by Marion Nestle
Aug 25 2010

Do we need meat substitutes?

I’m traveling, which means it’s time to catch up on saved posts.  Here’s one from that I’ve been wanting to share.  It’s a collection of articles on meat substitutes.

Meat substitutes?  I don’t know how you feel about this sort of thing, but any kind of substitute violates one of my food rules: “Never eat anything artificial.”

Never mind.  Meat substitutes are the ways food technologists respond to nutritionists’ advice to eat less meat.

Here is what has to say about this approach:

  • Anthro

    The only meat substitute I like is Sei-tan, and that only once in a while. What’s wrong with lentils? Tofu gets such a bad rap and is the butt of almost all jokes (more like sneers) made at vegetarians, but I like it and so do my veggie friends. It depends on what you cook it with because it absorbs flavors so readily–the jokesters never even seem to hear this follow-up.

    Nice to know the food chemists are working so hard on our behalf.

    Note to Marion:

    Have you seen the article on hen vaccination in Britain in NYT today?

  • Kaylen

    Fake meat isn’t necessarily artificial – it’s often just seasoned seitan, which is perfectly natural. We call it fake meat just to make it more understandable in a meat-centric society.

  • Nancy

    Like everything else these days, it seems that this is conflating the good with the bad. As previous posters have said, traditional “meat substitutes” like tofu, seitan and tempeh are not (usually!) highly processed foods. I eat them all regularly and my family enjoys them as part of our vegetarian repertoire. However, TVP from genetically modified soy and similar products are something else altogether.

  • Emily

    It depends on how you define a meat substitute, really. Those patty things you can buy frozen and the absolutely inedible TVP are things to be avoided in general, and not just because nobody really knows what’s in them. But as others have said, seitan is quite natural, and a very traditional element in many Asian vegetarian cuisines. It’s simply wheat gluten– you can easily make it at home, as I do about once a week. Tofu and tempeh (also both possible to make at home, though more work and, in the case of tempeh, kind of tricky) are often used to replace meat in vegetarian dishes, but unlike seitan they aren’t intended to be meat-like. But they’re delicious and all in heavy rotation in my vegetarian kitchen.

  • Dave

    The answer to your question is “no.” We don’t need meat substitutes. People can meet all of their nutritional needs through eating a whole-foods, plant-based diet. Tofu, tempeh, seitan, TVP and other meat-like substitutes help meat-eaters transition to a plant-based diet, but they are not nutritionally necessary.

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  • MA

    While I don’t have time to read all the articles listed, I perused the last one. Unfortunatley, “red meat” wasn’t specifid – organic, grain-fed, grass-fed, hormone-free, antibiotic-free? Unknown. That makes the results (as reported in the article) suspect, in my opinion. Not all red meat is the same.

  • Genie

    Yes. We need meat substitutes– and milk & cheese substitutes. I am lactose intolerant and thank God everyday that I live in today’s time and have access to lactose free versions of food.

    If a person has extreme moral objections to eating animals, or if your are realistic about the environmental impacts of meat production, I think that having access to the occasional meat substitute (like fakin’ bacon seitan which rocks!) is wonderful. Importantly, substitutes also help bridge people into eating less meat. Meatless Mondays? No problem.. you don’t have to drastically switch your diet. Once on these foods, after you realize you can survive without meat at every meal, then you can progress to more basic whole foods for satisfaction.

    They are like training wheels for new vegetarians… and guiltless rewards when eaten in moderation.

  • Subvert

    Who doesn’t like to sit down to a nice hot plate of steaming meat analog?! Mmmm-mmmm, good!

  • Cathy Richards

    MA — here here. If the studies on the connection between meat and health are based on meat from animals raised mostly off-pasture, and if that affects their fatty acid balance, and if fatty acids are influencial in health (D’Oh), then the studies are showing a connection between consuming commercially altered animals and disease, not between animals and disease.

    As for meat alternates, they’ve helped move forward the vegetarian, eat-less-flesh, be-kind-to-animals, don’t-force-poor-people-without-a-voice-to-slaughter-animals-in-inhumane-settings movements. More power to them.

    But let’s face it everyone, many meat alternates are usually salted, processed and packaged to extend their refrigerated shelf-life. And they are as expensive, or more so, than meat, creating an elite market. They perpetuate the notion that meat-like things are the centre of our meal planning. Neither is a beneficial thing.

    Lentils baby! Chick peas!

