The Folly of Faux Meat

There are lots of reasons to make more of your meals meatless. The primary reason is the significant body of public health research indicates diets high in meat and animal products (specifically red meat) are associated with higher rates of chronic disease. However, “going meatless” to be healthier is getting more complicated. In a simple world, being vegetarian means replacing fleshy foods with more fruits, vegetables, and legumes. Some people don’t take this route with vegetarianism though, and instead opt to replace meat with “meat substitutes,” a growing category of food products designed to meet the explosion of demand for meatless products.

These products are getting a lot of interest within food companies, which are well-poised to build out product lines featuring meat-free versions of every meat you can think of. Starting out with the “Sun Burger” in 1979, this category is one of the few spaces in food that is growing with new products every year. 2012 will be no different. Companies behind meat substitutes have good reason to be optimistic, as market research shows that sales of meat substitutes were over $275 million last year. In fact, at a time when “processed” is getting a bad rap, this food category is one that people seem to have overlooked. In reviewing our product catalog, we found that meat substitutes range in ingredient count from 3 (basic tofu) to 60 (Morningstar Farms Chik Patties Original). A recent article in the Wall Street Journal outlines the basic production process for making meat substitutes:

Most meat substitutes are based on soybeans. Food scientists isolate the bean’s protein and concentrate it. Then, in a process called ‘extrusion,’ the proteins are realigned so that the texture ‘mimics the fibrous nature of the muscle,’ which is the part we typically eat, says Phil Kerr, senior director of research and discovery for Solae LLC, a St. Louis developer of soy-based ingredients. The results are molded into what scientists call a ‘meat analog.’

According to a nutrition consultant featured in the piece, meat substitutes are his way to be mindful of calories without missing the meat. He points out that meat substitutes, specifically the Hickory BBQ Riblets from Morningstar Farms, have a texture that is similar to real meat.

But are these products really a good replacement? It depends on which one you choose.  In general, these products are low in energy density – a great way to get protein without breaking the calorie bank. Keep in mind, though, that there’s more to a food item than its calorie count. Of the meat substitute products we rate, 15% have over 500mg of sodium per serving. The meat-mimic mentioned above has a health score of 3.3 on GoodGuide, and it has some company.

Some of the lower scoring frozen meat substitutes (usually ready to eat, after a quick zap in the microwave):

Boca Soy Protein Sausages, Bratwurst, 3.9
Franklin Farms Portabella Veggidogs, 3.3
Quorn Gruyere Chik’n Cutlet, 2.7
Morningstar Farms Veggie Corn Dogs, 2.6
Gardenburger BBQ Veggie Riblets, 2.5

Some of the lower scoring packaged meat substitutes (typically used as ingredients in other meals):

Lightlife Smart Cutlets, Spicy, Sweet & Sour, 3.4
Gardein BBQ Pulled Shreds, 4.5
El Burrito Soy Knox, 5.2
Turtle Island Tofurkey Franks, 5.6

It’s not necessary to completely avoid for these foods – you just need to shop smartly. Here are some tips to help you sort through the options:

-Avoid the saucy ones and the ones with lots of ingredients. They’re often more processed, and therefore require more salt to make up for lost flavor.

-Get organic. A check of our database indicated that 83% of the meat substitutes we rate have some form of soy in the first three ingredients, and it’s likely that this soy is genetically modified. Choosing organic will ensure that your soy-based meat alternative is not made from GM soy.

-Watch your portions. Just because it’s meatless doesn’t mean you can get carried away.

-Don’t assume eating meat substitutes is a replacement for eating other vegetables. You still need your dark leafy greens.

-Do your research on GoodGuide. Let us know what you find out in the comments section!

About Sheila Viswanathan

Sheila Viswanathan focuses on educating individuals on how to make healthier dietary choices. She received her doctoral degree in Nutrition and Public Health from Teachers College, Columbia University and is certified as a registered dietitian.
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4 Responses to The Folly of Faux Meat

  1. Hey Sheila, nice post. Very informative, since I’m a vegetarian myself. When you have the time, do drop by to see the gourmet cupcakes I recently made. I’d love to hear from you.

  2. Luke Stanley says:

    Could be good to mention the good scoring faux meat. Not sure folly is a good term to use, I get that it is a play on words – it could be more neutral.

  3. Sarah says:

    I was so excited to find the GoodGuide… until I found it and saw that they gave an SC Johnson/Glade air freshener a 10 rating!!! Air fresheners are possibly the most unnecessary, wasteful products of the modern age. I am particularly disappointed about this as I discovered the GoodGuide via Annie Leonard’s book – a book that identifies air fresheners as egregiously wasteful.
    Your post on the folly of faux meat is rendered rather meaningless when you give products like air fresheners a 10 rating. Perhaps you need a new category: is this product socially useful or just more unnecessary consumption.
    That was my first and last visit to the GoodGuide. Shame.

    • Mia Gralla says:

      Hi Sarah, thanks for your feedback. The air freshener you are referring to received a 10 for health because it does not include any ingredients of high health concern. We currently rate products on their social, environmental and health impacts from a scientific standpoint, but we appreciate your suggestion.

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