HOW many ingredients does it take to make a burger? Purists will tell you one: beef, and nothing else. Others will want to sneak in salt, possibly black pepper, onion, maybe mustard. If you count the condiments, a conventional burger contains no more than five ingredients.

So I laughed to see the Lightlife company, an upstart in the ‘plant-based’ burger market that’s dominated by the Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat brands, trying to steal a march on these more established competitors. “Our burger has only 11 ingredients – that’s it. Not 18 or 20”.

Are we meant to be impressed? Lightlife positions itself as the “clean” brand of burger lookalikes, “a real food company,” with products “developed in a kitchen, not a lab.”

I must pop round to my neighbour’s to ask her if I can borrow some of her pea protein, natural 'flavors’, modified cellulose, beet powder and cherry powder, because I’ve run out.

To be fair to Lightlife though, most of us would have more chance of vaguely figuring out what these ingredients are compared to the rice protein and methylcellulose in the 18-ingredient Beyond Burger, or the cultured dextrose and genetically modified soy leghemoglobin, in the 20-ingredient Impossible Burger.

I say that I laughed, but the joke will be on us if we buy such plant-based concoctions.

Here’s the recipe. Mix sacks of white protein powder (isolated from soy or any proteinaceous pulse) with loads of water, add industrially refined oils, gluey stabilisers – derivatives of wood chips – come in handy here then tart it up with synthetic additives: colourings, flavourings.

Voila! Sell this ultra-processed confection to well-intentioned, but naive consumers as planet-saving, and just watch the money flow into corporate coffers.

Currently on UK shelves, Beyond Burgers retail at £19.50 a kilo, a price that can only reflect what this Silicon Valley company thinks the “my sacrifice to halt climate breakdown” market will pay.

It certainly can’t be based on its cheap ingredients and factory production costs. I price checked Beyond Burgers against real beef burgers. The costliest equivalent that I could find in the genuine meat aisle of supermarkets was dry-aged Hereford steak burgers and organic beef burgers, selling for £10.30 and £12.50 a kilo respectively.

Techno-optimists, those people who relish the prospect of our food being created outwith nature’s realm, have been frenziedly talking up plant burgers for ages, claiming that sales are growing exponentially.

As with every niche product, any uptick in sales can be portrayed as phenomenal progress when, in overall terms, it remains insignificant.

So while the value of the meat-free/plant-based category has risen by 15% this year, the proportion of households actually buying meat-free products dropped back.

UK sales of meat lookalikes actually slowed during peak lockdown. Kantar data showed that only 12.5% of British households bought in to the meat-free category, down from 13.8% during the same period in 2019. Meanwhile, 71 per cent of UK household bought red meat, up from 67% a year ago.

This slowdown in sales of meat analogues continues. The YouGov Consumer Tracker shows that of those who do buy meat substitutes, nearly a quarter have bought less since lockdown.

So while hi-tech food manufacturers await their gold rush, the gloss has come off their endeavour. We are wising up to how bad these confections taste and the shockingly bad value they represent.

More people are unconvinced by the simplistic Meat=Bad/ Plant=Good binary. Arguments for a return to regenerative agriculture, in which livestock, in tandem with traditional crop rotations, provide soil fertility and ecological resilience, are centre stage.

The more we probe the energy, water and other production costs of ultra-processed ingredients, using all the dark arts of the food technologist to look like meat, the less we want to buy them.

My vegetarian friends, who cook at home and care about the provenance of the ingredients they eat, would never touch a fake meat burger.

If I served them one, they’d think I’d gone mad. And they’d be right.

If you don’t want to eat meat, that’s your prerogative. But fake food pretending to be meat? That really is the pits.

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