Say you’re dying for some tacos. Delicious, savory tacos. You get out the skillet to brown the “meat,” which is frozen and comes in a little green package and is pre-crumbled. It begins to sizzle the way hamburger does and, after a few minutes, in a strange way, it almost starts to smell like hamburger. The steam rising off it has the hint of salt, if not the hint of savor (a flavor profile food scientists call “umami”).
The whole effect is kind of intoxicating — the way rendering animal fat and searing muscle can be — and you decide that, before adding the seasoning, you just want a little taste, a little appetizer, to really get your appetite going. You spoon a small portion off and blow on it and put it in your mouth. The texture almost feels like hamburger. It has the satisfying bounce of animal protein (known as “mouthfeel,” if you’re a food scientist). Then the crumbles hit your tongue, and the flavor is just … not … quite … right.
Meat alternatives (aka “substitutes” or “analogues,” if you’re a food scientist) have been around a really long time. Tofu was invented in China in the second century BC, and spread with Buddhism to the rest of Asia as a good source of protein for people who didn’t do meat for religious reasons. In the last half-decade, meat alternatives have taken off, becoming their own industry. In fact, 110 new products came on the market in 2010 and 2011.
These products range from traditional items like tempeh and seitan, to the more high-tech and highly processed Field Roast (a vegan grain meat), Quorn (fungus protein chicken substitute) and MorningStar Meal Starters Grillers Recipe Crumbles (soy protein and wheat gluten as ground beef).
And they have a lot to recommend them, says Spokane nutritionist and dietitian Craig Hunt. There’s typically a reduction in saturated fats compared to beef and even chicken, he says, which does good things for cholesterol and may even help people with inflammation issues. “They generally have a lot of fiber,” he says, “like a veggie patty that’s made with brown rice.”
Soy, an ingredient in many meat analogues (including the original: tofu), has isoflavones, which act as antioxidants, may ward off breast cancer and also might tell your body to stop producing so much cholesterol. The people of Okinawa, Japan, eat more soy than anyone and are also the longest-lived. That’s probably not a one-to-one correlation — they also grow their own vegetables, tend to have very little stress and continue working strenuous, but not back-breaking jobs well past retirement age — but other vegetarian populations, like the Seventh Day Adventist community in Loma Linda, Calif., are incredibly long-lived as well.
Meat alternatives have become more palatable, especially in the last half-decade, says Dr. Joseph Powers, a food scientist at Washington State University, whose research focuses on fruit and vegetable proteins. Meat analogues, he says, “can achieve a texture — what we call ‘mouthfeel’ — that is close to animal protein.”
They do it the same way many plastics are made, by taking a compound (vegetable protein in this case), blending it to a particular consistency, and then extruding it through a tube to mimic the long, sinewy fibers of animal muscle.
Think of the way a Play-Doh Fun Factory pushes the dough through a shaped mold. Using this process, Powers says, the alterna-meats “can look quite a bit like and have some of the chew of a meat product.”
Less simple is the flavoring. Tony Brown, the former chef at Luna and current co-owner of Stella’s, is a committed vegetarian who can cook a mean pork belly. His sandwich menu includes a vegan pepperoni made of seitan — wheat gluten. He had gotten plenty of compliments on the vegan pepperoni from customers, but in April he did an informal survey of his meat-eating clients to see how close it tasted to the real thing.
“I asked three of the guys if it’s close and they said no,” he says laughing. “I know what’s supposed to be in there,” he says, “paprika, garlic, salt …” But he also knows what is definitely not in there: pork fat.
Turns out, fat doesn’t just add juiciness, says Joseph Powers.
“Most flavor compounds dissolve in fat readily,” he says, “so it’s a good flavor carrier.”
To the extent to which alterna-meats do not taste like their animal counterparts, Powers says, “fat’s a big part of the difference.”
There are other small problems as well. Plant proteins are incomplete, meaning they need other complementary protein sources. The rule of thumb in this scenario is that if you’re eating tofu, you should supplement it with rice (most Asian restaurants already do this for you); if you’re eating a brown rice veggie burger, add a legume of some sort — beans, soy, lentils — to round things out.
It’s important to note that the choice isn’t just meat or no meat. Eating less meat is equally valid, and we’re already doing that. According to a January report in the New York Times, Americans are down to 2007 levels of meat consumption. The advertising firm DGWB has declared “flexitarianism” — eating meat, but a bunch of other stuff, too — as the health trend to watch in 2012, which makes this flood of alternameats timely.
Hunt, the nutritionist, thinks that’s the right way to go. Even devoted carnivores should throw a little tofu on the barbecue once in a while, or make a nice little mycoprotein cordon bleu.
“The approach I take is to vary your sources” of nutrients, Hunt says, “and be moderate. When you over-eat any one thing, that’s when problems occur.”
Fill In The Gaps
One of the reasons food scientists call these products “meat alternatives” or “analogues” and not “substitutes” is because they aren’t nutritionally identical. If you’re planning on switching from chicken to Quorn, here are some nutrients you may need to supplement.
IRON: “Thirty percent of the world is borderline iron deficient,” says Spokane dietitian Craig Hunt, and some of the fiber in legumes can actually bond with the iron you do have and take it away, so being mindful about finding an iron source is key.
B-12: This vitamin is vital to the proper functioning of your brain and nervous system. In today’s sterile kitchens, it’s pretty much only available from animal products or in a pill.
COMPLETE PROTEIN: Vegetable proteins need complements in order to be complete. This is easy to overcome with a wellbalanced plate: pairing “legumes with a grain, as a rule of thumb,” Hunt says.