Fresh thought for food

March 8, 2021

With huge numbers turning to healthier eating during the COVID-19 pandemic, and many cutting back or ditching meat altogether, there has been an explosion of meat-free products in supermarket fridges and shelves and on takeaway menus. North East food giant Quorn has been at the forefront of food revolution for decades, and continues to develop new, tastier products. But, as Colin Young discovers, the sudden rise in popularity has taken even it by surprise.

This is not a fad or a foodie phase we’re going through.

It can no longer be perceived as an anti-meat movement or a protest to protect animals and the planet.

Veganism, vegetarianism, flexitarianism, simple, sensible ‘healthy- eatingism’, call it what you like. Meat- free eating and meat alternatives are here to stay.

You no longer have to appreciate Morrissey wailing that meat is murder to embrace a diet that excludes or diminishes your meat intake and cuts back on calories, health risks and CO2 gases.

More of us are swapping the chicken for chickpeas, lamb for lentils and cuts of beefs for quinoa to safeguard the environment and cleanse our bodies.

In this year’s Veganuary campaign, a record half a million pledged to eat only vegan food in January. The figure was up 100,000 on 2019 and double the previous year and many are sticking to it, or have become flexitarians and varied their diets.

The supermarkets responded.

Iceland, Aldi and Asda websites produced detailed vegan recipes, and Waitrose dedicated aisles in 130 shops.

Marks & Spencer created a vegan meal plan and Tesco promoted their own Veganuary campaigns on radio and television. With new products flooding the market, research suggests the COVID-19 lockdown has at least had a positive impact on our eating habits and made these meat-free choices more appealing.

Studies in the UK by food and drink analyst Mintel1 show concerns and awareness over the impact of eating meat on the environment has played a part but the biggest reason nearly a third are cutting back on meat consumption is the improvement to personal health.

The proportion of meat eaters who have reduced their intake rose to 39 per cent in 2019, from 28 per cent two years earlier, and there is a strong ‘feel-good’ factor associated with these products, with 85 per cent who have actively limited or reduced meat intake claiming it made them feel healthier.

While the meat-free market is thriving, 38 per cent substitute meat with cheese or pulses, rather than buy meat substitutes and the majority of Brits (88 per cent) are still eating red meat or poultry. There has also been no significant increase in the one per cent following vegan-only.

With the world’s biggest protein fermentation plant in Billingham, and a product forming and finishing facility in Stokesley, North Yorkshire, Quorn has been the leader in the meat-free, plant- based world for decades.

In the 1960’s, Lord Rank set out to transform the food we eat, challenging leading scientists to uncover alternatives to meat with a new, sustainable source of protein, amid concerns the globe’s growing population would lead to increasing food shortages because conventional farming would not be able to cope with demand.

After screening more than 3000 soil samples from across the world, they eventually struck gold in a field near Marlow, in Buckinghamshire – discovering a microorganism in the fungi family called Fusarium venenatum.

The Fusarium venenatum converts carbohydrate into protein, producing ‘mycoprotein’: a protein-rich, sustainable food source packed with fibre, low in saturated fat and containing no cholesterol.

Starting the process with just under a gram, it grows into 1500 tonnes of highly nutritious mycoprotein in each 40-day fermentation cycle, is highly sustainable and environmentally friendly.

The first Quorn product hit the shelves when it launched a ready-meal cottage pie for Sainsbury’s in 1985. The demands for better flavours, extra nutrients and more choice has been unrelenting since and Quorn continues to lead from the front.

Newcastle-based baker Greggs was the first major high street company to approach Quorn about providing meat substitutes for its traditional and very popular lines.

The vegan sausage roll may have raised eyebrows at the time of its launch for the 2019 Veganuary campaign, but they have been flying out of the ovens ever since.

The company is not alone in seeking to continually expand its range – and no wonder.

The UK market for meat-free foods was reportedly worth £740 million in 2018, increasing to £816 million the following year.

Pete Harrison, Quorn’s chief commercial officer, says: “If you’d asked anyone in the company ten years ago if they thought we’d be in the high street with a company like Greggs, you wouldn’t have found anyone who said yes; no one could have predicted it.

“It was a very exciting moment when they approached us.

“There was the North East connection, and we see them as a traditional baker, but they are in fact one of the most forward-thinking high street operators out there and that signal they wanted to do a vegan sausage roll was incredible for us.

“It shows where veganism has gone to, which is brilliant.

“You’ll see more and more. You’re starting to see these places bringing in vegan offerings, which they probably wouldn’t have imagined a few years ago, but it’s only the beginning of everyone looking at food differently.

“It had that perception that it was a growing fad, but we have high levels of growth and more restaurants and chains looking at vegan options because people want it.

Pete continues: “And that’s fundamentally why there has been such growth. There are no new regulations or laws; this is more people making that choice and looking to do things differently. It’s exciting.

“The time has come to look again at the emergence of meat-free because people are concerned about their health, the environment, and question the impact food production has on ourselves and the planet.

“Choice will be critical.

“If people have more options for more meal occasions, that will help. If people don’t have to compromise on taste because they find great food, then choosing meat-free becomes easier.

“Fundamentally changing food consumption globally is an enormous job, and we are a growing company in the North East that is very excited to be a part of the future and finding solutions,” adds Pete.

“It’s going to take a combination of people thinking clearly, but it will be driven by people wanting to change.”

Eight years ago, the likes of a new meat-free convert like Pete Harrison would have struggled to order much more than a stuffed pepper as the veggie option in a restaurant.

Today, the choices are endless and only set to grow.

With Peri-Peri ranges, Turkish kebabs and more Greggs delights all to come, if there is one role worth looking out for in the Sits Vac columns now, it is surely Quorn’s chief taster.

“I never thought of that,” laughs Pete.

“I’m quite lucky – I get to taste and see the new foods we’re developing and improvements we’re making.

“I think you’ll see the quality of meat-free products improve over the next few years and the ranges continue to expand as more people get into it.

“We’ll be part of that, making sure, at the heart of it, everything we do gets better.”

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