What is Plant-Based Meat?

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I remember when I was around 10 years old and my best friend decided she was vegan. That’s when I was first introduced to the world of tofu and veggie burgers. (How strange is it now that veggie burgers were once a novel idea?). Of course, there weren’t very many options back then when it came to meat alternatives, and everything was pretty much made of tofu in various shapes. 

Fast forward to today. Go to any grocery store and you no longer have to walk aisle by aisle on the hunt for just one single non-meat product you can use. Most places have an entire section dedicated to plant-based meat (and plant dairy alternatives, vegan eggs, and more), whether you’re looking for something to replace deli turkey or ground beef. 

But what is plant-based meat, exactly? If you’re new to the idea of replacing conventional meat on your plate, welcome. There’s much to learn and I’m personally very excited for your journey. Some of the first questions you probably have are what is plant-based meat made of, what does it offer nutritionally, and how do you use it? Well, stick around to find out. 

What is Plant-Based Meat?

Plant-based meat is a category of food products designed to replicate the taste, texture, appearance, and nutritional profile of traditional animal-based meats. They are entirely composed of plant-derived ingredients. This is different from cultivated meat, which is an innovative process of growing meat from animal cells.

The plant-based foods category has continued to expand and we predict that won’t change as a 2024 food trend.

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Need a place to start? Some of my favorite plant-based meat products are:

castiron skillet packed with couscous, sliced avocado, corn on the cob, and vegan chicken slices

What is Plant-Based Meat Made Of?

The first question many people have when discovering the world of alternatives is what is plant-based meat made of. Plant-based meats are typically made from sources such as soy, wheat, legumes, and other plant-based proteins. 

They often contain potatoes, coconut oil, and vegetables, depending on the product. The manufacturing process involves using various techniques to extract and combine plant proteins, fats, and flavorings. The result is a variety of products that closely resemble meat. 

Newer plant-based meats that aim to mimic conventional meat may utilize other ingredients to make them more “meaty”. For example, plant-based heme made via fermentation of genetically engineered yeast used by the Impossible brand. Beyond Meat uses beet juice and apple extract to provide a familiar color and flavor.

Nutritional Composition

Plant-based meats exhibit a diverse nutritional makeup depending on the ingredients they contain. These products generally harness a combination of plant-derived proteins, fats, and other essential nutrients. Because they’re entirely made of plants, they’re also generally a good source of fiber. 

Plant-based meat alternatives are commonly rich in protein, sourced from ingredients like soy, peas, beans, and lentils. Many plant-based meats are fortified with vitamins and minerals such as B12, iron, and zinc. If this is something you’re looking for specifically, be sure to read the nutrition facts label. 

Additionally, the absence of cholesterol in plant-based meats distinguishes them from traditional animal-based counterparts. However, it’s important to note that the nutritional profile can vary among different plant-based meat products and brands. For instance, products that rely on coconut oil will contain higher amounts of plant-based saturated fats. 

While some products are intentionally formulated to closely match the nutrient content of meat, others may prioritize specific dietary goals, such as reducing saturated fats or sodium. As more people become curious about using plant-based meats, the nutritional value they offer will likely continue to improve. 

Environmental and Ethical Benefits

If you’re concerned about the environmental impacts of consuming animal products, plant-based meats offer a more sustainable choice. One of the biggest advantages is the reduced environmental footprint associated with plant-based meat production compared to traditional livestock farming. 

Producing plant-based alternatives requires less land, water, and energy, contributing to lower greenhouse gas emissions. The livestock industry is a major contributor to deforestation, particularly in the Amazon rainforest, destroying natural habitats and negatively impacting biodiversity. 

Furthermore, plant-based meat eliminates the need for extensive use of antibiotics and growth hormones common in conventional animal agriculture. Livestock are regularly given these drugs prophylactically, to help prevent the spread of disease given the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions in which the animals live. This results in environmental pollution and the development of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria — a major public health concern. 

Plant-based meats can also align better with ethical values. As public awareness and concern about animal welfare grows, more people are searching for more compassionate meat alternatives. By choosing plant-based options, you can contribute to the reduced demand for meat from animals living in confined spaces and subjected to stressful conditions. As the plant-based meat market grows, this also helps close the gap between consumer awareness and the reality of animal welfare concerns in factory farming. 

soy based like chicken bites made into handheld tacos sitting on wax paper

How to Use It

The first step to determining how to use plant-based meat is to take a look at your overall diet pattern and identify areas where alternatives could fit well. For example, perhaps you commonly eat toast with bacon for breakfast. In place of pork bacon, you might try bacon made from seitan (wheat gluten) or tempeh (fermented soy). Instead of ground beef in your chili, you could make a pot of ground soy crumbles prepared with a similar seasoning. 

If you’re not used to using soy foods like tofu or tempeh, experiment with marinating them in flavorful sauces or spices before cooking them to enhance taste and texture. Steaming tempeh for a few minutes before preparing it can also reduce some of the natural bitterness.

Legume-based alternatives, like lentil or chickpea patties, can be shaped into burgers or crumbles for tacos, providing a hearty and protein-rich base. Canned or shredded jackfruit, while low in protein, works well marinated in barbecue sauce and is used to make a vegan pulled pork alternative. There are also emerging products that use mycoprotein, which is derived from mushrooms, to make plant-based chicken cutlets, nuggets, steaks, and more. Soy curls, which are somewhat of a small market, have to be rehydrated with water and then can be marinated or seasoned and cooked for use in place of chicken strips in tacos, pasta, casserole, or burritos.

Whether it’s replicating classic recipes or trying innovative plant-based cuisines, the key lies in embracing the diverse textures and flavors to create enjoyable and nutritious meals.

For a more comprehensive review, see our post on vegan meat substitutes.