Photo: Bloomberg Photos (clockwise From Top Left) By Olivia Rockeman, Kate Krader, Andres R. Martinez And Pam Roux.
Being a vegan has always been work. There’s the planning ahead, the requisite grilling of waitstaff, and the inevitable need to explain your dietary choices in a way that doesn’t offend the meat eaters asking the questions.
This year, though, things should have gotten easier, as vegan foods went from trendy meal kits promoted by Tom Brady to mainstream options accessible to anyone looking to try them out, whether driven by health, climate change, animal welfare, or simple curiosity. Soy-based Impossible Whoppers are now served in Burger King. Consumers can find Beyond Meat Inc. breakfast sausage at Dunkin’ and, if they like it enough, pick up some stock in the now public company, too. Even meat giants Smithfield Foods Inc. and Hormel Foods Corp. have unveiled beef imitations. All in all, the global plant-based meat industry is now valued at $14 billion.
So in honor of Thanksgiving in the Year of the Vegan, we here at Bloomberg taste-tested nine imitation roast products, including a whole soy bird, a tofu-based ham, and centerpiece “meats” that were breaded, stuffed, or both.
The results were mixed, but the takeaway was clear: Turkey producers have nothing to worry about.
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We had seven testers cook the items, available online or in stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. They made them at home on Sunday night and ate them with family and friends hot, recording their impressions, then brought the leftovers into Bloomberg for further testing. (What is Thanksgiving if not about the leftovers?) Hungry newsroom staffers-including vegetarians, “flexitarians,” and fully fledged carnivores-tried them and left some feedback.
The Gardein Holiday Roast, a stuffed soy-based, encrusted faux turkey breast, was the clear winner. “A very solid alternative,” “good turkey consistency,” and “moist, delicate, and turkey-like” were among the comments from Bloomberg’s tasters. (Perhaps that’s one reason Gardein saw a 30% year-over-year increase in sales of its Holiday Roast from 2016 to 2018, according to the company.)
The Field Roast Hazelnut Cranberry also found some positive reactions: “Prettiest by far,” one reviewer wrote. On taste, reviewers thought it was “very good” and “kind of sausage-y,” and even that it “should satisfy the whole meat-eating family.” But, one wrote, “it tastes nothing like turkey.”
For the rest, though, texture was the major complaint. “Rubbery” was used to describe four of the products, and “dry” was mentioned for two. Points were also lost on taste. “Hebrew National meets tofu”; “Tastes passably like turkey until you get the weird soy aftertaste”; and “D-level turkey” were all descriptors.
Of course, much of this is subjective-a roast that garnered a “decent” from one reviewer, someone else said, “I would think this was just an overcooked, poorly seasoned turkey.” However, one product that was actually shaped like a bird will be seared into this reporter’s memory for years to come: The taste was bad, the appearance was worse, and the instructions to stuff its “cavity” beg the question of what vegan wants to skip the turkey but keep the cadaver.
Even for the winning Gardein dish, an otherwise positive review didn’t come with an endorsement. “I would still just serve vegetarian friends homemade good veggie dishes instead of this at Thanksgiving.”
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That sentiment handily encapsulates the state of the faux-turkey market today. The science-and the demand-just isn’t there yet. Today’s meatless roasts are less about all-out replacement than they are about options, or “keeping peace in the family,” as Michele Simon, executive director of the Plant Based Foods Association, puts it.
“We get a lot of older parents that will buy things for their kids,” says Kale Walch, co-owner of the Herbivorous Butcher, of his consumer base. “The old joke is we’ve got an army of vegan and vegetarian daughters coming back from college.”
And though Tofurky will sell about 450,000 roasts this year, completely maxing out the company’s manufacturing capacity, Chief Executive Jaime Athos readily admits it was never meant to be a “note for note knockoff” of turkey. It was developed 25 years ago, he explains, as “a solution to the vegan problem” on the holiday-what to serve guests or what to bring as one so you didn’t go hungry.
Given their scores with testers, these faux-poultry products will likely remain a vegan solution, too, unlikely to appeal to the flexitarians that have caused the alt-meat category to surge so much in the past year. While people may be increasingly willing to sub in a plant-based patty for a weekday lunch, giving up a centerpiece turkey on Thanksgiving is a harder sell-this is a special occasion, after all.
The holiday has always been about the sides, anyway. And the fact is animal-free cooking is more accessible than it ever has been; making the usual suspects without meat, eggs, or dairy isn’t particularly challenging anymore, with vegan substitutions just a Google search away.
“Making a burger is one thing. Producing a turkey roast is quite another,” says Dan Staerk, the global protein R&D leader at DuPont Nutrition & Health, where he develops the ingredients that go into alternative meat products. Forget dark or light, getting the texture right at all is tough. “There is certainly a higher degree of difficulty in larger pieces of meat. A burger or minced meat, you’ve got very small particles, and you can mimic that with extruded vegetable protein.”
Instead, carnivores are upgrading their turkeys to organic or antibiotic-free, says Kim McLynn at consumer research firm NPD Group. “Bottom line is the food on our Thanksgiving table this year will look similar to what was on our tables 20 years ago,” she said, “but the foods will have a modern twist.” Maybe there’s some vegan sausage in the stuffing, or olive oil in the potatoes instead of butter, or even some trendy seasonings like harissa.
While this year’s not-turkeys don’t hit the mark, next year’s might. The segment’s growth isn’t likely to slow down and may even see a boost from a case of new year, new you, new meat. Eating more burgers, even the plant-based kind, is after all, an easier resolution to keep than hitting the gym more.
“My expectations are higher around January, when people have filled up on meaty stuff around the holidays,” says Kasper Vesth, general manager for North America at the Meatless Farm Co., which makes plant-based burgers and mince. “That’s what I see as the chance to drive sales numbers.”
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Bloomberg’s Kate Krader, Andres R Martinez, Patricia Martinez, Anne Riley Moffat, Olivia Rockeman, Pamela Roux and Matthew Townsend contributed to this report.