Plant-based pros dish on what to know before trading steak for fake.
Vandana Sheth’s vegetarian lifestyle used to represent a niche market. Now, she’s mainstream. “It used to be just one or two brands [of meat alternatives], but now … there’s aisles and aisles of them,” says the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokeswoman, who is based near Los Angeles. For the most part, that’s a good thing: Plant-based diets are the gold standard of health and environmental responsibility – and Americans are apparently eating them up. But not all meatless meats are created equal. Here’s what to know before going faux:
Packaged meat alternatives with names like “Chik’n Nuggets,” “Beef (Not!)” and, of course, Tofurky, are great “gateways” to a more plant-based lifestyle, says Sharon Palmer, a.k.a. “The Plant-Powered Dietitian” and a contributor to U.S. News’s Eat+Run blog. One survey, she points out, showed that while only 7 percent of consumers consider themselves vegetarian, 31 percent are trying to cut back on meat. “If meat alternatives can help people [do that,] it’s still so much better for the environment” than animal products, she says. Sheth also applauds such products’ convenience. And, unlike old varieties’ rubbery texture, “a lot them are tasty,” she adds.
But “not meat” leaves a lot of room for what the products actually are. “It’s important to remember that just because something is vegetarian or plant-based doesn’t automatically make it healthy,” Sheth says. Many of these products include preservatives and additives – think tapioca starch, cellulose, xanthan gum and TBHQ, a compound that prevents discoloration – to make them flavorful and shelf-stable, and to imitate a meaty texture. A word to the wise: “Look for ingredients that you would find in your own kitchen,” Palmer suggests. She and other plant-based pros also recommend keeping these five tips in mind:
1. Pack in the Protein
If you only swap your Kobe burger for a vegetarian variety on Meatless Monday or at a plant-based pal’s barbecue, you won’t shake your overall nutrient intake much. But if you’re regularly trading meat for “meat,” keep in mind that the latter often packs a fraction of the protein of the former, Palmer says. “People just assume they’re a protein replacement,” she says, “but they could have other ingredients in there like brown rice.” Palmer recommends products with close to 12 grams of protein – still about one-quarter of the protein in an 8-ounce beef patty.
2. Boost Your Base
Today’s plant-based products have come a long way from original meat alternatives sculpted from soy. One manufacturer, Beyond Meat, recently announced a vegan “burger” apparently so meat-like it’s said to be sold in refrigerated cases alongside the real thing. Other burgers are so minimally processed that “you can actually see beans in them,” Palmer says. “I like that trend.” She also supports soy products because soy is so nutrient-rich. Beans and lentils are Sheth’s pick for “best base,” while (mostly) vegetarian food blogger Grace Poser’s current favorite is pea protein (the base of Beyond Meat’s new burger), which has 15 grams of protein per serving, a “neutral” taste and is “highly digestible,” she says. Finding what works for you, they say, may come down to trial and error.
3. Digest Labels
It’s not just strange-sounding fillers and protein content to look for on faux meat labels. Also keep an eye out for sugar, sodium, fat and calorie content. “That’s where some of these could be very high because they’re trying to mimic the flavor and mouthfeel that you’re missing,” says Sheth, who recommends limiting your sodium to 500 milligrams and fat to 10 grams. People with allergies to soy, gluten or nuts should label-read with caution, as should vegans, since egg and the milk protein casein are common binders, notes Rachel Morris, a vegan food blogger in Arlington, Virginia.
4. Think Outside the Package
More important than what makes up your faux patty is what makes up your overall diet. “The goal is a wide variety,” Sheth says, noting that you don’t want packaged meats – animal or plant-based – to be your main source of protein or any nutrient, for that matter. “Whenever you don’t eat the whole food, you do lose some things,” such as protein and fiber, Palmer points out. Rather than a premade bean patty, try a scoop of black beans and a side of rice or quinoa, Poser suggests. Just keep in mind: “Nothing is going to taste exactly like meat unless it is meat, so you have to … appreciate the ingredient for what it is,” she says. “Tempeh is its own beautiful thing, and it doesn’t have to be a steak.”
5. Do It Yourself
If you’re still craving that meaty feel but prefer to steer clear of packages, try whipping up your own plant-based burger – Poser makes one with nothing but tempeh, egg and harissa – or grilling or roasting squash, eggplant or mushroom to fill the void. Seasoning vegetables with spices such as cumin and smoked salt is one of Poser’s secrets for satisfying the meat tooth she developed growing up in a German family but has denied since meeting and cooking with her vegetarian husband. She hasn’t looked back. “You can make a meal taste like nothing’s missing,” she’s found, “when there’s no meat on the plate.”