Is fake meat healthy? This is a question that I get asked at least once a week. And it’s a very good question. The answer is yes, no, and it depends! So, allow me to break it down for you, and point you in the direction of the healthiest meat substitutes.
With more and more of us turning toward a 100% whole food plant-based diet, we’re going to start to want to explore the myriad of meat-free options available to use. However, some meat alternatives are healthier than others. And, if we’re trying to veer in the WHOLE food plant-based direction, many of the meat alternatives are pretty processed.
Let’s talk burgers for a minute. I personally love a non-meat burger, but it’s gotta be juicy and really burger-ish. I draw a huge distinction between a fake burger and an old-school veggie burger. Let me explain: there are tons of veggie burgers on the market and recipes on the Internet. They tend to be concocted with a variety of veggies and grains with something to bind the whole thing together. Some of them are honestly dry and not very pleasant, and a rare few get my vote (see below). THEN, you get one of the new incarnations of a burger that’s designed to fool even the most hard and fast carnivore. These “bleeding” burgers (yes, the center literally looks like rare beef), are getting a lot of media attention. However, not all the attention is good. The Organic Insider Max Goldberg (a friend), has a searing commentary about the Impossible Burger Max is vehemently against genetic engineering, and points out that Impossible Foods achieve the “impossible” with their burger by way of some serious genetic tinkering in the lab. Bummer because I actually really enjoyed my impossible burger at a restaurant that my husband recently took me to. But there are some great fake burger choices (see below).
Main Ingredients used in, or as meat “alternatives”
- Seitan (say-tann) is wheat gluten, which is obtained from “washing” the starch out of bread dough. It has a very similar texture to chicken, which is why it’s often used as a meat substitute. Pros: it resembles chicken, and is full of protein. Cons: it is wheat gluten, so if you are have Celiac disease or wheat allergy/intolerance, you’ll want to avoid it.
- Tempeh is made from fermented soy beans. It’s really healthy because it’s the least processed. Just like any soy product, it must be organic to avoid the whole GMO issue. It’s basically a block of fermented soy beans all smooshed into a block. Often it’s mixed with flax, herbs, or grated veggies. It has a slightly nutty, but rather bland taste if eaten as is, so you need to whip out your marinades and get busy sauteing, frying, and/or baking it. I have discovered the easiest and healthiest way to prepare it is to marinate and then fry the cubes until crispy in my air-fryer. Pros: It’s a healthy, whole food. Cons: it does need a good recipe to make it taste good.
- Tofu/Soy: You all know what tofu is – a white, slightly rubbery block of a bland substance made from curd so soy milk. Before I go any further, I need to address this the fact that soy is very controversial in terms of health pros and cons, so where do I stand? I like to follow the science. Unfortunately, there are a few pseudo doctors and experts out there (one of whom calls himself a Doctor, has a huge following, and is actually a chiropractor), who tell you why soy is not a health food and warn you that it’s “dangerous”. This is absolutely ridiculous. If you want to read what the science says, then read this excellent article by medical doctor Joel Furhman M.D. about soy. That should answer most of your questions. I think it can be considered a health food in moderation. It’s low in fat, high in protein, contains the full compliment of amino acids, and can actually help prevent certain cancers, especially prostate cancer. It’s also recently been discovered that soy could help prevent breast cancer, and that isoflavones do not promote breast cancer. One more question I get asked a lot is if eating soy can affect those with hypothyroidism. The quick answer is that eaten in moderation, you should be fine. But the long answer (and well worth reading), is a blog about this very issue by by trusty Dr. Furhman. The second generation versions of soy such as soy protein isolate (found in protein bars, shakes, and fake meat foods) are less “healthy” because we start moving away from a whole food into something that is highly processed. Moreover, some of the processing methods can involve a few potentially “toxic” chemicals that you want to try to minimize. That being said, there is a place for some of these foods in in our freezers (see Gardein below). And yes, soy/tofu does need to be USDA certified organic. Pros: It’s easy to customize into a ton of recipes, and it’s a relatively clean form of protein with health benefits. Cons: It’s pretty gross as is, and needs to be disguised and flavored within an inch of its life. But the good thing is that it serves as a great blank canvas for whatever flavor profile tickles your fancy!
- Pea protein is the newest kid on the block in terms of a meat and dairy substitute. It’s now used to make dairy-free milk, dairy free mayo, and burgers. Is it safe? Yes, as far as I know it’s a pretty solid ingredient. It’s high in protein (well it is a protein!), but it doesn’t contain all of the essential amino acids, so shouldn’t be relied on for your total protein requirements. It is less likely to be genetically modified or isolated (which is where the heavy duty processing happens). Pros: It’s a relatively clean, fat-free form of protein, which is easily whipped into all the above-mentioned meat and dairy subs. Cons: It’s not a whole protein.
