Are Meatless “Meats” Actually Healthier? Cruelty-Free Meat Substitutes in 2021

October 14, 2021

Are Meatless “Meats” Actually Healthier? Cruelty-Free Meat Substitutes in 2021

In this article:

  • What is "fake" meat and what are its benefits?
  • The best meat substitute options of 2021

What's up with all the "fake" meat?

Have you seen "barbeque pulled jackfruit" or "seitan wings" listed on the menu right next to your favorite entree and wondered, "What the heck is this stuff?" It's vegan meat and it's here to stay! The meat substitute market has exploded in recent years and is becoming more accessible both on restaurant menus and the prepared food aisles. According to a report published by Allied Market Research, the global meat substitute market was estimated at $4.51 billion in 2019 and is expected to grow to $8.82 billion by 2027.  

Not surprisingly, rates of veganism are at an all-time high globally. In the United States, the country with the highest rates of meat consumption per person globally, veganism and vegetarianism is taking off. According to the ‘Vegetarianism in America’ study published by Vegetarian Times Magazine, there are about 9.7 million people in the US following a vegetarian-based diet. Of this number, about 1 million people, or about 0.5 percent, lead a purely vegan lifestyle. The number of vegans in America went from just 0.4 percent to almost 3.5 percent in a matter of two years. That means no animal product consumption whatsoever.

Allied Market Research attributes this sudden dietary demand to rising rates of obesity, new product development, and rising concerns regarding environmental sustainability and animal welfare. Not only is eating less meat (particularly red meat) and more veggies healthier for people, it also helps to cut down on carbon emissions. A recent study found that "substituting only 10% of daily caloric intake of beef and processed meats for a diverse mix of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and select seafood could reduce, on average, the dietary carbon footprint of a U.S. consumer by one-third and add 48 healthy minutes of life per day.” Additionally, a scientific assessment from 2017 stated that 23% of global warming was due to the farmed meat industry, which uses an abundance of energy and fertilizer, causes deforestation, and releases methane. Even Bill Gates has invested in “faux” meat! Whether the decision to eat fewer meat products is due to health concerns or more of an ethical decision, your options are not limited. In fact, the world of meat substitutes offers nearly as much variety as common meat products do!

The Best Meat Substitutes of 2021

The benefits of eating meat substitutes range from higher fiber, to lower saturated fat, decreased greenhouse gases, and more dietary diversity. However, just as a juicy sausage has more fat and calories than a lean turkey burger, some meat substitutes are healthier than others. Though you can usually find "meatless meatballs" and "Impossible Burgers" in upscale healthy grocery stores (think, Trader Joe's and Whole Foods), their ingredients list isn't quite as simple or easily understood as the other products on the shelves. In order to elevate these products from mushy veggie burger to near-identical meat substitute, they often use chemical compounds such as methylcellulose, soy leghemoglobin, zinc gluconate, and Impossible's plant-based "heme", a molecule from genetically modified yeast that makes meat taste like meat.

Take, for example, the new Impossible Burger served at Burger King, Dunkin’s Beyond Sausage Sandwich, or Starbucks’ Impossible Breakfast Sandwich, all of these sandwiches have roughly the same amount of sodium, fat, and calories as the originals. Now, these sandwiches certainly aren't touted as "health foods.” Instead, they are more of a tasty vegan burger for those who crave their favorite indulgent sandwiches, but don't want to eat meat products. If you are choosing to go meat-free for the sake of the environment rather than health, then these choices are great for you.

If you are looking to adopt a plant-based diet for its health benefits, there are plenty of high-protein plant-based foods that can satiate your cravings.

