If you’ve resolved to eat more plants and less meat in 2021, you’re in good company: One study reported that more than half of Americans aged 18 and older were likely to make “eating one meat-free meal a week” a goal for 2020. Most people’s motivation to do so stems from some mix of health, ethical, and environmental considerations.
You’re also in a good position to stick to that resolution, considering all of the resources available to guide your decisions, plus the quickly-growing global meat substitute market. That includes not just classic vegetarian staples like tofu and tempeh, but also an expanding variety of “fauxteins,” including meatless “beef,” grain-based “chicken,” and fish-free “tuna.”
Not all imitations, however, are created equal. Lilian Nwora Shepherd, a registered dietitian, former collegiate track athlete, and personal trainer in Dallas, Texas, says that the industry shows great ingenuity, a commitment to a reduced eco-footprint, and a met marketplace need. But whether a plant-based alternative is healthier than real meat depends on the product chosen and quantity consumed.
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Some meat analogs, Shepherd explains, swap meat for genetically modified and processed ingredients, which can lack some of the essential nutrients found in meat (or offer them in a form that’s less easily absorbed). And while more research is needed, Shepherd says that just like red meat, “Excess and frequent consumption [of meat analogs] has been associated with heart disease.” Her advice for the fauxtein curious is to determine the intent behind meat alternatives; learn about the nutritional value of natural high protein sources like tempeh, lentils, tofu, and beans; and take a hard look at the top five ingredients of any product to learn what it’s really made of.
Execution-wise, plant-based proteins run the gamut too. To find out how several of them stack up—against each other, but more importantly, against the meat and seafood items they’re purported to replace—I recruited my husband, Will, and embarked on a two-week, 10-product taste test.
From impressive to underwhelming, here are the conclusions of our roundup.
Wait, This Isn’t Meat?
Impossible Burgers: If we hadn’t grilled them ourselves, we wouldn’t have believed the Impossible Burgers were meatless. Raw, they weren’t identical to raw beef—a little grainy—but as soon as they started cooking, they were spot on. From first sizzle to last bite, they sounded, smelled, and tasted like high-quality versions of the real deal, down to the charred outside, pink middle, and appropriate level of juiciness. Burger lovers and fauxtein skeptics would do well to start with Impossible.
Priced at $10.99 for 12 ounces, Impossible meat consists primarily of water, soy protein concentrate, coconut oil, sunflower oil, and natural flavors. Each 4-ounce burger contains 240 calories, 19 grams of protein (comparable to ground beef), 14 grams of fat (but no cholesterol), 9 grams of carbohydrate, several B vitamins, and a quarter of the recommended daily iron intake (more than real beef, but in an added form).
Field Roast Smoked Apple & Sage Sausages: With their compact centers and slightly sweet, slightly savory flavor, Field Roast met almost all of our breakfast sausage criteria. The one thing missing was the snap of a classic link, likely due to their lack of casing, which typically comes from animal product. As a side to a waffle or omelet, these constitute a great sausage stand-in.
A 12.9-ounce package of Field Roast sausages costs $5.99. Made mostly of water, vital wheat gluten, safflower oil, dried apples, and Yukon gold potatoes, each of the four links contains 220 calories, a whopping 23 grams of protein, 16 grams of carbohydrate (more than most sausages), and 8 grams of fat.
Beyond Meat Brats: Though closer in size to a hot dog than a bratwurst, the Beyond brats tasted and smelled like their meaty counterparts. The two slight issues we had were, like the Field Roast sausages, their lack of snap, plus their tendency to stick to the pan despite the substantial amount of fat that oozed out as they cooked. But in a bun with a squirt of mustard, these brats would hold their own in a meat-filled lineup.
A four-pack of Beyond Meat sausages (14 ounces) costs $8.99, each one containing 190 calories and packing ample protein (16 grams) and fat (12 grams), plus 5 grams of carbohydrate and 20 percent of the daily value of iron. The main ingredients are water, pea protein, coconut oil, sunflower oil, and natural flavor.
Good, But Not Enough to Forget the Original
365 Meatballs: Whole Foods brand 365’s plant-based meatballs paralleled beef ones in a few key characteristics: the exterior browned up nicely in the oven, the Italian herbs shone through in the oven and our mouths, and as part of a saucy pasta dish, they were quite convincing. The only meatless clue we found was their interior when tried plain—on the dry side, compared to real meatballs.
A 10.5-ounce bag of 365 meatballs costs $3.99. Each six-meatball serving contains 170 calories, with a nice balance of protein (13 grams), fat (11 grams), and carbohydrate (9 grams). Key ingredients include water, soy protein concentrate, sunflower seed oil, wheat flower, and wheat gluten.