  • Pete

    You guys continue eating concentrated gluten. I’ll continue to feel awesome, increase my lean body mass and try to contain the boatloads of energy I have on an organic meat, cheese, veggie, nuts and fat diet (saturated too!). Wheat is beat.;-)

  • Anthro

    Hey, Pete! How old are you? Any nutritionally sound diet will provide lean body mass and sufficient (even boatloads) of energy. Get back to me when you’re 55 or 60. Your vigor is enviable, but your arteries won’t care and will clog just as well on organic animal fat as on conventionally produced. I’m in favor of organically produced meat, if you eat meat, but the bottom line is quantity. Sounds as though your diet is balanced in terms of variety, and I don’t know what percentage of it is saturated fat, but if you eat a LOT of saturated fat, it is NOT good for your heart/arteries.

    I agree with those above who distinguish between fairly highly processed “fake” meat and simpler meat substitutes. As a vegetarian who eats a little grass fed bison from time to time, I prefer to cook vegetarian in the sense of using beans, grains and small amounts of dairy/cheese to make my own “burgers”, casseroles and such, and I use tofu, which I don’t consider a meat substitute really, just a form of beans or cheese. So the answer is:

    NO, we do not need highly processed fake meat, but it can be useful for transitioning to a veg. diet or for those who simply like it, but it suffers from many of the same problems as other processed food and it can be very expensive.

    YES, we need some forms of meat substitute in the form of beans, grains and mixtures of these so that vegetarians can access food that is quick and convenient if they are able to pay higher prices for having ready made patties and such.

    BUT, why not just eat beans, rice, barley, wheat, quinoa, tofu, nuts, seitan maybe, and all the other tasty things out there that are cheap and readily available. Eat these in modest amounts with lots of veggies and some fruit, including berries, for a diet that would rid our society of animal cruelty and obesity all at one go! Have a bit of grass fed flesh on special occasions and we could still lick these problems.

  • Tom

    A better way would be to end the subsidies for meat that allow meat to be priced artificially low. And/or subsidize vegetables/fruits.

  • Daniel K

    Meat isn’t something I need, so there is no need to replace it with a highly processed often patty or tube shaped usually soy-based faux meat.

    Following a whole-food plant based diet gives me all the nutrients I need (with the possible exception of B12, obtained easily with a supplement). There’s no hole in my way of eating post-meat consumption. With that said, I can see how many people who want to follow a popular Meatless Monday and eating less or even no meat the rest of the week, might not initially know what to prepare for meals. While taking a whole-food cooking class is a wonderful option for anyone, a transition to a more plant-based diet (as advised by many health experts and the advisory team to the USDA Dietary Guidelines) can be initially aided by such transitional items as faux meats.

  • Pete

    Anthro – I’m not sure we want to get into this here, but to give you an idea of where I am coming from see here…

    A little background on me. I’m 33, and was obese my whole life. I lived on processed food and simple carbs. I dieted constantly trying all sorts of methods and most left me hungry and weak. That was until applied my analytical nature to body composition and really dove into the research around 2004 (pre-Taubes). I was amazed at what I learned and the effect it had on my body (you know what I learned right… that dietary fat intake has no correlation to triglycerides and refined carbs are the source of our modern plauges?) I lost 125lbs, but actually more than that amount in bodyfat becuase I gained alot of lean body mass in that time as well. Since then, I have helped many many others change their outlook on food, all of which have had enormous success following a paleo-type diet. In the past 6 years I have yet to meet a single vegetarian that comes close to athletic conditioning obtained by myself and my “clients” (really I don’t charge them, its my pay it forward). That doesn’t mean they don’t exist, I just haven’t met any.

    Now I don’t need clinical evidence, I have loads of empirical evidence in the form of lower LDL, higher HDL, lower Triglycerides, decreased bodyfat, increased energy, increased lean body mass among people ranging from their 20s to their 60s. Mind you I had some of them frying eggs in coconut oil and eating red meat at least 4 times a week, if not daily. Every single one of them has received praise from their independent physicians on their turnaround. Some docs don’t believe them when they tell about the program they are on, but they don’t care, as long as the all the blood work comes back better each time.

    Now I recently eliminated gluten form my diet as well and WOW, just amazing. I can’t even describe it.

    I can see being skeptical of those trying to sell something like a book or a diet plan. But I truly am not and only do it out of a sense of giving back. I feel blessed/lucky to have come across this way of eating (which is odd because its a very old way of eating) and I want to share it as much as I possibly can. I advise everyone to go for regular doctor visits and keep track of their progress. The best results cannot be seen in a mirror.