- Grains and beans such as quinoa and black beans are often used as meat subs in burgers and meatballs. I personally haven’t ever eaten a burger made from these kinds of ingredients that tastes anything like a real burger – it’s just a totally different animal (excuse the awful pun!). Pros: Most people can’t go wrong with whole foods like grains and beans. Cons: It’s hard to get a great-tasting/great textured burger from these ingredients.
So now you know a little more about the ingredients in many non-meat burgers, are there any pesky additives we should be looking out for? Most of the meat-free burgers and meat substitute foods are processed to some kind of degree. Some more than others. But, none of the ones that I’ve listed below contain ingredients that I would consider to be dangerous or harmful to your health when eaten in moderation. Sure a Portobello mushroom, or a homemade bean burger would be way healthier because you’re eating whole plants, but many of these meat-free burgers have been created with carnivores in mind. The Beyond Burger is even positioned right next to ground beef smack in the middle of the meat counter (intentional positioning). I’m grateful for some of these burger-like subs because a mushroom burger didn’t do it for my husband, (and he can’t stand a bean burger). However, with the Beyond Burger (see below), I’ve got him over a barrel. He loves them! And since I want to keep his saturated fat and cholesterol as low as I possibly can, I couldn’t be happier. However, because it’s not a “whole” food by any stretch of the imagination, he gets it as an occasional “treat”.
Beef Burger Substitutes worth checking out….
Now, remember, before you throw up your arms in disgust, I am a nutritionist, and I do understand the difference between a “whole” food and a highly processed food. But, as I say to many of my clients, “treat some of the new generation meat/fish substitute foods as a training-wheel food”. Your family aren’t gonna be weaned off chicken nuggets and Burger King over night. That’s where brands like Gardein come in and save the day. The Gardein Fishless Filet served with copious amounts of Tartar sauce and creamy (vegan) mash will fool even the smartest kid.
Sweet Earth Teyiaki Patti – these yummy patties are made with quinoa, edamame beans, and veggies. They contain 50% less fat than a beef patty. They do contain vital wheat gluten, so if you are celiac or gluten/wheat sensitive, these guys may not be for you. Sweet Earth also does a delicious bacon sub called Benevolent Bacon.
The Beyond Burger This is the one that has everyone talking because it’s sold in the meat aisle, and really does look and taste like beef. You can cook it from frozen or raw – toss it on the barby and you’re good to go. It does contain “natural flavors” (not a huge fan), and quite a lot of oil (not a huge fan), but great as an occasional treat for those who feel like they’re missing out on meat.
Gardein Ultimate Beefless Burger is passable as a beef burger, but not as much as The Beyond Beef burger. It contains soy protein concentrate (similar to soy protein isolate), and vital wheat gluten (so gluten sensitivities beware).
The FieldBurger by Field Roast is okay as a “burger” but doesn’t have the texture or taste of beef. It is tasty though. However, it contains that vital wheat gluten, and much-maligned carrageenan (Irish Moss extract. The latter should probably be avoided if you have any kind of digestive issues such as IBS.
These are the ones that I like best because they are contain ingredients that are waaaay less processed. They don’t have the mouth-feel or taste of a traditional beef burger, but if you’re vegan you may not want that anyway.
Good Seed Burgers are pretty awesome because they are made of all kinds of sprouted pulses, seeds, and veggies. They pride themselves on being a “whole” food burger, and they pretty much are. I like the All American Hempseed Burger best.
Hilary’s Eat Well burgers have always been top of my list because you can’t fault any of her ingredients. This is the best of the entire bunch in terms of the health profile of ingredients. Moreover, these burgers are pretty much okay for even those with allergies. The whole point was that Hilary wanted to create a burger that would be free of most allergens – and she did! If I have any criticism, they tend to be a bit dry, but tons of vegan mayo, ketchup, and ripe avocado, will fix that right away!
And Even Better…
I know it’s not convenient, but it is way better to make your burgers from scratch. If we are leaning toward a WHOLE food plant-based diet, then cooking your own is the way forward. To save time you can batch cook, and freeze a ton of them. I am committed to experimenting this month. I have a few good recipes up my sleeve, but I want to perfect them before I go public. So in the meantime, this Lentil Walnut burger by Vegan Richa is pretty awesome.