Gardein Seven Grain Crispy Tenders: As far as frozen chicken tenders go, Gardein’s grain-based alternatives make a believable substitute. Crumby on the outside, moist and uniform inside, and a little bit greasy, they captured the chicken tender essence well. Our main complaint was their bland flavor—easily remedied by a swipe in ketchup.
Ten Gardein chicken tenders (9 ounces) cost $4.99, and each serving of two has 100 calories, with equal amounts protein and carbohydrate (8 grams) and 4.5 grams of fat. More carb-heavy than most tenders, they primarily consist of water, whey protein isolate, vital wheat gluten, canola oil, ancient grain flour, and natural flavor.
Upton’s Naturals Chorizo Seitan: Judging by the appearance, smell, and seasoning of Upton’s Naturals chorizo crumbles, it would be hard to tell they’re plant-based. The texture, however, wasn’t quite right—too rubbery and not crumbly enough. But when added to tacos or nachos, as we did, or burritos or rice bowls, this chorizo fills the meaty protein role just fine.
An 8-ounce package of Upton’s Naturals chorizo costs $4.29 and offers four servings. Made mostly of water, vital wheat gluten, soy sauce, apple cider vinegar, and spices, each 2-ounce serving has 100 calories, most of which is protein (17 grams, compared to 5 of carbohydrate and 0.5 of fat).
Tofurky Oven Roasted Turkey Slices: In a loaded turkey sandwich, the Tofurky deli slices were hardly discernible from real turkey. But turkey isn’t super flavorful to begin with, and when piled high with toppings and condiments, its essence is even less discernible. So to honor the spirit of our mission, we tried the slices plain. Will compared them to “tofu soaked in soy sauce”—which, the package confirmed, isn’t far off.
A 5.5-ounce box of Tofurky deli meat runs $3.49. Each 5-slice serving contains 100 calories, with ample protein (13 grams) and lesser amounts of carbohydrate (5 grams) and fat (3.5 grams). The key ingredients are water, vital wheat gluten, tofu, soy sauce, canola oil, and natural flavors.
Sophie’s Kitchen Breaded Shrimp: Sophie’s Kitchen breaded vegan shrimp were a mixed bag, performance-wise. They came in a variety of shapes that looked just like real breadcrumb-coated shrimp, but their flavor fell flat, and the texture was chewier than we would have liked. I hit my limit around four but Will went back for a small second serving, so we compromised by relegating these to the bottom of this second tier.
Sophie’s Kitchen shrimp costs $6.49 for an 8.8-ounce, 2.5-serving box. Each 190-calorie serving doles out 31 grams of carbohydrate, with another 11 grams of fat and 4 grams of protein—far more carbs and less protein than real shrimp. They’re made primarily of water, rice flakes, canola oil, potato starch, konjac powder, and pea starch.
Noble Concept, Needs More R&D
Good Catch Tuna: Although our Good Catch experiment ended okay, it got off to a rough start when we opened the bag to reveal a lumpy, moist, and unpleasant smelling “tuna”—not quite the flaky and firm consistency we expected. Had we not been on assignment, we would have been tempted to stop this number before we even started. But fortunately we stuck it out, because when mixed with Dijon mustard, lemon juice, and diced shallots, spread between two slices of bread, topped with cheddar, and broiled, the tuna was not exactly delicious, but definitely edible.
A 3.3-ounce pouch of tuna costs $3.99 and serves one. The main ingredients are water, a six-plant protein blend, algal oil, sea salt, sunflower oil, and seaweed powder. The whole pouch contains 90 calories, with 14 grams of protein, 5 grams of carbohydrate, and 2.5 grams of fat.
No Evil Foods Shredded Chicken Strips: To be fair, a shredded chicken wannabe sounds way harder to pull off than a substitute for ground beef or fried anything. That said, the No Evil Foods chicken “strips” didn’t mimic chicken much at all. Right out of the bag, the sand-colored blob resembled Play-Doh, according to Will. Although the taste was largely flavorless, the texture—especially of the bigger chunks—was too dry and soft. As a chicken substitute, this product misses the mark. But reimagined as a chickpea-based protein crumble (or something more accurate), it may warrant a second look.
Ten ounces (four servings) of No Evil Foods chicken runs $6.99. Made mostly of water, vital wheat gluten, shoyu, chickpea flour, and spices, each serving contains 150 calories, with a hefty 25 grams of protein, plus 8 grams of carbohydrate and 2 grams of fat.