What's New?: A History of Meat Alternatives in the UK

What's New?: A History of Meat Alternatives in the UK

Malte B. Rödl (The University of Manchester, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-7350-0.ch011


The “new market” for meat alternatives promises meaty profits and attracts enormous interest by consumers and investors alike. In this chapter, the historical development of meat alternatives is reviewed in an attempt to identify what is “new” about this particular market in the United Kingdom as an example of a Western country. Beginning in Victorian England, through the Wars into the 21st century, the societal background and developments leading into various episodes of markets for meat alternatives are discussed. Together with a description of the “new” market, historical continuities and current opportunities are outlined. It is concluded that health, environment, and business opportunities have played an important role throughout the history of the market, but the significance of this market in the commercial world is new.
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The ‘new meat alternatives market’ promises a healthy, ethical, and sustainable product that is made from plant ingredients and fabricated to replicate meat. With an increasing societal awareness for the ethical, environmental, and individual health impacts of eating animals, more and more consumers decide to either cut down or avoid the consumption of meat and on other animal products altogether (Mintel, 2017). Also, with that new market, there are new products, new companies, and large investments into meat-free meats (The Economist, 2015). In contrast to the rather recent mainstream business expectations and investments, British consumers have been able to buy a diverse range of meat alternatives in most major supermarkets for over two decades, and for many decades prior outside of the mainstream market.

Most accounts of the history of meat alternatives start with soybeans in ancient China, where the highly proteinaceous crop has been used and cultivated for over three millennia; according to Shurtleff and Aoyagi (2014), tofu (coagulated soy protein) was first mentioned in a document from 965 CE, in which the consumption of tofu as an alternative to meat is advocated. Cooked wheat gluten (today known as seitan) has also been used in China for many centuries; the creation of fibrous, meat-like foods from it was first mentioned in 1301. Another ‘traditional’ meat alternative available today is tempeh (fermented soybean cake) which is likely to exist since the early 1600s, in Java, Indonesia (Shurtleff & Aoyagi, 2011, 2014, p. 5). In ancient China, plant-based meat-like products were especially popular in the country’s Buddhist periods, as meat was then forbidden for religious reasons (Shurtleff & Aoyagi, 2014).

The first references to replacing meat in the UK originate in Victorian England, when a vegetarian community of considerable size emerged. Vegetarian advocates promoted a purist diet based on wholesomeness, taste, price, and simplicity. However, it was also recognised that popularisation of the diet required more appealing foods, hence it was not uncommon to create cutlets, sirloins, etc. from vegetables (Gregory, 2007, p. 129). Vegetarian recipe books featured alternatives to meat dishes such as sausages, steaks, or cutlets. Towards the end of the 19th century, people called for more diversity in the vegetarian diet and replacements for animal ingredients. In consequence, a large variety of nut meats and other protein-rich products were created and sold (Gregory, 2007).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Mycoprotein: A single-cell protein made of fungus. The strand fusarium venenatum is approved as safe for human consumption and used in products of the British brand Quorn.

Seitan: The Japanese and Western name for cooked wheat gluten; it usually has a fibrous texture, is and can be used as a meat alternative.

Tofu: Soy bean curd. Often used as a meat alternative. It is very popular in Asian countries, such as China and Japan, and more recently has started to also be in used a Western type of diet.

Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP): Trademark colloquial term for any kind of unflavored, dehydrated, textured product from plant protein.

High Moisture Meat Analogs (HMMA): Meat alternatives made using high moisture extrusion. Only recently are HMMA products coming to market.

Tempeh: A soy product traditional for Indonesia. It is the result from a fermentation process which binds soybeans into a cake form.

Meat Alternative: Meat analogues or meat substitutes which are plant-based, lab-grown, or use ingredients other than livestock, such as insects.

Meat Reducer: A person who aims to reduce their meat consumption to a limit considered healthy or because of environmental and animal welfare reasons; alternative term for flexitarian.

Protein: An organic substance – polymer chains of amino acids, considered an essential nutrient for the human body; there are 20 types of amino acids representing the building blocks for the human proteins – 11 are non-essential which can be synthesized by the human organism and 9 are essential which need to be provided by food.

Single-Cell Protein (SCP): Refers to microbes converting various raw materials such as oil or paper into proteinaceous biomass mostly used as animal feed.

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