How far have vegan alternatives come to tasting like the real thing? Not far enough, according to a panel that tasted some options for The Associated Press.
"Noxious" and "kind of not natural" were among the reactions to some of the meatless alternatives being pushed by a new generation of vegan food makers that want to revolutionize the way Americans eat.
"If I were to eat this thinking it is a regular hamburger, I might think it's spoiled," said Byron Champlin, a city councilor in Concord, New Hampshire, after taking a bit of a "beefless" burger patty made by Gardein.
Gardein, Beyond Meat and Hampton Creek are among the companies trying to bring energy to a category that has long been defined by brands like Morningstar Foods (founded in 1970), Nasoya (1978) and Quorn (1985). The thinking is that more Americans will embrace plant-based alternatives to beef, chicken and mayonnaise if there are better-tasting options.
The idea is attracting millions of dollars in investments and media fanfare, with the newer companies saying their products also are healthier and gentler on the environment. But the recipes they're cooking up might not be ready for prime time just yet.
A panel of taste testers at The Associated Press test kitchen in Concord, New Hampshire had mixed reactions to the offerings, and in some cases preferred the more established vegetarian options. The three panelists were meat eaters, but said they'd go for vegetarian foods, as long as they taste good.
Dan St. Jean, executive chef for The Common Man restaurants in New Hampshire, thought the Gardein patty had a strange smell.
"It almost tastes like someone tried to make a meatball into a hamburger, but did something wrong," agreed Sarah Kinney, a community news editor for The Concord Monitor.
The reaction was worse for Beyond Meat's Beast Burger, which was introduced this year. Unlike Gardein, Beyond Meat says it wants to replicate the taste of real meat, rather than just offer vegetarian alternatives. But Champlin spit out the Beast Burger after one bite and called it "noxious" and "non-recognizable."
All three taste testers found the "original griller" made by Morningstar Foods the least offensive. It wasn't exactly a hit either, though; Champlin said he would eat it if there was nothing else around.
The fake chicken didn't fare much better.
"It's just kind of rubbery. It didn't really taste like chicken," said Kinney of Beyond Meat's Southwestern-flavored strips of chicken, which has been on shelves since 2013.
Champlin thought there was a bad aftertaste, but couldn't place what it was.
He also thought the Gardein "chick'n scallopini" was tasteless. But that's why St. Jean liked it — he thought his kids wouldn't notice if he covered it in cheese and marinara sauce.
Champlin and Kinney preferred the chicken breast look-alike made by Quorn, although they agreed with St. Jean that it looked like "a grilled baguette."
The panelists also noted the lack of aromas in the kitchen, where a chef was preparing the products on a stovetop. Meat, by contrast, would have filled the space with mouthwatering smells.
"If your back was to the stove, you couldn't tell what she was cooking," said St. Jean.
The panel was also given a meatless breakfast sausage patty made by Morningstar, and vegetarian bacon by Lightife, another company that has been around since the 1970s. The sausage was the winner of the day, with everyone praising its texture for closely resembling the grind-like consistency of real sausage.
The bacon, by contrast, was given a thumbs-down, with Champlin likening it to a "leather chew." St. Jean agreed, and said they reminded him of Beggin' Strips, the pet treats made by Purina. The taste fell short, too.
"The saltiness isn't there, the crunch isn't there," St. Jean said.
Although the fake meats didn't go over well, the panel generally liked Just Mayo, the eggless mayonnaise introduced by Hampton Creek in late 2012. The spread now sells at major retailers, including Target and Wal-Mart. Everyone was able to identify it as vegan in a lineup of mayonnaises, but thought it came close to tasting like Hellmann's.
"I wouldn't have a problem with this," Champlin said. St. Jean and Kinney agreed.
On the other hand, Nasoya's mayonnaise was described as having a taste that is "funky" and "kind of pasty."
Ultimately, the panel said they would buy Just Mayo and the Morningstar breakfast sausages. But they agreed there was no "wow" factor in any of the products they sampled.
"Nothing stood out as being better than the real thing," Kinney said.