Wanting to add meat substitutes to your meals isn’t only for those on vegan or vegetarian diets.
Cutting down on meat benefits both your well-being and the planet.
With so many meat substitutes available, choosing can be confusing.
Here’s your go-to guide for picking the right vegan meat alternative for any meal.
- How to choose
- Textured vegetable protein (TVP)
- Beans and legumes
- What to be wary of
How to pick vegan meat substitutes
Start by thinking about the role the vegan alternative plays in your dish. Are you after protein, taste, or texture?
- When using the meat alternative as your meal’s primary protein, check the nutritional content to ensure it provides enough protein.
- For those on vegan or vegetarian diets, search for products rich in iron, vitamin B12, and calcium, which might be less common in such diets.
- If certain diets restrict you from consuming gluten or soy, opt for products without these.
- Even though the FDA states GMO foods are safe, some prefer avoiding them. So, check if the vegan meat substitutes have GMO ingredients.
Summary: It’s essential to review the nutritional facts and ingredient list of products to match your nutritional requirements and dietary preferences.
Tofu has long been a favorite among vegetarians and has been central to Asian dishes for ages. It might be bland on its own, but it soaks up flavors from other components in a recipe.
Tofu’s creation is similar to cheese-making with cow’s milk. Soy milk gets coagulated, and the resulting curds are shaped into blocks.
Different agents like calcium sulfate or magnesium chloride can be used in tofu’s production, impacting its nutritional value. Some tofu varieties even come with added nutrients such as calcium, vitamin B12, and iron.
For instance, a 4-ounce serving of Nasoya Lite Firm Tofu provides:
- Calories: 60
- Carbs: 1.3 grams
- Protein: 11 grams
- Fat: 2 grams
- Fiber: 1.4 grams
- Calcium: 200 mg — fulfilling 15% of daily requirements
- Iron: 2 mg — covering 25% of daily needs for men and 11% for women
- Vitamin B12: 2.4 mcg — satisfying 100% of daily intake
If GMOs are a concern, opt for organic options, given that a large portion of soy in the US undergoes genetic modification.
You can dice tofu for a stir-fry or crumble it to substitute eggs or cheese. Experiment with tofu scrambles or vegan lasagna.
Summary: Tofu, a soy-based alternative, is protein-rich and can come fortified with nutrients like calcium and vitamin B12 vital for vegan diets. Different products offer varying nutrients, making label-reading crucial.
Tempeh originates from fermented soybeans, crafted into compact blocks.
While tofu is derived from soy milk, tempeh uses the entire soybean, resulting in unique nutritional values.
It offers more protein, fiber, and vitamins than tofu. Plus, being fermented, it can support digestive well-being.
In a serving of half a cup (83 grams) of tempeh, you’ll find:
- Calories: 160
- Carbs: 6.3 grams
- Protein: 17 grams
- Fat: 9 grams
- Calcium: 92 mg — covering 7% of daily requirements
- Iron: 2 mg — meeting 25% of daily intake for men and 11% for women
Some tempeh products include grains like barley. For those on a gluten-free regimen, it’s essential to scrutinize labels.
With a distinct taste and firmer consistency than tofu, tempeh complements peanut sauces beautifully and fits seamlessly into dishes like stir-fries or Thai salads.
Summary: Tempeh, a fermented soy product, is a protein-rich choice ideal for stir-fries and Asian-themed meals.
3. Textured vegetable protein (TVP)
Originating in the 1960s, TVP was introduced by the food giant Archer Daniels Midland.
Derived from soy flour, a residue of soy oil production, the fat is extracted using solvents, yielding a protein-dense, low-fat outcome.
Suggested read: 13 nearly complete protein sources for vegetarians and vegans
The soy flour undergoes extrusion, resulting in various shapes, from nuggets to chunks.
While you can find dehydrated TVP, it’s commonly present in pre-made, frozen vegetarian meals.
From a nutritional standpoint, a half cup (27 grams) of TVP offers:
- Calories: 93
- Carbs: 8.7 grams
- Protein: 14 grams
- Fat: 0.3 grams
- Fiber: 0.9 grams
- Iron: 1.2 mg — addressing 25% of daily needs for men and 11% for women
Given that a significant portion of US soy is genetically modified, conventional TVP likely contains GMOs.
TVP is naturally bland but imparts a hearty consistency to dishes, making it a great addition to vegan chili.
Summary: TVP, derived from soy oil remnants, is a protein-packed option that enhances the hearty feel of vegan meals.
Seitan, often called wheat gluten, comes from the protein found in wheat.
To make seitan, water is combined with wheat flour to extract the starch, leaving a thick, chewy gluten mass.
On its own, seitan doesn’t have much taste, but it readily absorbs flavors from soy sauce, spices, and marinades.
You can typically spot seitan in the chilled aisles of stores, available as strips or chunks.
Nutritionally, seitan boasts high protein and low carbs and provides a generous amount of iron.
