Meat Alternatives: Ingredients, Nutrition, and Environment

Fake meat is getting so good it’s fooling foodies, but is it healthy?

Meat substitutes have gotten far better over the years—both in taste and variety. Fake meats are even being embraced by some hard-core meat eaters. They’re made from such ingredients as:

  • Soy
  • Beans
  • Lentils
  • Wheat gluten
  • Rolled oats
  • Brown rice
  • Nuts
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Vegetables (like mushrooms, onions, peas, peppers, and carrots)

These days you can find meat alternatives to just about most classic meat meals. Not only can you find faux burgers, sausages, hot dogs, and breakfast patties, now there is everything from chicken-less strips and beef-less tips to pulled “pork” and “fish” fillets. Even faux prawns are in the grocery store, which are not only vegetarian, but kosher too.

Fake meat options

The Impossible Burger, from the brand Impossible Foods, is one of the trendiest fake meats out there. The vegan patty looks like meat (it even has swirls of “fat”), sizzles on the grill like meat, bleeds like meat, and tastes like meat. That meaty taste comes from heme. This is an iron-rich molecule present in animal flesh. Heme is also found in plants and soy. The Impossible Burger is mostly soy, along with coconut and sunflower oils. It is also gluten free.

Another popular fake meat brand is Beyond Meat. This company makes faux burgers, sausages, and “beef” crumbles to sustainably satisfy a meat craving. The protein comes mostly from pea protein isolate.

Among other entries to the fake meat market is Tyson Foods, the world’s second largest meat processor. The company launched pea-based “chicken nuggets.” Kellogg and Hormel Foods produce meatless meat products, under the names Incogmeato and Happy Little Plants, respectively.

Nutrition pros and cons

Meat substitutes are often high in protein but lower in fat and calories and cholesterol-free.

For example:

  • Beef-free “crumbles”—a ground beef alternative—provide the same amount of protein as ground beef (10 grams per 2-ounce serving). But they have less than half the total fat (4.5 versus 11 grams) and no saturated fat.
  • A 3-ounce serving of chicken-free strips has 20 grams of protein, but only 3 grams of total fat and no saturated fat.
  • Another bonus: All veggie meats provide fiber (about 2 to 5 grams per serving), something animal foods lack.

A downside is that meat substitutes are often high in sodium. Some have more than 400 milligrams of sodium per serving. Unless they’re fortified with vitamins and minerals, as some are, they tend to be lacking in vitamin B12, iron, zinc, and other nutrients found in meat.

Note also that many have long lists of additives, including artificial flavors, colorings, gums, sugars, and preservatives.

The eco-angle

You may think it’s environmentally virtuous to choose a veggie burger over a meat burger. Yet mock meats are often highly processed foods that are not eco-friendly in all ways.

Vegetarian meals are generally associated with lower greenhouse gas emissions and less impact on global warming. But according to a paperin 2010, it takes about the same amount of energy to produce a pea-burger as it does a pork chop—calorie for calorie. That’s because of the processing, storing, and other factors involved.

Then there are issues associated with the farming of soybeans.

  • Industrial soybean farming has devastated rainforests in Brazil, one of the world’s top soybean producers.
  • And it has taken over much of the cropland in America and wiped out grasslands at an accelerated pace in recent years.
  • However, most soy is grown for animal feed, edible oil, and biofuel.

Another concern is how the beans are processed.

  • Hexane, a chemical solvent used to remove the oil from soybeans in the manufacturing of most processed soy foods, is a neurotoxin and an air pollutant.
  • If you want to avoid hexane-processed soy foods, buy USDA organic products, since hexane is banned in organic food production.

Then, there are those made from genetically modified (GMO) ingredients.

  • Many soy-based meat substitutes are also made from GMO soybeans.
  • The environmental and health effects of GMOs, however, are still being debated.
  • If you wish to avoid them, look for “GMO-free” on the label.
  • By definition, certified organic foods are also GMO-free.

5 more faux-meat tidbits

  • Meat substitutes vary a lot in fat, calories, sodium, protein, and other nutrients. In general, products made with soy protein, textured vegetable protein, and/or wheat gluten are higher in protein than those made primarily from whole vegetables and grains.
  • Veggie meats are not necessarily vegan. Many contain:
    • Egg whites (as a binder)
    • Casein (a milk protein)
    • Cheese (which also adds calories and fat)
    • Some other animal-derived ingredients
  • Meat substitutes often contain common food allergens, including wheat, nuts, soy, and dairy. If you’re allergic to any of these, be sure to check the labels.
  • Meat substitutes are far less likely to be contaminated with bacteria. You should still follow the cooking directions carefully to be safe (and for the best taste and texture).

