What You Need to Know about Vegetarian Meat Alternatives

Plant based diets, like veganism and vegetarianism, are becoming increasingly popular. It is really important for anybody who follows these types of diets to know which substitutes for meat are nutritious. But it can be very confusing as there are a LOT of new vegetarian meat options popping up.

So this video will run through the main types of plant based alternatives to meat, and guide you through the nutritional content of each one. You can read the summaries below the video for more information as well. 

 

1. Soya-based

Compared to meat and chicken, vegetarian and vegan alternatives which are made from soya and wheat protein tend to be much lower in calories and fat; contain a similar amount of protein (~15 – 20g of protein per 100g); and contain fibre.

But these can also be higher in salt (so it’s best to check the label!) and these aren’t usually fortified with iron, zinc and B vitamins.

Textured vegetable protein (TVP), tofu, tempeh & bean curd are also made from soya. These tend to be: low in calories and fat, as well as good sources of protein and calcium.

Soya is also one of the only plant based sources of protein which contains all nine essential amino acids in good amounts, which is a massive plus! Soya-based products also usually contain some fibre, iron, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium and copper.

There is a myth that soya is bad for us, but current evidence shows that it is actually good for us, although it can interfere with thyroid medication and isn’t recommended for babies under 6 months. 

 

2. Mycoprotein

This type of protein is trademarked by the ‘Quorn’ brand within Europe and the US. This is made from a type of fungus which was discovered in North Yorkshire in England in the 60s.

These products are usually low in calories, low in fat, contain a good amount of protein (~13- 15g of protein per 100g) and contain fibre, whereas meat and chicken don’t contain any fibre.

But these can be high in salt and aren’t usually fortified with important nutrients like: iron, zinc and vitamin B12.

Some Quorn products contain eggs, so vegans and those with an egg allergy should check the label or their online list or vegan friendly products.

 

3. Seitan

This is made by kneading wheat dough, then rinsing this to remove the wheat starch so that you are left with pure gluten, which is then usually flavoured with ingredients like: garlic, soy sauce, sugar and spices before cooking.

As this is pure wheat gluten, it isn’t suitable for those with coeliac disease, but it is soy-free.

Seitan is high in protein – depending on how it is made 100g of seitan contains roughly 16 – 25g of protein, which is similar to the amount of protein in a small chicken breast or 3-4 slices of beef.

But this protein is not ‘complete’ as it doesn’t contain any lysine; an essential amino acid for our health which is found in beans, lentils and peanuts.

Seitan is also quite low in calories (~100kcal per 100g); contains a moderate amount of selenium, phosphorus and iron; a small amount of carbs (~9g per 100g); and almost no fat.

Pre-made seitan can be high in salt depending on what types of seasonings are added for flavour – so it can be a good idea to check the salt level on the label.

 

4. Beyond Meat

This company from the US sell plant based: burgers, chicken strips, sausages and ground beef. These are marketed as being so similar to meat they are often sold in the meat aisle in supermarkets!

‘The Beyond Burger’ is their most famous product. This contains pea protein, coconut oil, rapeseed (i.e. canola) oil, potato starch and beetroot juice (to give it’s blood-like colour).

Nutritionally this burger is quite similar to meat, as it provides 20g of protein per patty, 30% of the DRV for iron (which is non haem iron) and is also soya & gluten free.

Unfortunately Beyond Meat promote a very anti-GMO message, which is an unscientific stance as genetic modification is a food technology which has both pros and cons; but it has a lot of important uses in food production so it shouldn’t be vilified.

 

5. Moving Mountains

This UK based company has created the B12 Burger. This is made entirely from plant based ingredients, but because it is another realistic burger, it is marketed towards flexitarians and those who enjoy meat but want to reduce their meat intake.

The B12 burger contains: mushroom, pea protein, wheat protein, soy protein, coconut oil, beetroot, vegetable oil & flavourings.

This is a great source of protein (containing 20g of protein per 100g); it is low in calories and fat; and high in salt (1.7g per 100g). It is fortified with vitamin B12, but there is no mention of iron or zinc.

Similar to Beyond Meat, this company also promote an anti-GMO message, which is a pity.  