A serving of three ounces (91 grams) offers:
- Calories: 108
- Carbs: 4.8 grams
- Protein: 20 grams
- Fat: 1.2 grams
- Fiber: 1.2 grams
- Iron: 8 mg — fulfilling 100% of daily requirements for men and 44% for women
If you’re avoiding gluten, steer clear of seitan since it’s pure wheat gluten.
Seitan can seamlessly replace beef or chicken in various dishes. Give it a spin in a vegan beef-inspired stir-fry.
Summary: Seitan, crafted from wheat protein, is a rich source of protein and iron. Ideal for mimicking beef or chicken textures in vegan dishes, but it’s not suitable for those on a gluten-free regimen.
Mushrooms offer a natural, unprocessed alternative to meat, delivering a deep umami flavor.
Suggested read: The 18 best protein sources for vegans and vegetarians
Using a portobello cap, you can recreate a grilled burger or incorporate slices into stir-fries or tacos.
Low in calories but high in fiber, mushrooms are a weight-loss-friendly option. Yet, they’re not particularly protein-rich.
One cup (121 grams) of grilled portabella mushrooms provides:
- Calories: 42
- Carbs: 6 grams
- Protein: 5.2 grams
- Fat: 0.9 grams
- Fiber: 2.7 grams
- Iron: 0.7 mg — meeting 9% of daily intake for men and 4% for women
Include mushrooms in pasta dishes, salads, or opt for a vegan portobello patty.
Summary: Mushrooms, with their meaty texture, are a whole-food alternative to meat. They’re an excellent choice for cutting back on processed items but have limited protein.
Jackfruit, a staple in Southeast Asian dishes, has recently gained popularity in the US as a meat alternative.
This large tropical fruit’s flesh is subtly sweet, often likened to pineapple, and its consistency is perfect for mimicking pulled pork in BBQ dishes.
You can find jackfruit both fresh and canned. If opting for the latter, check for added sugars in syrupy variants.
Though jackfruit provides a meat-like texture, it’s carb-dense and protein-light. Pairing it with high-protein sides can help create a balanced meal.
In a serving of one cup (154 grams) of raw jackfruit:
- Calories: 155
- Carbs: 40 grams
- Protein: 2.4 grams
- Fat: 0.5 grams
- Fiber: 2.6 grams
- Calcium: 56 mg — covering 4% of daily needs
- Iron: 1.0 mg — accounting for 13% of daily intake for men and 6% for women
Fancy a unique dish? Whip up a BBQ jackfruit sandwich.
Summary: Jackfruit, with its meaty texture, works well in dishes like BBQ sandwiches. However, its high carb and low protein content mean it’s not a direct nutritional replacement for meat.
7. Beans and legumes
Beans and legumes stand as inexpensive yet potent sources of plant-based protein, offering a substantial alternative to meat.
Being whole foods, they haven’t been subjected to processing.
The array of beans available includes chickpeas, black beans, lentils, among others, each with its own unique flavor. This variety ensures their versatility across cuisines. For instance, while black and pinto beans amplify the essence of Mexican dishes, chickpeas and cannellini beans resonate with Mediterranean tastes.
Beans, rich in plant-based protein, may not provide all essential amino acids. However, they compensate by being fiber-rich and serving as a commendable vegetarian source of iron.
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Consider the nutritional breakdown of a cup (198 grams) of cooked lentils:
- Calories: 230
- Carbs: 40 grams
- Protein: 18 grams
- Fat: 0.8 grams
- Fiber: 15.6 grams
- Calcium: 37.6 mg — fulfilling 3% of daily intake
- Iron: 6.6 mg — providing 83% of daily requirements for men and 37% for women
Beans can be integrated into a plethora of dishes, from soups to burgers. A vegan sloppy joe rooted in lentils can be your go-to for a protein-packed meal.
Summary: Beans, as a vegan meat alternative, shine with their high protein, fiber, and iron content. They’re versatile, finding their place in various culinary delights.
What to avoid and be wary of when picking vegan meat substitutes
For individuals with specific food allergies or intolerances, scrutinizing labels becomes crucial to evade allergens like gluten, dairy, soy, eggs, and corn.
Being meatless doesn’t inherently make a product vegan. Certain meatless products incorporate eggs, dairy, and certain natural flavors that have animal origins, including enzymes like animal rennet.
It’s also worth noting that several vegan meat replacements, much like their processed counterparts, come loaded with sodium. If sodium intake is a concern, labels become your best friend.
Central to a healthy diet is a foundation of minimally processed ingredients. So, tread lightly with products teeming with unrecognizable ingredients.
Summary: Aim for vegan meat substitutes that lean towards minimal processing and have clear, identifiable ingredients. Steer clear from ultra-processed options that may secretly harbor animal-derived ingredients.
The current era boasts a wide spectrum of vegan meat substitutes, encompassing both natural and manufactured variants.
The nutritional dynamics of these substitutes can differ substantially. Hence, making selections aligned with your dietary and nutritional goals becomes essential.
Given the plethora of available choices, pinpointing vegan meat substitutes that resonate with your preferences is easier than ever.