Less-processed meat substitutes include:

  • Textured soy or vegetable protein (TSP or TVP)
    • This is made from defatted soy flour that is mixed with water into a dough.
    • It comes in chunks or crumbles, dried or frozen, with or without flavoring.
    • Try it as a substitute for ground meat in sauces, chili, burritos, or tacos.
    • It often used in veggie burgers and sausage links.
  • Tofu (soybean curd)
    • Tofu is made by curdling soymilk, then straining it and pressing it into blocks.
    • It is a good source of calcium.
    • Firmer tofu works best as a meat substitute.
    • It can be baked, steamed, stir-fried, or grilled without losing its shape.
    • Tofu takes on the flavor of what it’s marinated in or seasoned with.
  • Tempeh
    • This is made by fermenting whole soybeans into a cake form.
    • It has a chewy, dense texture and a tangy taste.
    • Braising it in broth before cooking softens it and tempers the tang.
    • Tempeh makes a good substitute for veal or chicken in many recipes.
  • Seitan (wheat gluten)
    • This is a non-soy meat substitute that is made by removing the starch from wheat flour.
    • It typically comes in a vacuum pack, often already seasoned and ready to eat.
    • It can be braised, baked, stir-fried, roasted, grilled, or used in stews.

All these can be used in place of meat in many recipes.

Four more sustainable foods for the future

Algae

The nutritional value of algae varies widely. But some species are especially rich in nutrients. This includes:

  • Vitamin B12 (one of the few vegetarian sources)
  • Vitamin E
  • Protein
  • Omega-3 fatty acids
  • Fiber
  • Other beneficial plant compounds

Algae are commercially cultivated in large ponds. The slimy, green mush is then dried into a powder. Algae has a salty fish flavor, like grassy seaweed mixed in salt water. It can be infused into smoothies, breads, biscuits, yogurt, cheese, and pasta. Shrimp made from algae and a vegan tuna-less tuna that contains algae oil (a good source of omega-3s) are now available.

Bugs

Edible insects include:

  • Beetles
  • Caterpillars
  • Ants
  • Grasshoppers
  • Crickets

These are an excellent protein source. They are high in fiber, healthy fats, and nutrients such as copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, selenium, and zinc. In addition, insects can be farmed in a cost-effective, environmentally friendly way. They emit lower amounts of greenhouse gases than livestock and can be grown using food waste.

On the downside, some insects accumulate environmental toxins easily. And there is little regulation. Two billion people worldwide already include insects in their diets. To appeal to more consumers, an increasing number of companies around the world are making a variety of products from dried and ground-up insects. These include cricket cookies, crackers, cakes, pasta, tortilla chips, and protein bars.

Food from a printer

3D-printed food involves a process called additive manufacturing. An edible paste can be made of anything. This paste is added layer by layer to create all sorts of food including meat alternatives. Food insecurity could be addressed in the future by storing nonperishable powders made from insects, algae, grasses, or seeds. Then, with the addition of sugar and oil, using the 3D printers to make nutrient-rich foods out of them.

This is still in the early stages. But companies around the world are experimenting with this new type of sustainable food production.

Lab-grown meat

Another development that addresses the demand for meat and sustainable meat production is lab-grown meat. Lab-grown meat is made in a petri dish using stem cells. It is then shaped to look like meat. Some advantages are:

  • Nutrition content can be controlled:
    • More healthy fats, fortifying with vitamins and minerals
    • Minimizing harmful meat compounds
  • Less risk of microbial contaminants in comparison to meat from slaughtered animals. Examples are E. coli and salmonella.

Bottom line

Whether you’re vegetarian or just want to eat more meatless meals, meat substitutes are convenient and tasty options. According to a study, a high intake of protein from meat is associated with an increased risk of dying prematurely from heart disease2. So moving towards meatless meats is way to reduce risk of heart disease. But read the ingredients and nutrition labels carefully, since some are better choices than others. Keep in mind also that relying on highly processed products as your main source of protein is not necessarily the healthiest way to eat. You’re better off getting most of your protein from whole foods, including legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. And you can make your own meatless dishes from TVP, tofu, seitan, and tempeh.

 

References:

  1. Jennifer Davis. Food Research International, August, 2010.
  2. International Journal of Epidemiology, October, 2018.