    And re: youthful vigor. I have more energy now than I did when I was 15… and I have 2-year old!

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  • Anthro

    Yes Pete, I suspected this scenario. I congratulate you on your success, but caution you as you age.

    At this point, as you would know if you were a regular reader, I am an anthropologist and I have to tell you that your “paleo diet” is a gross misinterpretation of paleoanthropology. You have the conviction of the converted and I am happy about your weight loss–of course your numbers improved–YOU LOST WEIGHT. This is not likely to hold up with age. The rest is anecdotes, which does not equal evidence.

    Paleolithic people rarely lived to be 30 and ate mostly roots, nuts and berries. Meat was scavenged early on and until very recently, eaten only periodically and in small amounts. The term hunter-gatherer is reversed; diets were mostly gathered; hunting was a secondary source of food. It was vital to the development of our large brains, but it was not our primary source of food. We didn’t have to worry about the effects of ANY diet then, either.

    Research is only as good as the source. It would be better if your broadened your sources and made sure they were academically qualified. Thanks for responding and I’m sorry to be a thorn in your side. It’s the science thing–I can’t help it.

  • As others have said, it depends on exactly what’s meant by “meat substitutes”, but I don’t think that we need new products to substitute for meat. I’m not a vegetarian any longer, but when my non-vegetarian partner and I started going out, I was; the fake meat products didn’t satisfy either of us. It was better not to try to disguise a dish as having meat when it didn’t, but instead to make something that was simply good on its own merits. This is also far more cost-effective; a bag of dried beans goes a lot further than a veggie “ground round” for the same price.

    On a side note: Personally, I’m very glad that Pete’s recommended diet is not, in fact, a requirement to be healthy. My staple diet is based on rice and other grains, a wide variety of legumes, and lots of fresh vegetables, supplemented with fruits, small amounts of egg and dairy and tofu and tempeh, and very occasional meat or fish. I feel perfectly healthy and fit, and have plenty of energy. I try to ensure that I eat mostly whole grains, but trying to cut back definitely does not make me feel “better”; constantly dizzy and sick is more like it. And that’s fortunate, because I certainly couldn’t afford to shift my eating habits away from grain and legumes to oganic meat. I’m sure that Pete does thrive on a meat-heavy diet balanced with lots of vegetables and fruits and nuts, but I definitely take issue when that kind of diet is promoted without a consideration of the cost.

  • Hylton

    The problem is calling certain foods “meat substitutes” instead of appreciating them for their own sake. No, tofu doesn’t taste like steak, but if people don’t assume it should taste exactly like some sort of meat in the firs place, they can try it and appreciate it for what it is. Perhaps “meat alternatives” is better terminology, and of course an alternative to eating meat is just not eating it.

    Do we need meat alternatives?

    Environmental pressures among many other factors suggest that we do.

    It’s not really worth talking about ideas like invitro meat until there’s something on the market. Could come out next year, could come out fifty years from now, might be identical, might not, could be cheap, could be expensive, too many hypothetical variables to discuss. Better to talk about what’s out there now.

    “Never eat anything artificial.”

    Is near meaningless without more explanation since nearly all our food comes from artificial selection (i.e. domestication and farming) and I don’t think I’m just being pendantic.

    Cooked food isn’t natural. Don’t eat cooked food? Okay, cooked food is fine, are newfangled microwaves okay to use? Is a stove without a flame heating the food artificially?

    Our agriculture is dependant of artificial inputs, even organic. Don’t eat fruit or vegetables because they were grown artificially?

    When it’s Thanksgiving in the US, do you pass on the turkey because they can no longer breed without being artificially inseminated?

    Eggs from 99% of chickens come from clearly artificial circumstances. Even the chicken shipped to the backyard farm is a product of very deliberate artificial selection.

    Commercial seafood is an option between artificial industrial techniques that are devastating to the ecosystem or artificial farmed techniques that have other issues.

    Tofu, tempeh, wheat-meat, falafel, nut-meats, these are old foods with well established histories consumed centuries before Europe even encountered many foods from the new world. Food technologists did not invent these things, they have build upon the techniques and added some industrial layering, but that’s not much different from most foods.

    Portobello mushrooms have a fantastic unami flavor, I don’t know how artificial we should consider them since they are a fairly recent food invention (overgrown crimini with a jazzy marketing name). There’s a brand of meat alternative grown from fungus, is it artificial?