  • Tempeh: Tempeh is a fermented soy product from Japan. It is made through a unique fermentation process in which soybeans are soaked, formed into a "cake" and left to ferment. It has a firm and chunky texture with a slightly nutty, mushroom-y, umami flavor. It can also be marinated and formed into patties, so it is a wonderful substitute for ground beef. One 3oz serving of tempeh contains:
    • Calories: 162
    • Protein: 15 grams
    • Carbs: 9 grams
    • Total fat: 9 grams
    • Sodium: 9 mg
  • Chickpeas: Chickpeas or garbanzo beans are a common and versatile protein supplement. Chickpeas can be served in salads and stews, baked into crispy "chips", or mashed, seasoned, and baked to form falafel. They can also be blended with tahini and other seasonings to make hummus. One 3oz serving of chickpeas contains:
    • Calories: 138
    • Protein: 9 grams
    • Carbs: 24 grams
    • Total Fat: 10 grams
    • Sodium: 20 mg
  • Pea Protein Powder: Pea protein powder is exactly what it sounds like; pea protein powder is a supplement made from the protein found in yellow peas. As opposed to other animal-based protein powders such as whey, pea protein is 100% vegan. Though it can't be eaten on its own (unless you like shoveling spoonfuls of dry powder into your mouth) it can be added to some recipes including oatmeal and smoothies. The nutritional content of pea protein differs between brands, but on average two scoops or 20 grams of organic unsweetened pea protein powder contains:
    • Calories: 80
    • Protein: 15 grams
    • Carbs: 1 gram
    • Total fat: 1.5 grams
    • Sodium: 230 mg
  • Seitan (Wheat Protein): Seitan is one of the more convincing meat substitutes on the market. I once spoke to a woman who raised her children in a vegan household and laboriously created a seitan Thanksgiving "turkey" every year in the bathtub! This "wheat meat" is essentially pure vital wheat gluten made from rinsing away the starch in wheat dough. It's used in most vegan meat products like Tofurky, vegan chicken nuggets and tenders, sausages, and bacon. It has a flavor similar to bland chicken but it can easily be marinated, breaded, and fried to perfection. On its own, seitan is very nutritious and contains more grams of protein than many others, but it is also higher in calories. One 3oz serving of seitan contains:
    • Calories: 312
    • Protein: 63 grams
    • Carbs: 11.7 grams
    • Total fat: 1.5 grams
    • Sodium: 24.3 mg
  • Texturized vegetable protein (TVP): Textured vegetable protein or TVP is a vegan meat substitute made as a byproduct of making vegetable oils. When oil is extracted from soybeans, oats, or wheat, it leaves behind a thick, high-protein paste. The taste is rather neutral, similar to a bean, but it easily absorbs flavor. One 3oz serving of TVP contains:
    • Calories: 280
    • Protein: 45 grams
    • Carbs: 30 grams
    • Total Fat: 1 gram
    • Sodium: 20 mg
  • Quinoa: Quinoa has been regarded as a "superfood" for years. It is a complete protein (meaning it contains all the essential amino acids), is relatively easy to grow, and serves as a hearty and delicious base in grain bowls or as a side dish. The United Nations even declared 2013 “The International Year of Quinoa” due to its potential to contribute to food security worldwide. One 3oz serving of cooked quinoa contains:
    • Calories: 120
    • Protein: 4.4 grams
    • Carbs: 21.3 grams
    • Total Fat: 1.9 grams
    • Sodium: 7 mg
  • Lentils: Lentils are a very lean, high-protein, and low-fat legume. They are extremely versatile and can be made into hummus, spreads for sandwiches, a tasty side dish, or in soups and stews. When eaten with whole grains, they provide a quality protein whose digestibility and amino acid content is similar to that of meat! One 3oz serving of lentils contains:
    • Calories: 97
    • Protein: 7.6 grams
    • Carbs: 17.3 grams
    • Total fat: 0
    • Sodium: 0
  • Tofu: Tofu gets a bad wrap in many Western cultures as being bland and textureless, but that couldn't be farther from the truth. There are many different forms and textures of tofu. On its own, it does have a bland taste, but it loves to soak up marinades and sauces. On top of being an easily accessible source of protein that contains all the essential amino acids our bodies need, it is very nutritious. Also, tofu that is frozen and then thawed out, has a very meaty, chewy texture. One 3oz serving of tofu contains:
    • Calories: 60
    • Protein: 7 grams
    • Carbs: 2 grams
    • Total Fat: 3.5 gram
    • Sodium: 6 mg
  • Black Beans: Beans are a great source of fiber, protein, and folate. Eat them on their own, in tacos, or compressed into vegan burgers. They also make great "crumbles" over salads. One 3 oz can of cooked black beans contains:
    • Calories: 78
    • Protein: 5 grams
    • Carbs: 14 grams
    • Total Fat: .25 gram
    • Sodium: 329 mg
  • Hemp Hearts: Hemp hearts are a relatively "new" superfood that is “steak-ing” a claim in the vegan protein arena. More than 25% of the total calories found in hemp hearts are from high-quality protein. Compare this to chia seeds and flaxseeds, whose calories are 16–18% protein. It is also rich in omega-3s, which can be hard to get through a vegan diet without taking a vegan supplement. Hemp hearts or hemp seeds are derived from the hemp or marijuana plant and have a slightly nutty flavor and great crunch. Sprinkle them over salads, in Asian stir-fries, or over oatmeal for added texture and extra protein. And, no they don’t have THC, so you won’t get buzzed! Just 3 tablespoons of hemp hearts contain:
    • Calories: 166
    • Protein: 9.5 grams
    • Carbs: 2.6 grams
    • Total Fat: 14.6 grams
    • Sodium: 1.5 mg

So which protein source is the best? In terms of protein content, seitan and TVP appear to have the most. In any case, getting a mix of the above proteins will ensure that you're getting all the necessary nutrients, protein, and variety in your diet. It also depends on the type of dish you are making, what fruits and veggies you are serving it with, and your budget. Vegan and vegetarian cookbooks can also help you to make your own healthy "copycat" meats, so you don't have to rely on the Impossible Foods line or risk adding extra sodium and chemicals to your diet. If you're looking to cut meat out of your diet little by little or "cold turkey" so to speak, consider speaking with a registered dietitian to find a plant-based diet plan that works for you!

Summary Points

  • Not only is eating less meat (particularly red meat) and more veggies healthier for people, it also helps to cut down on carbon emissions
  • The benefits of eating meat substitutes range from higher fiber, to lower saturated fat, decreased greenhouse gases, and more dietary diversity
  • Tempeh is a fermented soy product from Japan made through a unique fermentation process in which soybeans are soaked, formed into a "cake" and left to ferment
  • On its own, seitan is very nutritious and contains more grams of protein than many others, but it is also higher in calories
  • Hemp is also rich in omega-3s, which can be hard to get through a vegan diet without taking a vegan supplement




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