Mock meats have gone from hiding in specialty stores in hippie neighborhoods to being a staple in every grocery. They now cater to a different kind of vegan/vegetarian: the kind who have decided to cut their ties with meat but cannot seem to part with the cravings. Soy products–including the broad range of fake meats that have come into the market–constitute the biggest part of the vegan market. But are they really that good for you?
Some people have argued that on a nutritional level, mock meats leave a lot to be desired. Sure, they put protein in an otherwise protein-poor diet. But many are so full of preservatives and artificial flavorings that real meat may actually be safer. Plus, the high temperatures required for their production drain away most of the other nutrients, and they’ve been known to cause digestion issues because of their heavily processed content.
Not all fake meats are bad for you. It depends on what they’re made from, and how much processing goes into it. Tofu-based products, such as the popular Tofurkey, are heavy and filling but the synthetic content can be all over the scale. A close competitor is seitan, which is made from washing the starch off wheat flour so that only the gluten remains. It’s said to be the “meatiest” of meat substitutes, so much that even some vegetarians avoid it. The catch is that most commercially available seitan is high in sodium, so it’s best to look at the labels or have it in moderation.
Tempeh is another popular meat substitute. Originally from Indonesia, it’s made from soy beans that have been naturally fermented and molded into “cakes,” much like tofu but with a firmer texture and a flavor described by many as nutty. Its taste has been likened to tuna and it’s a popular choice for sandwiches, barbecues, and salads. Among available meat substitutes, it’s probably the least processed and comes the most highly recommended by most doctors.
Sports nutritionist Mitzi Dulan reminds vegetarians and vegans that there are other protein sources besides processed meat. Beans, lentils, nuts, and whole grains are equally rich in protein, not to mention cheaper and preservative-free. Mushrooms are great at simulating the taste and texture of meat; many vegetarians consume portobello and cremini on a regular basis.
There’s no shortage of options when it comes to replacing meat in your diet. But if you’re serious about your new lifestyle, cutting the cravings is a more long-term solution. Vegetarianism may require some sacrifices on the gustatory level, but the nutritional, environmental, and economic benefits are more than worth the effort.