Shopping: Wheat joins the gravy train

Sheila Prophet ruminates on the latest substitutes for meat
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Meat is off the menu in millions of British households because children are simply refusing to eat it. A survey released last week by the Vegetarian Society revealed that one in five families now has a child aged between four and 11 who is, in the industry jargon, a meat avoider, refusing to eat three or more kinds of meat. Beef is the least acceptable of all, with 38 per cent of children refusing to eat it.

It is statistics like these that have persuaded food companies to spend millions of pounds developing substitutes, or meat analogues as they are called in the trade.

The market in meat-free meals is worth pounds 100m a year and is growing steadily. Household names such as Birds Eye are treating it very seriously, after their research showed more than 50 per cent of us now have two to three meat-free meals per week. The company has produced a range of mainstream meals aimed squarely at families, with meat free sausages proving the best-seller, and grills and burgers also doing well. Ross Foods has had similar success with the Linda McCartney range of meals such as shepherd's pies and lasagnas.

It has taken years of research to produce substitutes that look, taste, and perhaps most important, feel just like the real thing. But despite the growing choice of foods on offer, the companies all use the same basic material, vegetable protein, which is currently produced from four plants - soya, peas, wheat and a fungus closely related to the mushroom.

The soya products are the longest established, having been used in the east for thousands of years, and widely available in the west for the last 30. Tofu is produced by soaking, crushing and heating soya beans, the seeds of the soya plant, to produce soya milk, which is then coagulated and pressed into a curd. Cauldron Foods, the largest producer of tofu in Britain says sales have risen by 25 per cent year on year and says the BSE scare has given it a big boost.

Textured vegetable protein (TVP) is made by grinding soya beans into flour, which is processed and dried to produce a sponge-like substance which can be given a meaty flavour.

Arrum is a mixture of pea and wheat protein, which has made a successful entry by being chosen both by Birds Eye and Ross Foods as an ingredient in their ready meals. Lucas Ingredients, the company which has produced and patented it, says the key to its success is its chewability.

"We looked into exactly what happens to the human mouth when it chews food, and we found in Arrum a product that is very close to meat, with six chews to a bite," explains Lucas Ingredients' David Rowland. "The brain receives similar feedback when eating Arrum to that when eating meat." That gives Arrum an edge over competitors, which can take up to 12 chews per bite, he says.

Arrum cannot yet be bought on its own, but that is to change over the next year.

Quorn is already is a household name. It is produced from a tiny fungus called Fusarium Gramineurum, discovered in fields around Marlow, Buckinghamshire, in the 1960s by scientists seeking a new protein source. The fungus is fermented in huge tanks in a mixture of oxygen, glucose, nitrogen and minerals to produce myco-protein, a pale yellow dough-like substance which is then flavoured, textured and mixed with egg-white, without which it would fall apart when cooked.

The public certainly likes it, but not everyone is completely happy with Quorn. The Vegetarian Society says that, reluctantly, it is unable to approve it because the eggs are not free-range. Marlow Foods says that is because it cannot find a large enough supply of free-range eggs and it hopes to resolve the problem.

Anyway, vegetarians are not the companies' primary targets. They are already converted. The companies have bigger markets in mind.

Vegetable proteins are the perfect products for the Nineties. Not only are they "guilt-free", they are also high in protein and low in fat, calories and cholesterol. And they do not have associations with horrors like mad cow disease or E Coli.

The food companies are confident this market will grow in years ahead and research is continuing into new sources of meat-free food. If you thought Quorn sounded like science fiction, wait till you see what they are cooking up now. The latest research is examining the nutritional benefits of lupins.

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