 

6. Impossible Food

‘The Impossible Burger’ was developed by scientists from Impossible Foods who matched the constituents of a beef burger using plants.

Impossible foods used GM technology to create a plant based source of haem from soy roots. It also contains wheat protein, potato protein & coconut oil. 

The impossible burger contains 20g of protein, 15% of the RDA for iron and 90% RDA for vitamin B12 per burger, as well as zinc & other B vitamins. But it is high in salt (1.26g of salt per 100g).

This is arguably the most similar plant based burger to a real burger. The close similarity to actual meat even unsettles some vegetarians (including me!), but this has a good nutritional profile and is a great option for those who enjoy the taste of meat, but also want to cut back on their meat intake.

The website also highlights that The Impossible Burger “uses 95% less land, 74% less water & creates 87% less greenhouse gas emissions” as compared to a beef burger.

 

7. Beans, Peas, Lentils, Chickpeas, Nuts & seeds

These important foods should be staples for anybody who avoids meat because they are good sources of protein and minerals like: iron, calcium, zinc, magnesium, copper, phosphorus and B vitamins. These foods are also low in fat, and high in fibre.

Legumes like beans, soybeans, lentils and peanuts (including peanut butter) are also an important source of the amino acid lysine, which we need to include in our diet to stay healthy.

Brazil nuts are a good source of selenium. Chia seeds, linseeds, hemp seeds, walnuts and soybeans also provide a vegetarian form of omega 3 fat.

 

8. Other Sources of Protein

Lacto-ovo vegetarians can get protein from eggs, milk and cheese.

Wholegrains such as brown rice, wild rice, brown pasta, brown bread, oats, teff and millet also provide protein; but these don’t always contain all nine amino acids which are essential for health. Those which do contain all nine are called a ‘complete protein’, examples include: quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth and hempseed.

For more information on plant proteins, check out this great post by the Vegan RD.

Protein powders and protein fortified products are also available, these powders can be made from different sources including milk and even insects, so it is best to check the label if you want to avoid these. Vegan protein powders are usually made from soya, hemp or pea protein. For more information on the pros and cons of protein supplements, check out this post.

 

9. Low Protein Products

Some products which are sold as vegetarian and vegan alternatives to meat, chicken and fish really aren’t nutritionally similar at all and often contain very little protein. For example: vegetable or potato based ‘fish’ fingers, mushroom mince (this is just chopped mushroom and it only contains 1g of protein per 100g!) and jackfruit.

It is fine to eat these foods and they have their own benefits; like being low in calories and fat, containing fibre as well as certain vitamins and minerals, some also count as a portion of fruit or vegetables.

But remember to include another source of protein along with these foods (such as beans, peas, lentils, chickpeas, nuts and seeds as discussed above).

 

Take Home Messages:

  • The new generation plant based products from Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat and Moving Mountains tend to be the most similar to meat and chicken in terms of taste and nutrition.
  • Products made with soya protein, mycoprotein (like quorn) and wheat protein (like seitan) are usually low in fat and calories and have a good level of protein, but the amounts of minerals can vary – so if in doubt it is best to check the label.
  • Another reason to check the label is to check the salt content which can be high at times.
  • Be aware that certain meat substitutes, like chopped mushroom, jackfruit and potato or vegetable based products, can be nothing like meat when it comes to nutritional content.
  • Grains and seeds are a good source of provide and important vitamins and minerals. But it is particularly important that those who avoid animal products include legumes like soybeans, peanuts, beans and lentils in their diet everyday, as these provide a more complete form of protein, as well as other vital nutrients.

More from Dietetically Speaking

Read: The Alkaline Diet: Past to Present
Read: Nutritional Advice for Vegans and Vegetarians
Read: Low-Carb Diets and Population Health – Where Do We Stand?
Read: How Environmentally Friendly are Plant-Based Diets?
Read: The Lowdown on Omega-3
Read: How Autism Can Impact Nutritional Intake
Read: When and How to Start Weaning
Read: How to Eat Fish Sustainably: Advice from a Marine Scientist
Read: Review of Nutrium: Nutrition Software for Dietitians & Their Patients