What are the best meat substitutes?
People eat meat substitutes for a variety of reasons. Some people choose not to eat meat at all for ethical reasons or due to other personal beliefs. Others may choose meat substitutes for health reasons.
Meat can cause digestive symptoms such as diarrhea or constipation in some people. In fact, some evidence suggests that eating red meat can increase the risk of a gastrointestinal condition called diverticulitis.
Evidence also suggests that eating less meat could be better for the environment and overall health.
Whatever the reason for choosing a meat substitute, it is vital to know which ones provide the nutrients a person needs. In this article, learn about a variety of meat substitutes and their nutritional content.
Popular meat substitutes
The following are some of the foods and products that people use in place of meat, either for texture, flavor, or added nutrients.
Some vegetarian and vegan products may contain these meat alternatives along with other ingredients.
Tofu is high in protein and a healthful meat substitute.
Tofu is condensed soy milk that manufacturers press into blocks of varying firmness, similar to how dairy milk becomes cheese.
Tofu is a good source of protein and contains all the essential amino acids a person needs for good health.
Tofu is also versatile and has a very mild flavor, so people can try marinating it to give it the flavor they desire. Some people use it as a substitute for eggs or mix it into hot dishes such as soups and stir-fries.
Many companies produce and sell tofu, so the nutritional content may vary between products.
Typically, 1 cup of tofu contains:
- calories: 188.4
- protein: 20 grams (g)
- fat: 11.86 g
- calcium: 868 milligrams (mg)
- iron: 13.3 mg
- fiber: 0.744 g
Should a person want to avoid genetically modified (GM) foods, they may wish to look for a tofu product that is certified organic or listed as non-GM.
According to some 2016 research, 82% of the world's soybean farms have genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
Tempeh is a traditional Indonesian soy based meat substitute. It has a few key differences from tofu.
Manufacturers make tempeh from the whole soybean, not soy milk, and they use a fermentation process. Tempeh has a drier texture, and some tempeh products contain a mixture of other beans or grains.
Because it contains the whole bean, tempeh may also contain more fiber and protein than tofu. It also contains gut-friendly prebiotics and probiotics as a result of the fermentation process.
Tempeh may not have the same versatility as tofu, as its flavor is stronger. People can sauté or stir-fry tempeh and add it to salads or sandwiches. It is also suitable to use as a barbeque meat substitute.
One cup of tempeh contains:
- calories: 319
- protein: 33.7 g
- fat: 17.9 g
- calcium: 184 mg
- iron: 4.48 mg
Seitan is similar in texture to chicken and is an ingredient in many mock meat products.
Seitan comes from wheat gluten. The production process removes the starch from the wheat, usually by rinsing it with water. This process leaves behind a protein dense food that has a texture similar to that of chicken and a mild taste.
Seitan, or "vital wheat gluten," is an ingredient in many mock meat products.
Although it is nutritious, it is not safe for people who have celiac disease, and it is not suitable for people who follow a gluten free diet. Some seitan products contain other ingredients, such as legumes or seasonings.
A 4-ounce (oz) serving of seitan contains:
- calories: 140
- protein: 28 g
- fat: 2 g
Seitan is high in riboflavin, niacin, and vitamin B-6, but it does not contain calcium or iron.
Textured vegetable protein
Textured or texturized vegetable protein (TVP) is a byproduct of soybean oil extraction. Some people call it defatted soy flour.
Manufacturers make TVP by separating soybean protein from fat using a high heat process, resulting in a curd-like product that is high in protein.
The Archer Daniels Midland Company trademarked the TVP name in the 1960s. Generic names for similar items include total soy protein, or TSP.
TVP is dehydrated, so a person needs to soak it in hot water to cook it. Its texture when cooked is similar to that of ground meat.
A 1-cup (dry) serving of TVP contains:
- calories: 222
- protein: 35 g
- fat: 0.83 g
- calcium: 164 mg
- iron: 6.28 mg
- fiber: 11.9 g
Because TVP comes from soy, it contains all the essential amino acids. It is also a good source of magnesium and some B vitamins.
