Vegan Meat Substitutes: The Ultimate Guide
Eating less meat is not only better for your health but also for the environment (1).
However, the abundance of meat substitutes makes it hard to know which to pick.
Here's the ultimate guide to choosing a vegan meat replacement for any situation.
How to Choose
First, consider what function the vegan substitute serves in your meal. Are you looking for protein, flavor or texture?
- If you're using the vegan meat substitute as the main source of protein in your meal, then examine labels to find an option that contains protein.
- If you follow a vegan or vegetarian diet, look for nutrients that are typically low in these diets, like iron, vitamin B12 and calcium (2, 3, 4).
- If you follow a special diet that forbids such things as gluten or soy, look for products that do not contain these ingredients.
Reading the nutritional information and ingredients list on products is crucial to finding a product that meets your nutritional needs and diet.
Tofu has been a standby in vegetarian diets for decades and a staple in Asian cuisines for centuries. While lacking flavor on its own, it takes on flavors of the other ingredients in a dish.
It's made similarly to the way cheese is made from cow's milk—soy milk is coagulated, whereupon the curds that form are pressed into blocks.
Tofu can be made using agents, such as calcium sulfate or magnesium chloride, which affect its nutritional profile. Additionally, some brands of tofu are fortified with nutrients like calcium, vitamin B12 and iron (5, 6, 7).
For example, 4 ounces (113 grams) of Nasoya Lite Firm Tofu contain (7):
- Calories: 60
- Carbs: 1.3 grams
- Protein: 11 grams
- Fat: 2 grams
- Fiber: 1.4 grams
- Calcium: 200 mg — 15% of the Reference Daily Intake (RDI)
- Iron: 2 mg — 25% of the RDI for men and 11% for women
- Vitamin B12: 2.4 mcg — 100% of the RDI
If you're concerned about GMOs, choose an organic product, since most soy produced in the US is genetically engineered (8).
Tofu can be cubed for use in a stir-fry or crumbled as a replacement for eggs or cheese. Try it out in scrambled tofu or vegan lasagna.
Tofu is a versatile soy-based meat substitute that is high in protein and may contain added nutrients such as calcium and vitamin B12 that are important for a vegan diet. Products differ in nutrient content, so reading labels is important.
Tempeh is a traditional soy product made from fermented soy. The soybeans are cultured and formed into cakes.
Unlike tofu, which is made from soy milk, tempeh is made using the whole soybean, so it has a different nutritional profile.
A half cup (83 grams) of tempeh contains (10):
- Calories: 160
- Carbs: 6.3 grams
- Protein: 17 grams
- Fat: 9 grams
- Calcium: 92 mg — 7% of the RDI
- Iron: 2 mg — 25% of the RDI for men and 11% for women
Tempeh is often supplemented with grains such as barley, so if you're following a gluten-free diet, be sure to read labels carefully.
Tempeh has a stronger flavor and firmer texture than tofu. It pairs well with peanut-based sauces and can be easily added to stir-fries or Thai salad.
Tempeh is a vegan meat substitute made from fermented soy. It's high in protein and works well in stir-fries and other Asian dishes.
Texturized Vegetable Protein (TVP)
TVP is a highly processed vegan meat substitute developed in the 1960s by food conglomerate Archer Daniels Midland.
It's made by taking soy flour—a byproduct of soy oil production—and removing the fat using solvents. The end result is a high-protein, low-fat product.
The soy flour is extruded into various shapes such as nuggets and chunks.
TVP can be purchased in dehydrated form. However, it's more often found in processed, frozen, vegetarian products.
Nutritionally, a half cup (27 grams) of TVP contains (11):
- Calories: 93
- Carbs: 8.7 grams
- Protein: 14 grams
- Fat: 0.3 grams
- Fiber: 0.9 grams
- Iron: 1.2 mg — 25% of the RDI for men and 11% for women
TVP is flavorless on its own but can add a meaty texture to dishes such as vegan chili.
TVP is a highly processed vegan meat substitute made from the byproducts of soy oil. It's high in protein and can give a meaty texture to vegan recipes.
Seitan, or wheat gluten, is derived from gluten, the protein in wheat.
It's made by adding water to wheat flour and removing the starch.
Seitan is dense and chewy, with little flavor on its own. It's often flavored with soy sauce or other marinades.
It can be found in the refrigerated section of the supermarket in forms such as strips and chunks.
Seitan is high in protein, low in carbs and a good source of iron (12).
Three ounces (91 grams) of seitan contain (12):
- Calories: 108
- Carbs: 4.8 grams
- Protein: 20 grams
- Fat: 1.2 grams
- Fiber: 1.2 grams
- Iron: 8 mg — 100% of the RDI for men and 44% for women
Since the main ingredient in seitan is wheat gluten, it's unsuitable for anyone following a gluten-free diet.
Seitan can be used in place of beef or chicken in nearly any recipe. For instance, try it out in a vegan Mongolian beef stir-fry.
Seitan, a vegan meat replacement made from wheat gluten, provides ample protein and iron. It can be used as a substitute for chicken or beef in nearly any recipe but is unsuitable for people following a gluten-free diet.
Mushrooms make a great substitute for meat if you're looking for an unprocessed, whole-food option.
They naturally have a meaty flavor, rich in umami—a type of savory taste.
Portobello mushroom caps can be grilled or broiled in place of a burger or sliced and used in stir-fries or tacos.
One cup (121 grams) of grilled portabella mushrooms contains (13):
- Calories: 42
- Carbs: 6 grams
- Protein: 5.2 grams
- Fat: 0.9 grams
- Fiber: 2.7 grams
- Iron: 0.7 mg — 9% of the RDI for men and 4% for women
Add mushrooms to pastas, stir-fries and salads or go for a vegan portobello burger.
Mushrooms can be used as a meat substitute and provide a hearty flavor and texture. They're a great option if you're looking to reduce your intake of processed foods. However, they're fairly low in protein.
Though jackfruit has been used in Southeast Asian cuisines for centuries, it has only recently become popular in the US as a meat substitute.
It's a large, tropical fruit with flesh that has a subtle, fruity flavor said to be similar to pineapple.
Jackfruit has a chewy texture and is often used as a substitute for pulled pork in BBQ recipes.
It can be purchased raw or canned. Some canned jackfruit is sealed in syrup, so read labels carefully for added sugars.
As jackfruit is high in carbs and low in protein, it may not be the best choice if you're looking for a plant-based protein source. However, when served with other high-protein foods, it makes a convincing substitute for meat (14).
One cup (154 grams) of raw jackfruit contains (14):
- Calories: 155
- Carbs: 40 grams
- Protein: 2.4 grams
- Fat: 0.5 grams
- Fiber: 2.6 grams
- Calcium: 56 mg — 4% of the RDI
- Iron: 1.0 mg — 13% of the RDI for men and 6% for women
If you're interested in trying jackfruit, make yourself a BBQ pulled jackfruit sandwich.
Jackfruit is a tropical fruit that can be used as a substitute for pork in barbecue recipes. It's high in carbs and low in protein, making it a poor nutritional substitute for meat.
Beans and Legumes
Beans and legumes are affordable sources of plant-based protein that serve as hearty and filling meat substitutes.
What's more, they're a whole, unprocessed food.
There are many types of beans: chickpeas, black beans, lentils and more.
Each bean has a slightly different flavor, so they work well in a variety of cuisines. For example, black beans and pinto beans complement Mexican recipes, whereas chickpeas and cannellini beans work well with Mediterranean flavors.
For example, one cup (198 grams) of cooked lentils contains (15):
- Calories: 230
- Carbs: 40 grams
- Protein: 18 grams
- Fat: 0.8 grams
- Fiber: 15.6 grams
- Calcium: 37.6 mg — 3% of the RDI
- Iron: 6.6 mg — 83% of the RDI for men and 37% for women
Beans can be used in soups, stews, burgers and many other recipes. Go for a vegan sloppy joe made from lentils the next time you want a high-protein meal.
Beans are a high-protein, high-fiber and high-iron whole food and vegan meat substitute. They can be used in soups, stews and burgers.
Popular Brands of Meat Substitutes
There are hundreds of meat substitutes on the market, making meat-free, high-protein meals exceedingly convenient.
However, not everything that's meatless is necessarily vegan, so if you're on a strict vegan diet, rather than just looking for variety, it's important to read labels carefully.
Here is a selection of companies that make popular meat substitutes, though not all focus strictly on vegan products.
Beyond Meat is one of the newer companies for meat substitutes. Their Beyond Burger is said to look, cook and taste just like meat.
Their products are vegan and free of GMOs, gluten and soy.
The Beyond Burger is made from pea protein, canola oil, coconut oil, potato starch and other ingredients. One patty contains 270 calories, 20 grams of protein, 3 grams of fiber and 30% of the RDI for iron (16).
Beyond Meat also makes sausages, chicken substitutes and meat crumbles.
Gardein makes a variety of widely available, ready-to-use meat substitutes.
Their products include substitutes for chicken, beef, pork and fish, and range from burgers to strips to meatballs. Many of their items include sauces such as teriyaki or mandarin orange flavoring.
The Ultimate Beefless Burger is made from soy protein concentrate, wheat gluten and many other ingredients. Each patty provides 140 calories, 15 grams of protein, 3 grams of fiber and 15% of the RDI for iron (17).
Gardein's products are certified vegan and dairy free; however, it's unknown whether they use GMO ingredients.
While their main line of products includes gluten, Gardein does make a gluten-free line as well.
Tofurky, famous for their Thanksgiving roast, produces meat substitutes, including sausages, deli slices and ground meat.
Their products are made from tofu and wheat gluten, so they are unsuitable for gluten- or soy-free diets.
Just one of their Original Italian Sausages contains 280 calories, 30 grams of protein, 14 grams of fat and 20% of the RDI for iron (18).
Therefore, while they're a high-protein option, they're also high in calories.
Their products are non-GMO verified and vegan.
Yves Veggie Cuisine
Yves Veggie Cuisine vegan products include burgers, deli slices, hot dogs and sausages, as well as ground "beef" and "sausage."
Their Veggie Ground Round is made from "soy protein product," "wheat protein product" and many other ingredients, including added vitamins and minerals.
One-third cup (55 grams) contains 60 calories, 9 grams of protein, 3 grams of fiber and 20% of the RDI for iron (19).
Some of their products appear to be non-GMO verified, whereas others don't have that certification.
Their products are made with both soy and wheat, making them improper for those on soy- or gluten-free diets.
Lightlife, a long-established meat substitute company, makes burgers, deli slices, hot dogs and sausages, as well as ground "beef" and "sausage." They also produce frozen meals and meatless jerky.
Their Gimme Lean Veggie Ground is made from textured soy protein concentrate. It also contains wheat gluten, although it appears farther down the ingredient list.
Two ounces (56 grams) have 60 calories, 8 grams of protein, 3 grams of fiber and 6% of the RDI for iron (20).
Their products are non-GMO verified and certified vegan.
As their foods are made with both soy and wheat, they should be avoided by those who don't consume these ingredients.
Owned by Kraft, Boca products are widely available meat substitutes, though not all are vegan. The line includes burgers, sausages, "meat" crumbles and more.
They're highly processed, made from soy protein concentrate, wheat gluten, hydrolyzed corn protein and corn oil, amidst a long list of other ingredients.
Many of their products contain cheese, which is not vegan. Furthermore, the cheese contains enzymes which are not vegetarian-sourced.
Read labels carefully, to ensure you're buying a truly vegan Boca product if you're following a vegan lifestyle.
One Boca Chik'n Vegan Patty (71 grams) has 150 calories, 12 grams of protein, 3 grams of fiber and 10% of the RDI for iron (21).
Boca Burgers contain soy and corn, which are likely from genetically engineered sources, though they have some clearly marked non-GMO products.
MorningStar Farms, owned by Kellogg, claims to be "America's #1 veggie burger brand," likely due more to its wide availability rather than its taste or nutritional content (22).
They make several flavors of veggie burgers, chicken substitutes, veggie hot dogs, veggie bowls, meal starters and breakfast "meats."
While the majority of their products are not vegan, they do offer vegan burgers.
For example, their Meat Lovers vegan burgers are made from various vegetable oils, wheat gluten, soy protein isolate, soy flour and other ingredients (23).
One burger (113 grams) has 280 calories, 27 grams of protein, 4 grams of fiber and 10% of the RDI for iron (23).
Not all their products are certified to be free from GMO ingredients, though the Meat Lovers vegan burger is made from non-GMO soy.
Morningstar products have both soy- and wheat-based ingredients, so should not be eaten by soy- or gluten-free individuals.
Quorn makes vegetarian meat substitutes out of mycoprotein, a fermented fungus found in soil.
While mycoprotein appears to be safe for consumption, there have been several reports of allergic and gastrointestinal symptoms after eating Quorn products (24).
Quorn products include grounds, tenders, patties and cutlets. While most of their products are made with egg whites, they do provide vegan options.
Their Vegan Naked Chick'n Cutlets are made from mycoprotein, potato protein and pea fiber and have added flavorings, carrageenan and wheat gluten.
One cutlet (63 grams) has 70 calories, 10 grams of protein and 3 grams of fiber (25).
Some Quorn products are certified non-GMO, but others are not.
While Quorn is made from a unique protein source, many of the products also contain egg whites and wheat gluten, so be sure to read the labels carefully if you are on a special diet.
There are many popular brands of meat substitutes on the market. However, many contain wheat, soy and GMO ingredients, and not all are vegan, so read labels carefully to find an appropriate product for your diet.
What to Avoid
People with food allergies or intolerances may need to read labels carefully in order to avoid ingredients such as gluten, dairy, soy, eggs and corn.
Furthermore, don't assume a product is vegan just because it's meatless. Many meatless products include eggs, dairy and natural flavors sourced from animal products and enzymes, which may include animal rennet (26).
While many organic and non-GMO certified products exist, those most widely available, such as MorningStar Farms and Boca Burgers, are likely made with genetically engineered corn and soy.
Additionally, like most processed foods, many vegan meat substitutes are high in sodium, so be sure to read labels if you watch your sodium intake.
A healthy diet is based around minimally processed foods, so be cautious of long lists of ingredients filled with words you don't recognize.
Choose vegan meat substitutes that are minimally processed, with recognizable ingredients. Avoid highly processed items that are not verified to be free from animal products.
The Bottom Line
These days, hundreds of vegan meat substitutes are available, both from natural and processed sources.
The nutritional profile of these products varies greatly, so choose them based on your own dietary and nutritional needs.
With so many options to choose from, finding vegan meat substitutes that fit your needs should be straightforward.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Healthline.
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Hanako, a female Asian elephant, lived in a tiny concrete enclosure at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo for more than 60 years, often in chains, with no stimulation. In the wild, elephants live in herds, with close family ties. Hanako was solitary for the last decade of her life.
Hanako, an Asian elephant kept at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo; and Kiska, an orca that lives at Marineland Canada. One image depicts Kiska's damaged teeth. Elephants in Japan (left image), Ontario Captive Animal Watch (right image), CC BY-ND
Affecting Health and Altering Behavior<p>It is easy to observe the overall health and psychological consequences of life in captivity for these animals. Many captive elephants suffer from arthritis, obesity or skin problems. Both <a href="https://doi.org/10.11609/JoTT.o2620.1826-36" target="_blank">elephants</a> and orcas often have severe dental problems. Captive orcas are plagued by <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank">pneumonia, kidney disease, gastrointestinal illnesses and infections</a>.</p><p>Many animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.09.010" target="_blank">try to cope</a> with captivity by adopting abnormal behaviors. Some develop "<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2017.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stereotypies</a>," which are repetitive, purposeless habits such as constantly bobbing their heads, swaying incessantly or chewing on the bars of their cages. Others, especially big cats, pace their enclosures. Elephants rub or break their tusks.</p>
Changing Brain Structure<p>Neuroscientific research indicates that living in an impoverished, stressful captive environment <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">physically damages the brain</a>. These changes have been documented in many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.903270108" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">species</a>, including rodents, rabbits, cats and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">humans</a>.</p><p>Although researchers have directly studied some animal brains, most of what we know comes from observing animal behavior, analyzing stress hormone levels in the blood and applying knowledge gained from a half-century of neuroscience research. Laboratory research also suggests that mammals in a zoo or aquarium have compromised brain function.</p>
This illustration shows differences in the brain's cerebral cortex in animals held in impoverished (captive) and enriched (natural) environments. Impoverishment results in thinning of the cortex, a decreased blood supply, less support for neurons and decreased connectivity among neurons. Arnold B. Scheibel, CC BY-ND<p>Subsisting in confined, barren quarters that lack intellectual stimulation or appropriate social contact seems to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1590/S0001-37652001000200006" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">thin the cerebral cortex</a> – the part of the brain involved in voluntary movement and higher cognitive function, including memory, planning and decision-making.</p><p>There are other consequences. Capillaries shrink, depriving the brain of the oxygen-rich blood it needs to survive. Neurons become smaller, and their dendrites – the branches that form connections with other neurons – become less complex, impairing communication within the brain. As a result, the cortical neurons in captive animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.901230110" target="_blank">process information less efficiently</a> than those living in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/dev.420020208" target="_blank">enriched, more natural environments</a>.</p>
