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Vegan meat substitutes. Looking into Meatless Monday and beyond? It’s never been easier to do so. If you’re wondering is vegan meat healthy, here’s what to know.
What is Vegan Meat?
Vegan meat may sound like an oxymoron. How can meat be vegan?
In its most basic terms, vegan meat is meat made without using animals. Instead, it’s made with plant ingredients. And it’s been staking its claim in grocery stores and restaurant menus for a while now. In fact, more plant-based eating is a clear food trend – whether you identify as vegan, vegetarian, flexitarian, or none of the above – that’s not going anywhere.
As a kid, I remember having precisely one vegan friend, and that was an odd thing to be. Back then, you pretty much had plain tofu and cardboard-like frozen black bean burgers to choose from as a vegan.
I know plenty of people who don’t eat meat, eggs, or dairy products now. When people find out I eat a plant-based diet, they immediately ask me questions and tell me all about their diet (even though I didn’t ask). But hey, I love a good conversation about how others can consider eating more plants. Not eating animals is becoming more culturally acceptable, and I’m here for it.
Not to mention, there are countless vegan products now that appeal to herbivores and omnivores alike. It’s easier now than ever to swap out meat on your plate for a more ethical, environmentally friendly, and in many cases, health-conscious alternative.
Let’s take a closer look at the many vegan meat substitutes we have today.
6 Types of Vegan Meat Substitutes
Tofu is a sponge-like cake made from condensed soy milk. You can find it in varying degrees of firmness, ranging from silken to extra firm or even baked and flavored. It’s high in protein and is also a source of calcium and other micronutrients like iron, zinc, magnesium, selenium, copper, and phosphorus.
Tofu works well crumbled and scrambled with veggies and cheese in place of eggs, added to smoothies, made into pudding, cubed and roasted for salads and wraps, sliced and fried for sandwiches, or cut into strips for stir-fries. You can even use it to make cheesecake and quiche.
Tempeh is made of cooked soybeans that have been fermented and pressed into firm rectangular bricks. Because tempeh is fermented, it’s a natural source of probiotics, which feed the good bacteria in your gut. Tempeh also provides protein, B vitamins, iron, zinc, copper, and manganese. You can find generally find tempeh in plain brick form or sliced into strips and flavored as bacon.
It works well sliced and fried for sandwiches, crumbled for vegan chili, or cut into strips and cooked for tacos, salads, and stir-fries. Steam it before preparing to reduce some of its natural bitterness if you prefer.
Pronounced “say-tahn”, seitan is made with cooked vital wheat gluten. You can make it at home by making a dough out of vital wheat gluten (a powder), vegetable broth, soy sauce, and seasonings and boiling it for an hour before slicing. Alternatively, it’s sold pre-made in stores as cubes, strips, and deli slices. It’s very high in protein and also offers some iron and selenium.
Try seitan in place of beef to make sandwiches, tacos, burritos, shish-ka-bobs, stir-fries, and even soups.
Most of us haven’t prepared or even seen a jackfruit in real life. But the actual jackfruit is a giant green melon-shaped fruit with a thick, bumpy rind and a stringy inner flesh. It’s much easier to find jackfruit flesh in stores that has been removed from the fruit, cut into cubes, and either sold in vacuum-sealed packaging or canned. Some are even flavored.
While jackfruit is a lower-protein vegan meat alternative, it offers potassium, vitamin C, and has many uses. It works well slow-cooked with BBQ sauce to use as a pulled-pork substitute, in street tacos, marinated for wraps, or as a topper for nachos and baked potatoes.
Legumes that work well in place of meat include beans, lentils, and even green peas. All of these are high in protein, as well as iron, fiber, B vitamins, and calcium. You can purchase legumes either dried (to soak before cooking) or canned and ready-to-use.
Legumes make a hearty base for chilis, stews, and soups. They can be blended into a homemade veggie burger patty, made into a grain and legume salad, used as a filling for tacos and burritos, or added to pasta dishes and casseroles.
6. Soy Curls
Soy curls are a very niche vegan meat substitute, as they’re only made by one company, Oregan-based Butler Foods. These are made using non-GMO soybeans and sold as dehydrated soybean strips. When you receive them, you just rehydrate them in warm broth or water for 10 minutes before draining.
Rehydrated soy curls can then be fried in a skillet, marinated, or used to make fajitas, sandwiches, stir-fries, soups, and salads. They are a good source of protein and fiber.
Commercial Vegan Meat Brands
When you’d rather grab a pre-made vegan meat substitute to use in a dish, there are many commercial vegan burgers, hot dogs, roasts, bacon, deli meat, and more. Some of the most popular brands are listed below.
