Fake meats have been around at least since 1896. That’s when John Harvey Kellogg (yes, one of those Kelloggs) created “Nuttose” mostly out of peanuts.
In 2013, Dutch researchers unveiled the first “cultured beef,” grown largely from cow muscle cells. Does that mean that meat might someday be made without killing animals and with far less greenhouse gas emissions and wasted water? Stay tuned.
In the meantime, here’s how to ferret out the best wannabe (as well as why-pretend-to-be-meat?) burgers, crumbles, meatballs, nuggets, and strips.
1. Seek out less sodium. The toughest nut to crack in the veggie “meat” world—other than replicating the taste and texture of meat, poultry, or seafood—is keeping a lid on salt. It’s not unusual to find 500 milligrams of sodium (a third of a day’s worth) in a roughly 3 oz. serving of veggie meat that has just 100 to 200 calories. Few have less than 200 mg. Look for veggie meats with no more than 350 mg.
2. Check the protein. You’d get around 20 grams of protein in a 3 oz. beef burger. (That’s what the meat in a Quarter Pounder weighs.) A serving of veggie meat typically ranges from 5 grams of protein to 20 grams. Some brands (like Beyond Meat) are reliably at the high end, while others (like Gardenburger) are consistently at the low end.
In general, patties that are trying to taste like beef (like Boca All American Flame Grilled or MorningStar Grillers Prime) or chicken have more protein than vegetable-grain-bean patties that don’t give a hoot about mimicking meat.
But you can’t always tell by the name. MorningStar Garden Veggie, Mediterranean Chickpea, Spicy Black Bean, and Tomato & Basil Pizza burgers, for example, have 10 grams of protein, while Amy’s Black Bean, Bistro, California, and Sonoma burgers have 5 or 6 grams.
It comes down to how much protein (soy, pea, and/or wheat gluten) the company adds.
How much protein do you need? Many experts advise older people to get more than the Daily Value (50 grams) to prevent muscle loss. To calculate that higher target, divide your weight in half. (If you weigh 120 pounds, that means shooting for 60 grams of protein a day.) If you typically don’t eat much meat, poultry, or seafood, look for veggie meats with at least 10 grams of protein per serving.
3. Bye, bye, bad fats. Who needs the 6 grams of saturated fat (about a third of a day’s worth) in a 3 oz. beef burger? Nearly all veggie meats are low in sat fat, which raises LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. Few reach even 2 grams. (Exception: most burgers from Hilary’s Eat Well contain enough coconut oil to hit 5 or 6 grams of saturated fat.) Instead of saturated fat, some veggie meats—usually those made with canola, corn, or soybean oil— have more polyunsaturated fat, which lowers LDL.
4. Keep away from Quorn. The main ingredient in Quorn products is “mycoprotein,” a euphemism for processed mold. It’s not just unappetizing; some people report severe vomiting and anaphylactic reactions after eating Quorn, which has been linked to two deaths. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, Nutrition Action’s publisher, has urged the Food and Drug Administration to ban it. (To report an adverse reaction, go to quorncomplaints.org.)
5. Taste around. When it comes to taste, veggie meats range from “yummy” to “yuck.” Our advice to newcomers: start with MorningStar or Gardein. They were the most reliable in the taste department.
Other relevant links:
• Our guide to the best soft cheeses you can buy. See: What to Eat: The Healthiest Soft Cheeses at Your Grocery Store
• Salad dressings that are both tasty and nutritious. See: What to Eat: The Bet Salad Dressings You Can Buy
• The healthiest creamers for your cup of coffee. See: What to Eat: The Healthiest Coffee Creamers You Can Buy