When is a pulled pork burger not a burger? When it comes from Linda McCartney’s chilled foods range for one. These “pulled pork” burgers are largely made up of rehydrated textured soya and wheat protein. Those two account for 64 per cent of ingredients. Then there is a long list of flavourings and additives including muscovado sugar, black treacle and maltodextrin.
The labelling of vegetarian food with similar names to those used for meat is getting under the skin of the European Parliament’s agricultural committee, which wants us all to stop using the word “burger” for anything that does not contain animal flesh. Under proposed legislation, food producers would have to come up with alternative names for alternatives to meat such as veggie burgers, steaks or sausages.
With some companies determined to supply replacements for meat, perhaps they have a point. When you buy a beef burger, the main ingredient has to be beef. With veggie burgers, you may not know what you are getting unless you read the back of the packet.
Take Quorn "classic burgers". Quorn is the brand name used by Marlow Foods, a once-British brand which is owned by a food giant based in the Philippines.
The main ingredient in these is mycoprotein, which is produced by adding oxygen, nitrogen, glucose and minerals to a fungus called Fusarium venenatum that grows in soil.The mycoprotein is then grown using fermentation. So it’s a fungus – as are mushrooms. It was, however, developed in a laboratory, hence the trademark sign mycoprotein™ on the list of ingredients.
The next ingredient sounds just as enticing: textured wheat protein. It is made up of wheat flour, sodium alginate, which is made from algae, and caramel for colour. These patties won’t do for vegans though as there is also rehydrated free range egg-white and milk proteins. Some of the flavour comes from roasted barley malt extract and “smoke flavouring”.
It is lab food at its finest.
Many veggie burgers should really be called wheat or soya burgers.
Boss burgers, from Irish brand Moodley Manor in Co Laois, are made by vegans using wheat protein as the main ingredient. The patties also include gram flour which is made from chickpeas, as well as tomato paste, nutritional yeast, garlic powder, onion powder, soy sauce and rapeseed oil.
Dutch brand Vegafit makes vegan burgers that sound enticing. The labels says they are “100 per cent plant based, lactose free, rich in protein, contains vitamin B12, iron and zinc” and “palm oil free”. What’s not to like? The main ingredient is hydrated wheat protein (46.7 per cent), however, and they also have wheat flour.
Then there is a selection of fillers, thickeners and flavourings. The vitamins and minerals are added as part of the manufacturing process.
These are not the only vegetarian burgers to include wheat. In Dunnes Stores, for example, all of the six brands on sale on the day I checked had it to some degree, whether they were stocked with the salads, as with the Dunnes own-brand sweetcorn and chickpea burgers, in the chilled section or with the frozen foods. Even those that don't rely on it as an ingredient, such as Eden's curried cauliflower burgers, which are made in Co Offaly, generally have some.
This should not be surprising as more than 40 per cent of our daily calories come from three staple crops: rice, wheat and maize, according to a report from the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.
“Over human history, out of about 30,000 edible plant species, 6,000-7,000 species have been cultivated for food,” it says. “Yet, today we only grow about 170 crops on a commercially significant scale. Even more surprising, we depend highly on only about 30 of them to provide us with calories and nutrients that we need every day.”
That is not the case with all brands. Others such as Gosh beetroot and kale burgers don't rely on cereals. It uses quinoa, which is a seed. These include chickpeas (26 per cent), beetroot (22 per cent), courgette (7 per cent), carrot (7 per cent), potato flake, kale (6 per cent) and red onion. A similar product from Aldi is mainly beetroot and chickpea.
Given that many vegetarians rely on pasta and bread in their diet, a wheaty burger may not be the best answer to meat.