Protein rich plant foods
Some whole foods, such as beans, lentils, chickpeas, and mushrooms, contain protein or have a meaty texture and can work well as meat substitutes. Food manufacturers often include these types of food in their vegetarian and vegan products.
A person can use beans and mushrooms in their meals for added nutrition and to feel fuller for longer. Since plant based foods often cost less per pound than meat, this can also reduce the overall cost of a meal.
For instance, people can use black beans instead of taco meat or mushrooms instead of beef to cut costs, reduce cholesterol, and increase their vegetable intake.
However, only a few plant foods — including buckwheat, quinoa, and soy — contain all the essential amino acids. Vegetarians and vegans should try to eat a variety of plant foods in order to get all the essential amino acids.
How to choose a meat substitute
Store-bought meat substitutes may not always be vegan.
Some store-bought meat substitutes, such as veggie burgers or meatless "chicken nuggets," could contain animal based ingredients, including eggs and cheese.
Vegans should always check the label to ensure that the item is free from animal products.
Some meat substitutes are good sources of protein, a necessary nutrient for the human body. Research shows that protein may also help a person feel fuller for longer, reducing the risk of overeating.
Anyone who feels that they are not getting enough protein in their diet may wish to include more protein rich meat substitutes.
Some meat substitutes contain added vitamins and nutrients that may be lacking in a vegetarian or vegan diet, such as iron, zinc, and vitamin B-12. Choosing products that include these nutrients can help people who do not eat meat maintain a balanced diet.
Are meat substitutes more healthful than meat?
Meat substitutes can be a healthful alternative to meat, but it depends on the particular product, how a person prepares it, and which meat they are comparing it with.
For instance, eating meat substitutes that are high in sugar, salt, saturated fats, or processed ingredients may not be better than eating fish or organic chicken breast.
Conversely, eating lots of processed, salted meats may not be better than eating natural meat alternatives.
Meats are rich sources of protein and contain all the essential amino acids. They also contain iron and vitamin B-12, which many plant foods do not contain.
However, meat also contains no fiber and may contain cholesterol and saturated fat. The American Institute for Cancer Research say that eating more than 18 oz of red meat per week raises the risk of colorectal cancer.
Also, the American Heart Association (AHA) suggest that eating some meat is fine and may be beneficial, as fish contains heart-healthy omega-3 fats. However, they also suggest that people minimize their intake of processed meats, such as bacon, sausage, and meats high in saturated fats.
People who are not following a vegetarian or vegan diet may find that substituting with meat alternatives is both healthful and environmentally conscious.
A Brazilian study, for example, found that a higher consumption of processed and red meat led to increased CO2 emissions, which are harmful to the environment.
Nutrients in meat
People who eat some meat may wish to compare the nutrients in meat alternatives with those in their meat counterparts. The following are some of the nutrients in common meats and fish.
A 4-oz serving of ground beef contains:
- calories: 290
- protein: 19 g
- fat: 23 g
- calcium: 20.2 mg
- iron: 1.8 mg
One medium pork chop contains:
- calories: 190
- protein: 24.9 g
- fat: 9.45 g
- calcium: 7.2 mg
- iron: 0.459 mg
- calories: 198
- protein: 37.2 g
- fat: 4.66 g
- calcium: 8.4 mg
- iron: 0.552 mg
A medium fillet of salmon contains:
- calories: 363
- protein: 58.6 g
- fat: 12.6 g
- calcium: 20.4 mg
- iron: 1.09 mg
To keep calorie and fat intake low, avoid frying and adding oils. Instead, try to broil, bake, or grill meats.
Meat alternatives are widely available and can be a healthful way to get protein and other nutrients without eating meat.
Many are suitable for vegetarians and vegans, but they can also be a great option for people who eat meat but are looking to cut down for health or environmental reasons.
The key to any healthful diet is to choose a variety of nutrient rich whole foods, and be sure to include enough protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals.