennial-driven global downturn in the consumption of animal products begin to hit. British food company ABP recently joined forces with Warner Bros in an attempt to encourage children to eat more meat, by using comic book superheroes, such as Superman and Wonder Woman, on the packaging of burgers and sausages.
Warner’s Rachel Wakley said of the campaign: “We are truly excited about delivering our DC characters to fans in this innovative, fun and extremely tasty way.” If a burger patty in the shape of Superman’s logo is representative of what these brands are resorting to in order to stem the rising tide of veganism, it shows the writing really is on the wall.
As countermeasures, we now have a proliferation of vegan cheesesand meat products entering the market, each one proclaiming to be nigh on impossible to distinguish from the real thing. You might have already heard of the Impossible and Beyond burger brands, both of which promise the full carnivore hit from patties made exclusively from plants. Two months ago, Beyond Meat announced that it was expanding into more than 50 new territories this year, including the UAE – although you can already buy some of the company's products at select retailers here.
Vegan alternatives to meat and dairy certainly look the part, and the internet is awash with reports on how they taste incredibly similar to the real deal. The burgers even sizzle when cooked and “bleed” when cut into, thanks to the addition of a protein extracted from the roots of soybean plants. They also appear to have a similar, crumbling consistency to the normal ground beef that traditional burgers are made from, while the cheese is said to melt when hot enough. Too good to be true? I’ve decided to find out.
Testing out the alternatives in the UAE
A variety of Beyond products are available at Souq Planet at Etihad Plaza in Abu Dhabi, where I find a random selection of meat substitutes. In the opposite aisle is a handful of non-dairy cheeses, so I grab a couple of those, too. Beyond Meat’s Beastly Sliders come packed with 23grams of protein and contain calcium, iron, potassium and vitamins B6, B12 and D, as well as omega-3. But they also, much to my disappointment, leave an unusual aftertaste that is enough to put me off eating them again.
Mrs H tries them, too, and we’re both in agreement that, while the flavour could pass as a “dirty” Friday night burger when things are desperate, the texture is all wrong. The cheese, made by Canadian company Daiya, isn’t brilliant, either. The taste is passable, but it doesn’t melt and feels weird in the mouth, although our 2-year-old devours it with gusto. Then again, he doesn’t know any better.
My experience has been disappointing, but I’m not the only one with misgivings about these “substitutes”. Dubai PR professional Ananda Shakespeare has been vegan for 25 years and was raised as a vegetarian. She says that as she’s never eaten meat, she hasn’t felt the need to try them. “Many meat eaters would argue that I have no idea what I’m missing,” she says, “however, most vegans will tell you that we’re not missing anything, only gaining in terms of our own health.”
She has tried the cheeses, though. “I’ve bought soya cheese over the years and desperately tried to get it to melt over jacket potatoes, but have long since given up. There are many more vegan cheeses on the market now, but if you look at the ingredients, it could put you off.” As for vegan “beef” burgers, she says they horrify her, so it’s a big thumbs down from Shakespeare.
Another UAE resident, Will Rankin, is Shakespeare’s partner in Dubai Vegan Days, a new group hosting events in the emirate that cater for vegans in a part of the world where the lifestyle is still very much in its infancy. He’s not a fan of the “meats”, either. “Some people choose to go vegan with their health as the main criteria,” he explains, “and I think the pretend meat industry is aimed primarily at them. For many vegans, myself included, the idea of things that resemble meat is repugnant.
“Vegan cheese is a big issue. Many crave the umami flavour, and research has proven there’s an addictive ingredient in cheese. Vegans seek solace in a product called nutritional yeast – not at all like the yeast you bake with, but large, yellow cheesy flakes. Sounds gross, but it’s wonderful, packs an enormous amount of protein and B vitamins, and can be added to all sorts of dishes to give a cheesy twang.”
Rankin advises that Artizzan Cheese, from Dubai retailer Pure Vegan Love Market, is a locally made nut cheese, which is “simply the best I’ve ever tasted. It’s expensive, but made with high-quality ingredients and should be reserved as a treat anyway, as it’s calorie-dense.”
The best products to try
Alena Ganina runs the Instagram account @vegan.uae and she makes a point that resonates with me, about some vegans tending to be positive about anything that helps push forward the overall agenda. She, too, has been disappointed by many of her experiences, but remains optimistic that things will get better. “If you take the best vegan cheese and sausages we have now,” she remarks, “they’ve undoubtedly improved considerably since they first emerged and they will only get better. This is just the beginning.”
She’s certainly been busy experimenting, having tried many dozens of different products, and she’s quite vocal in her assessments. “I don’t recommend Yves Tofu Dogs or hot dogs,” she says. “Kind of bland and they contain MSG [monosodium glutamate], which is best avoided. Field Roast sausages are the best available in the UAE so far – I’d recommend trying them, but I wouldn’t rave about them.” She’s even tried black and red caviar substitutes from Ikea. “Those taste similar to the original – salty and fishy. I’m not a fan of caviar, but it was fun to try and I think it’s a suitable substitute.”
Ganina says she’s yet to find a vegan mayonnaise she likes and that most of the cheeses out there are too processed – “mostly oil and definitely not healthy, so should be eaten only now and then”. Some she even refers to as “yucky” or “disgusting”, although her experiments with the sweeter things have proved more palatable.
“Carrefour has Fabulous Freefrom Factory fudge made with soy milk. I won’t rave about it, but it’ll do if you miss fudge. I hope we get more vegan sweets in the future. Vegan ice cream is good, particularly the Miiro brand, which I’ve bought from Spinneys – chocolate hazelnut being my favourite. Swedish Glaze tastes pretty much like dairy ice cream to me, as does the Ben & Jerrys dairy-free range. Their ice cream is very sweet and indulgent, just as it should be.”
All in all, then, the message is loud and clear: we’re not there yet. But these are early days, and the likes of Bill Gates and Leonardo DiCaprio would not be investing millions of dollars in these companies if there was no real future for them. Until these foods do become more “real”, though, some of us will just have to do without. Yes, we do know what we’re missing and sometimes the urge to break one’s resolve is almost too much to bear. But we’ll cope because when it comes to food that’s tasty, nutritious and cruelty-free, there’s a greater abundance than we could ever possibly tire of. Nobody actually needs a burger.