By Veggie Tom
Meat products that are just smoke and mirrors, or, more specifically, smoke flavour, soya, yeast extract, onion powder and monosodium glutamate.
Vegetarians know their ingredient lists. When you ditch meat, you accept a life of poring over the words on the back of food packs, hunting for words like gelatine, rennet and anchovy. And then there’s the opposite problem – the products which sound meaty, but aren’t.
Pot Noodles are the classic example. They’ve been vegetarian since they launched in 1977, and the “beef” or “chicken” bits you find inside them are nothing more than soya chunks. It doesn’t make commercial sense for manufacturer Unilever to shout about it, because soya sounds less appetising than beef and fake meat doesn’t sound tasty at all. Which is why a lot of people, vegetarian or omnivore, are surprised when they find out.
I’d been veggie for 15 years before I discovered I could eat Beef and Tomato Pot Noodles – not to mention flavours like Chicken and Mushroom, Chilli Beef and Southern Fried Chicken. They’re not exactly the height of gastronomy but I’ve eaten plenty in my time, and it was frustrating to find out I’d been needlessly restricting my choice of flavour for years.
Crisps are another minefield. I remember pestering my mother to buy me a bag of crisps based on my favourite cartoon – Thundercats, thanks for asking – which, once bought, turned out to be bacon flavour. She made me take them back. Cue trauma, many years of therapy, etc etc. Years later we both found out what bacon flavour means: no bacon. Cue deep resent, many years of therapy, etc etc.
And the same is true of Frazzles, Smokey Bacon Pringles, even Schwartz Bacon Flavour Bits – it’s all just smoke and mirrors. Or, more specifically, smoke flavour, onion powder and monosodium glutamate.
Indeed, for many years veggie crisps fans faced the baffling situation of being able to eat bacon flavour Walkers but not cheese and onion. Thanks to animal rennet being used to make the cheese, they weren’t suitable for vegetarians.
They were re-launched as veggie-friendly in 2004, but the situation is still pretty muddled. Many cheese crisps are vegetarian, but not all. And many cheaper meat crisps remain veggie, but more expensive ones often aren’t – and Walkers is currently experimenting with real meat in parts of the standard range too.
Basically, it’s a mess. I’m used to picking products off the shelves and ogling the ingredients list, but it can be a pain to shop that way. I’m not surprised that a lot of people don’t bother. So even though you can call your product “chicken flavour rice” and thereby absolve it of any requirement to contain chicken, I seriously doubt the finer points of labelling are clear to everyone.
And there’s another issue here. Many vegetarians don’t want to see the ingredients they are trying to avoid being displayed right there on the front of the packet. They don’t want to eat food that acts like it contains bacon, beef and chicken because it’s precisely the stuff they’re trying to get away from.
It doesn’t bother me – I’ve been veggie since birth, so I’ve never needed to go cold turkey. But for some people making the switch to a non-meat diet, the word “beef” is the last thing they want to see splashed across their soya chunk, yeast extract, glucose syrup and garlic-flavoured Pot Noodle.
Speaking of which, how do Pot Noodles taste these days? They’ve been the butt of jokes for so many years that they have almost transcended concerns over their edibility – but does the product still deserve such derision? Eating a Beef and Tomato Pot Noodle is enough to confirm that, by and large, it does. The noodles are unpleasantly slick, the sauce is cynically sweet and the MSG leaves you feeling like you haven’t really eaten. It’s not so hideous that I couldn’t finish one, but there are so many better places to spend your calories that I can’t possibly recommend it.
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