This brand is best known for its convincing 2016 Impossible™ Burger Made From Plants, which is flavored and made to “bleed” using a plant-based heme made via fermentation of genetically engineered yeast. Impossible Foods also makes plant-based sausage, chicken, pork, meatballs, and prepared meals available at Walmart. The primary ingredients in their products are soy protein, wheat, and vegetable oils.
Though famous for the beef-like Beyond Burger, Beyond Meat also makes chicken tenders and nuggets, ground beef, jerky, turkey, and meatballs. The main ingredients are faba bean or pea protein, wheat gluten, and vegetable oils.
Sweet Earth Foods
This line of plant-based bacon, pepperoni, and deli slices is made primarily with vital wheat gluten and beans. They also make seitan, vegan chicken, and pre-made frozen burritos.
This brand makes a variety of plant-based proteins, such as tempeh bacon, vegan beef crumbles, hot dogs, breakfast sausages, deli meats, burgers, and chicken. While some products are made with soy protein, they also have soy-free items made with pea protein.
Alpha Foods makes plant-based nuggets, crumbles, chicken patties, meatballs, tamales, breakfast sandwiches, burritos, and even mac and cheese. They are made using soy protein and wheat gluten.
This brand makes a line of plant-based ground beef, chopped chicken, and chorizo, made with porcini mushroom, pea protein, and plenty of delicious seasonings.
One of the OG veggie brands, MorningStar was founded in 1975. It makes its original line of plant-based burgers, sausage, and chicken nuggets. They also have their newer “next generation” Incogmeato line, which includes its own breakfast items, meal starters, and burgers. Most of their items are made with soy protein and vital wheat gluten.
Founded in 2003, Gardein aims to make your meatless lifestyle effortless. This includes a line of frozen items like vegan fish sticks and crab cakes, orange and teriyaki chicken strips, chicken and beef patties, meatballs, prepared meals like breakfast and pasta bowls, and canned soups and chilis. Textured wheat protein and soy or pea protein are the main ingredients in most vegan meat items.
Quorn makes both vegetarian and vegan meatless products, such as burgers, chicken patties, and grounds. All of their products contain mycoprotein, which is a fermented protein derived from the fungus Fusarium venenatum, which grows in the soil. Their vegetarian items contain egg white and milk protein.
Boca has also been around for quite a while, since 1979 to be exact. Its product line includes frozen burgers, crumbles, chicken patties, and nuggets. The primary ingredients are wheat and soy protein.
Are Vegan Meat Substitutes Healthy?
Is a pre-made vegan chicken tender a “health food”? No, of course not. But it has its perks over conventional poultry when used on occasion, depending on what your personal values are.
I like to answer the question of whether vegan meats are healthy by looking at the spectrum on which foods fall. For example, look at soy. On one end, you have the whole edamame soybean in its natural form. On the other end, you have isolated soy protein used in prepared meals (including many prepared vegan meats) and snack foods like protein bars. In between, you have things like tofu, tempeh, soy curls, soy milk, and soy yogurt.
The broader category of vegan meats can be looked at similarly.
On the low end, you have options like beans, peas, and lentils. In the middle, there’s tofu, tempeh, jackfruit, soy curls, and seitan. Then, all of the more highly processed commercial vegan meats. Even on this high end, some options are better than others in terms of their health value. It’s always best to examine the ingredient panel and decide for yourself.
So are vegan meats healthy? Nutritionally, it depends on which end of the spectrum they fall.
There are studies showing the health benefits of replacing conventional meats with plant-based meat. Things like legumes, minimally processed soy foods, and seitan are excellent choices. If you eat commercial vegan meats regularly, prioritize ones that are made mostly with whole ingredients, and save the others for occasional enjoyment. Although they are delicious, more processed commercial options can have large amounts of added salt and sugar, and some are high in saturated fat if they contain coconut oil.
When comparing vegan and conventional meat, I would argue that basing your diet predominantly on plant-based options is a better choice. Mounds of research show that regular consumption of conventional meat products, particularly red and processed meats, is associated with worsened health outcomes, including a higher risk for things like type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and certain cancers.
Not to mention, processed and red meats like bacon, hot dogs, and sausage have been classified as carcinogens by the World Health Organization. Furthermore, healthy plant-based diets have been associated with many protective health benefits.
Final Thoughts on Vegan Meat Substitutes
Not all vegan meat substitutes are created equally, but dang, they have come a long way in the last 50 years. For the most health benefit, prioritize ones that are less processed, like legumes, tofu, seitan, jackfruit, tempeh, and soy curls.
There are a growing number of convenient pre-made vegan burgers, hot dogs, and chicken patties, which taste good and are easy to use. However, most of these offer fewer health benefits and are best saved for occasional enjoyment. Overall, vegan meats are versatile, can provide important nutrients, and are easy to use in place of conventional meats.