    Ground vegetables and beans shaped into a disc is no more or less artificial than what makes up the majority of hamburger consumed in the US. Actually, the processing of hamburgers from the industrial system is probably far more artificial. The same for industrial sourced cold cuts, chicken, hotdogs, sausage etc.

    That’s wonderful if you only eat all your food from local farms, hunt, or fish in the local waters but don’t pretend that’s the norm or is viable to displace 99% of meat, fish, dairy and eggs produced to meet consumption demands anytime soon.

    Noodles are a processed, artificial food. Bread is a processed, artificial food. Noodles and bread loaves don’t grow on trees or come from animals. Of course it ranges from peasant style bread to sliced white sponge in a plastic bag able to survive long-term on a supermarket shelf.

    The same is true of soybean and gluten-based foods. You can make tofu or seitan at from scratch home starting with the bean and grain inputs, or even grow your own, or you can save yourself the labor and pick up a package at a store. You may see a range of products ranging from straight up tofu or plain seitan to more modified products of varying degree. Like bread, there are far more refined versions, but as a base set of foods, there is no clear and present danger for soybean and gluten foods.

    The idea that these are fractured foods is suspect as well, since meat is a fractured part of the animal. Olive oil is a fractured food. Diary products are fractured and processed in all sorts of degrees. Whole milk on a store shelf isn’t whole. Cheese, yogurt, and butter can only be made by people, cows don’t make it themselves.

    According to National Geographic the Seventh Day Adventists in California are a population in North America that are grouped with the very few other hotspots in the world for their documented health and longevity. How do meat alternatives fair in their diet? They consume commercial meat alternatives even TVP and soy isolates. Who do you think first marketed these products in the United States? In a continent of meat eaters National Geographic circled the Adventists community in Loma Linda for their piece on world centenarian locations; Adventists commonly eat meat alternatives of various sorts and it doesn’t seem to hamper their longevity much if at all.

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  • Pete

    Honestly, I didn’t learn the “paleo” aspect of the diet until recently. I only use that as a point of reference. It’s also the standard 1970s bodybuilder diet (where I learned it from) and I think it even dates back to the 20s in bodybuilding/strongman circles.

    I know most of my other “evidence” is anecdotal, I’ll be the first one to admit I’m not a scientist – however, 100% success rate among 20 or so people across various demographics is pretty compelling – especially when you see it first hand.

    I can lose weight eating less animal protein for sure, I’ve done it, but I was not nearly as strong, conditioned and toned as when I eat lots of flesh. And my lipid profile wasn’t nearly as good.

    I don’t think its fair to dismiss this kind of diet simply because of its supposed origin. If it’s not how we ate in the past, maybe it’s how we eat in the future. Either way I just can’t argue with the results.

  • I think what Pete and others have to realize is that all bodies are different. While some people have sensitivies to grains, others thrive on a grain-based diet. Same with meats.

    I’ve read a book called “Refuse to Regain”, which says (among other things) that people who are formerly overweight or obese, in general, have issues with grain. Their bodies metabolize carbohydrates differently that people who were never overweight.

    For me, I don’t do very well with too much meat. I worry about too many carbs (I used to be 50 lbs overweight). But I’ve found that when I attempt a lower-carb vegan diet, I bloat up like crazy. Too much meat makes me ill, but my weight stabilizes and I feel most energetic when I stick to my normal diet, which includes 6-7 servings of grains a day. And dairy.

    Your ancestry has a lot to do with what your body can digest, remember. Just as some people are into the paleo thing, others are in to the vegan thing (I could name you 20+ vegans who lost weight and got crazy healthy and compete athletically. Again, it’s anecdotal).

    But just like too much meat could mean that when you are 50, your arteries are clogged, I know a few 2-3 decade vegetarians and vegans who hit 40, and all of a sudden got ill from b12 and iron deficiencies (which couldn’t be fixed by supplements or injections).

    Every body is different, that’s what I’m saying. If you don’t feel good, try something else.

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  • Jon

    No meat substitutes. They don’t taste the same, and I always think of hexane (required to isolate soy protein or oil) or the possibility that GMO soy got in there.

  • Veronica

    It’s pretty ironic that you say you don’t eat anything artificial, yet you are willing to eat “real” meat. Meat that, when it was alive, was genetically modified with plenty of hormones and antibiotics, and when slaughtered and processed was covered in ammonia to kill bacteria and disease.


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