Are Mock Meats Safe?

I wrote a recent article about protein; the number one question: Where to vegans get their protein? One of our readers, Marko M. Vegano (nice name, by the way... ), asked whether eating a steady diet of mock meats; those alternative meat products recently made popular by companies like Gardein and Beyond meat, is a reasonable, safe thing to do.

Vegano wrote:

I love the Gardien and Beyond Meat products. They are loaded with proteins, but do have some have high sodium. I can eat a whole bag in one day. Three meals. I do include a side of grain or starches and a veg. And I eat fruits throughout the day. And also snack on nuts or include them in a salad or cereal. Is this safe to do?

In short, no... mock meats are processed foods, many are high in sodium and are highly processed; relying on such products as your main source of protein is not necessarily the healthiest way to eat. You’re better off getting the cast majority of your protein from whole foods, including legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.

Mock meats are not new; they've been around for a very long time. Tofu and seitan have been used mainly in Asian societies for centuries; the history of tofu dates back to the Han Dynasty (206  - 220 BC). But today, when people think of mock meats, they are likely not thinking of tofu, they are probably thinking of those tasty highly processed packaged products from Gardein, Beyond Meat, etc.



Don't get me wrong, I eat my share of these products; when we can't think what to make for dinner, we might grab a package of Gardein from our freezer, pop it in the toaster-oven and then typically serve it a tortilla filled with lots fresh greens, tomatoes, avocado, and a dash of hot sauce. Yum! We also eat Field Roast products, especially at Thanksgiving; my favorite holiday, makes my mouth water just thinking about it. That said, we don't eat those products all that often. How often is reasonable? Are they bad for you? Our friends at Berkeley Wellness wrote an excellent article on the subject of the emergence of fake meat as an acceptable meat alternative for both meat-eaters and non meat-eaters alike. Here's a snippet:

A downside is that meat substitutes are typically high in sodium, comparable to many deli meats. Some have more than 400 milligrams of sodium per serving. And unless they’re fortified with vitamins and minerals, as some are, they tend to be lacking in vitamin B12, iron, zinc, and other nutrients found in meat. Note also that many have long lists of additives, including artificial flavors, colorings, gums, sugars, and preservatives.

The eco-angle
You may think it’s environmentally virtuous to choose a veggie burger over a meat burger, yet mock meats are usually highly processed foods that are not eco-friendly in all ways. Vegetarian meals are generally associated with lower greenhouse gas emissions and less impact on global warming, but according to a 2010 paper in Food Research International, it takes about the same amount of energy to produce a pea-burger as it does a pork chop, calorie for calorie, because of the processing, storing, and other factors involved.

Then there are issues associated with the farming of soybeans. As some critics note, industrial soybean farming has devastated rainforests in Brazil, one of the world’s top soybean producers, and has taken over much of the cropland in America and wiped out grasslands at an accelerated pace in recent years—though, in reality, most soy is grown for animal feed, edible oil, and biofuel.

Another concern is how the beans are processed. Hexane, a chemical solvent used to remove the oil from soybeans in the manufacturing of most processed soy foods, is a neurotoxin and an air pollutant. If you want to avoid hexane-processed soy foods, buy USDA organic products, since hexane is banned in organic food production.

Many soy-based meat substitutes are also made from genetically modified (GMO) soybeans. Though the environmental and health effects of GMOs are still being debated, you can avoid them by looking for “GMO-free” on the label; by definition, certified organic foods are also GMO-free.

5 more faux-meat tidbits

  • Meat substitutes vary a lot in fat, calories, sodium, protein, and other nutrients. In general, products made with soy protein, textured vegetable protein, or wheat gluten are higher in protein than those made primarily from whole vegetables and grains.
  • Veggie meats are not necessarily vegan. Many contain egg whites (as a binder), casein (a milk protein), cheese (which also adds calories and fat), and some other animal-derived ingredients.
  • Meat substitutes often contain common food allergens, including wheat, nuts, soy, and dairy. If you’re allergic to any of these, be sure to check the labels.
  • Meat substitutes are far less likely to be contaminated with bacteria, such as E. coli, than real meat—though you should still follow the cooking directions carefully to be safe (and for the best taste and texture).
  • Less-processed meat substitutes include tofu, tempeh, and seitan and can be used in place of meat in many recipes.

Faux meats, meat alternatives, mock meat, fake meat, meat analogues... whatever you call them, they mean the same thing. Wikipedia describes them as: a food made from non-meats, sometimes without other animal products, such as dairy. The market for meat imitations includes vegetarians, vegans, non-vegetarians seeking to reduce their meat consumption for health or ethical reasons, and people following religious dietary laws in Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism.

(by the way: BerkeleyWellness is a great website; they are the leading online resource for evidence-based wellness information, is a collaboration between the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley, and a national team of writers and editors. It features articles from the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter as well as original content and updates. )

I couldn't agree with the Berkeley Wellness' response to this issue more. My suggestion is that is you want to eat mock meats, have at it; but like most things in life, consume them in moderation, they should not be your primary source of protein.

Now it's your turn:
Do you eat mock meats? If so, do you eat them frequently: Daily? Weekly? Four times a day? 😉

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