An actual cortical neuron in a wild African elephant living in its natural habitat compared with a hypothesized cortical neuron from a captive elephant. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Brain health is also affected by living in small quarters that <a href="https://doi.org/10.3233/BPL-160040" target="_blank">don't allow for needed exercise</a>. Physical activity increases the flow of blood to the brain, which requires large amounts of oxygen. Exercise increases the production of new connections and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw2622" target="_blank">enhances cognitive abilities</a>.</p><p>In their native habits these animals must move to survive, covering great distances to forage or find a mate. Elephants typically travel anywhere from <a href="https://www.elephantsforafrica.org/elephant-facts/#:%7E:text=How%20far%20do%20elephants%20walk,km%20on%20a%20daily%20basis." target="_blank">15 to 120 miles per day</a>. In a zoo, they average <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0150331" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">three miles daily</a>, often walking back and forth in small enclosures. One free orca studied in Canada swam <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-010-0958-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">up to 156 miles a day</a>; meanwhile, an average orca tank is about 10,000 times smaller than its <a href="https://www.cascadiaresearch.org/projects/killer-whales/using-dtags-study-acoustics-and-behavior-southern" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">natural home range</a>.</p>
Disrupting Brain Chemistry and Killing Cells<p>Living in enclosures that restrict or prevent normal behavior creates chronic frustration and boredom. In the wild, an animal's stress-response system helps it escape from danger. But captivity traps animals with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1215502109" target="_blank">almost no control</a> over their environment.</p><p>These situations foster <a href="https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000033" target="_blank">learned helplessness</a>, negatively impacting the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/6391686" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hippocampus</a>, which handles memory functions, and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.02.024" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">amygdala</a>, which processes emotions. Prolonged stress <a href="https://doi.org/10.3109/10253899609001092" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevates stress hormones</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.10-09-02897.1990" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">damages or even kills neurons</a> in both brain regions. It also disrupts the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2005.03.021" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">delicate balance of serotonin</a>, a neurotransmitter that stabilizes mood, among other functions.</p><p>In humans, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">deprivation</a> can trigger <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">psychiatric issues</a>, including depression, anxiety, <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mood disorders</a> or <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1073858409333072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">post-traumatic stress disorder</a>. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00429-010-0288-3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Elephants</a>, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0050139" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">orcas</a> and other animals with large brains are likely to react in similar ways to life in a severely stressful environment.</p>
Damaged Wiring<p>Captivity can damage the brain's complex circuitry, including the basal ganglia. This group of neurons communicates with the cerebral cortex along two networks: a direct pathway that enhances movement and behavior, and an indirect pathway that inhibits them.</p><p>The repetitive, <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2014.05.057" target="_blank">stereotypic behaviors</a> that many animals adopt in captivity are caused by an imbalance of two neurotransmitters, dopamine and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2010.02.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">serotonin</a>. This impairs the indirect pathway's ability to modulate movement, a condition documented in species from chickens, cows, sheep and horses to primates and big cats.</p>
The cerebral cortex, hippocampus and amygdala are physically altered by captivity, along with brain circuitry that involves the basal ganglia. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Evolution has constructed animal brains to be exquisitely responsive to their environment. Those reactions can affect neural function by <a href="https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/311787/behave-by-robert-m-sapolsky/" target="_blank">turning different genes on or off</a>. Living in inappropriate or abusive circumstance alters biochemical processes: It disrupts the synthesis of proteins that build connections between brain cells and the neurotransmitters that facilitate communication among them.</p><p>There is strong evidence that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0577-11.2011" target="_blank">enrichment</a>, social contact and appropriate space in more natural habitats are <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1090.2003.tb02071.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">necessary</a> for long-lived animals with large brains such as <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152490" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elephants</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/13880292.2017.1309858" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cetaceans</a>. Better conditions <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5543669/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reduce disturbing sterotypical behaviors</a>, improve connections in the brain, and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/cdd.2009.193" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">trigger neurochemical changes</a> that enhance learning and memory.</p>