Most meat substitutes are typically made of legumes like soy or peas, vegetables, and cereals. Those plants produce nearly as much protein as your body needs and can be combined to equal as much as you’d get from eating meat.
Tofu is the classic and most well-known meat substitute. It’s made from soybeans and has been used in Asia for centuries as an inexpensive, but healthy source of dietary protein.
It’s also low in calories and easily absorbs aromas and flavors from the spices and marinades you may use.
This makes it a versatile part of your diet. It’s meant to be eaten more like cheese – as a flavorful meal component all its own – though you can make some nice alt-meat products from it.
You make tofu by soaking soybeans, then mashing them with more water to make a puree. The next step is to filter the puree to separate the fibrous solids from the liquid part.
Heat the liquids to just below boiling points so it curdles, making the solid tofu in much the same way as cheese is made. You then press the tofu into slabs and cut it into whatever shape you wish – usually simple rectangles. The fibrous solid part of the puree, called okara, can be dehydrated and used as alt-meat chunks or mince.
Tofu comes in extra-firm, firm, soft, or silken. You can also press even more water from it before cooking for a crispier product.
Some recipes call for it to be patted dry before cooking. Make sure you follow your recipe to get the most flavor from your tofu.
Silken tofu is great for smoothies, while extra-firm can be fried or grilled like regular meat.
One cup of tofu usually contains about 188 calories, 20 grams of protein, 12 grams of fat, 868 milligrams of calcium, 13 milligrams of iron, and 0.7 grams of fiber.
One thing to look for is a non-GMO product or certified organic. According to a 2016 study, about 82 percent of the world’s soybean farms grow genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Many consumers are leery of GMOs since we haven’t been eating them for very long and don’t know the long-term consequences of such products.
Soy is what’s called a complete protein, meaning it contains all nine needed amino acids. It’s usually fortified with Vitamin B12, which isn’t found in plant-based proteins.
Note that soy does contain natural phytoestrogens, so you shouldn’t eat it more than once or twice a week.
If you’re pregnant or have had a hormone-related cancer, talk to your doctor before eating tofu because the natural hormone might cause severe problems.
Soy Protein or Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP) – Dehydrated soybeans can be mixed with water to make an inexpensive, healthy meat substitute.
Soy protein is usually sold as mince, chunks, cutlets, or balls. Like tofu, it easily absorbs odor and flavor from the other ingredients you’re cooking with it. This protein is ideal as replacement for meat patties, meatballs, cutlets, and meat sauces like chili or bolognese.
Soy protein is low in sodium and does have some fiber. It also contains magnesium, iron, phosphorous, and calcium.
This product is usually more highly processed than some of the other meat substitutes, so read the nutrition label carefully before you buy. Make sure you’re getting only soy in your substitute.
A one-cup (dry) serving of TVP or soy protein contains about 222 calories, 35 grams of protein, 0.83 grams of fat, 164 milligrams of calcium, 6.3 milligrams of iron, and 12 grams of fiber. It’s also a good source of magnesium and some of the B vitamins.
Soy is a high-protein plant, however the isolating factor in making the protein isolate strips away many of its natural nutrients.
Be sure to look for organic or non-GMO products to avoid pesticide concentration from the extraction process.
Also find out where your soy product is coming from. Soy farming is responsible for most of the deforestation in Brazil, for example, and we should set an example that we don’t want that occurring.
Tempeh is also made from the versatile soybean. It’s a traditional Indonesian food made from fermenting the whole beans.
Like cheese, tempeh uses the action of special bacteria to break down some of the bean proteins and make them more easily digestible by human beings.
Tempeh has a drier texture with around 20 percent protein, and is high in fiber, which makes it ideal for a meat substitute.
Various grains and other beans can also be incorporated with the tempeh to give it a heartier flavor and texture. It does have a subtle tangy flavor with a nutty aftertaste, so tempeh isn’t for everyone. You can grill, fry, sauté, or bake it – and try it in a lettuce wrap or grain bowl. It’s especially good as a barbecue meat substitute.
The fact that tempeh is fermented also helps maintain a healthy gut bacteria environment, like eating yogurt. It’s also high in calcium and antioxidants, and its high manganese content may help regulate blood sugar. It’s usually low in sodium as well.
Since it’s so high in fiber, you need to incorporate it into your diet more slowly, to avoid bloating and gas.
One cup of tempeh usually contains about 319 calories, 34 grams of protein, 18 grams of fat, 184 milligrams of calcium, 4.5 milligrams of iron, and is a good source of magnesium and Vitamin B6.
Check the nutrition label with tempeh. If it’s had grain added, people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity should avoid that variety and look for another preparation. It’s also not for those with soy allergies, of course. It’s great for a dairy-free or lactose-intolerant diet because of the added calcium.