Have you noticed, meat substitutes are gaining in popularity? While these meat substitutes go by many different names (plant-based meat, fake meat, meat analogs, mock meat, imitation meat, or vegan meat) they are all made primarily from plants, although most are made from highly refined plant parts.
For many, these meat substitutes are believed to be a way of getting better nutrition without giving up the recipes they like. For others, the attraction to meat substitutes is a desire to reduce the factory farming of animals and thereby reduce environmental contamination, deforestation, and disease transmission from animals to people (zoonosis). For some, the current state of factory-farmed animals presents ethical issues.
The World Health Organization’s (WHO) opinion that red and processed meats are carcinogenic has only added to the many concerns about the use of animal protein as a food source.
From a nutrition perspective, there is no question that the amount of animal protein (meat, eggs, and dairy) consumed by the average American is unhealthy. We also know that changing eating habits can be challenging for most people if it involves abandoning long-held habits. To the extent that meat substitutes help make the transition easier, they seem to be part of the solution. However, before jumping to the conclusion that plant-based meat substitutes are the long-sought answer, there are a few questions that need answers. For example,
- Will meat substitutes be widely accepted based on taste and texture?
- Will meat substitutes be cost competitive?
- Will meat substitutes be more nutritious than plant-based whole foods?
News about products like the Impossible Burger and other meat substitutes may leave the impression that recent breakthroughs have made meat substitutes almost indistinguishable from animal meat. In terms of taste, many of the products are gaining increased acceptance. In terms of cost, there haven’t been any dramatic breakthroughs. Most meat substitutes are still more expensive than what they try to replace.
While there has been quite a bit of news about meat substitutes in recent years, the industry creating meat substitutes has been around quite a while. The first meat substitutes that offered a texture similar to meat were created from soy protein in the 1960s and trademarked as Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP). Other TVP products were also made from lentils, beans, wheat, corn, etc. These early products were often packaged as canned goods. As for taste and texture, no one would have been fooled into believing these early products were meat. For a person new to a vegetarian diet, it was an alternative food that could have met their interest as a transition food, although it typically had less taste appeal and a higher cost than real meat. Interestingly, some credit the Chinese with inventing meat substitutes. There are records from the Tang dynasty (618 to 907), of a banquet where imitation pork and mutton dishes were served. Some vegetarian dishes in China still utilize ancient techniques to create their meat-like attributes.
Today, the substitute meat industry has gained renewed interest for many of the reasons previously mentioned. Plant-based protein substitutes are now available as substitutes for meat, cheese, eggs, butter, and milk. Most noticeable, these products are no longer limited to shelf space in health food stores. These animal protein substitutes are now featured in most grocery stores, including the dairy and fresh meat section. Also, these products are now frequently featured in major news stories when a national fast-food restaurants promotes a new animal protein substitute (plant-based burgers, chicken, hot dogs, etc.)
Both the Impossible Burger, by Impossible Foods, and the Beyond Burger, by Beyond Meat has peeked renewed interest in people that love burgers but never liked the taste and texture of the older texturized protein products. The newer products come far closer to the experience people are familiar with and even simulate bleeding when grilled. With Americans eating an estimated 50+ billion burgers a year, you can expect innovation to continue so long as the public demands alternatives to animal meats.
On the plus side, meat substitutes like the new veggie burgers appear to contain mostly plant-based ingredients. Typically they use plant-based protein from lentils, beans, peas, soy, or gluten in place of animal protein. Most of these products also contain a small amount of fiber, in contrast with animal meats that have no fiber.
On the negative side, most commercial veggie burgers have some undesirable qualities. To obtain the desired texture, it’s necessary to isolate plant protein through processes that remove much of the other nutrition in a plant. In essence, meat substitutes are highly processed foods that often also have very high sodium content. Most brands also use questionable additives that may include refined oils, saturated fats, and sugar. A vegetarian burger may contain protein from milk, whereas a vegan product would not. For anyone with allergic concerns, it’s important to check the ingredient list for soy, wheat, and nuts. Most products also list “natural flavors” in their ingredient list, which is a generic term that could mean just about anything.
For a person that needs a transition food to help reduce their intake of animal protein foods, the newer meat substitutes may serve a purpose. However, the best meat substitutes are still the ones you can make at home with whole foods like beans, lentils, vegetables, mushrooms, nut, and whole grains. While soy products like tofu, tempeh, and seitan are plant-based foods, they are not whole foods. Still, many find these processed soy products to be a reasonable complement when eaten in moderation. As for meatless burgers, a burger is far more than a piece of meat. It’s unusual to find a burger that’s not made with a white flour bun, near fiber-less iceberg lettuce, mayonnaise made from refined products, and ketchup sweetened with corn syrup.
If after trying a few of the meat substitutes, you are underwhelmed by the experience then consider trying the real thing. Instead of a piece of meat, try substituting a grilled Portobello mushroom. In reality, all of the meat substitutes currently offered are substandard when compared with plant-based whole foods for those seeking the best health. For environmental or ethical reasons, substitute meats may make sense. Just don’t expect your nutrition to significantly improve as a result of including them in your diet.
Nancy Neighbors, MD
Let’s Get Cooking
The best meat substitutes are the ones you can make at home with foods like beans, lentils, vegetables, mushrooms, and whole grains. So, let’s get cooking with these nutritious ‘made for the home cook’ recipes.
A Holiday Recipes
Chef AJ’s has created a holiday cooking video to inspire you to create healthy holiday season recipes in your kitchen. The cooking portion of the YouTube video runs about 40 minutes and is followed by Chef AJ’s 10 tips for how to make it through the holidays without gaining weight. With so many rich food temptations this time of year it’s easy to lose sight of an important statistic – 75% of the average annual weight gain occurs during the holidays. Toward the end of the video Chef AJ promotes products she sells. I have not used these products but would be interested in hearing from anyone that has direct experience with them. To begin the video, click on the link below.