This is something that’s been on my mind ever since a commenter pointed out that fake meats are also highly processed, but we seem to give those foods a “pass,” because they’re vegan. I think this is an excellent point and something worth exploring a bit more.
Vegan Doesn’t Always Equal Healthy
It’s tough to tackle the fake meat dilemma without taking a look at the whys of veganism in general. Many of us chose veganism because we care about our health and the environment, but there’s more to it. It’s about a cruelty-free diet that’s free from animal products.
I think the reason that we give fake meat a pass sometimes is that from an animal rights perspective, it is the best choice, processed or not. You can argue that there’s humanely raised meat out there, but as a vegan it’s hard to reconcile that. Sure the cow had a good life…until that slaughtering part.
That said, processed fake meat is not health food. In fact, faux meats have a pretty hefty carbon footprint. Richard Sayer, a reader over on Facebook also made an excellent point about fake meat and GMOs:
Watch out for soy-based meat substitutes. Unless they declare that they are not derived from genetically engineered sources, they most certainly are!
If you’re going to eat soy-based faux meats, organic is the way to go, since organic foods are not allowed to be genetically modified.
The Fake Meat Dilemma
When I posed the fake meat question to Facebook, you guys had a lot to say. The omnivores out there were pretty staunchly against faux meat, and I can totally understand where you guys were coming from. You don’t see an ethical dilemma when it comes to meat, as long as it’s not industrial meat.
A few vegan readers chimed in, as well, and they seemed to share my feelings about fake meat: it’s good as a transitional and as a sometimes food.
Giving up meat is hard, especially if you’re used to eating the standard American diet, and I don’t see a problem with occasionally indulging in a Tofurkey sausage if you’re mostly sticking to healthy, whole foods.
Jeannie also brought up an excellent point when she shared her lentil and rice veggie burger recipe: not all meat substitutes are processed. Her recipe is a great example of that. This burger is not trying to taste like a beef burger. Instead, it’s a patty that accentuates the delicious flavors of healthy rice, lentils, and veggies.
Fake meat is definitely a tricky topic, especially for vegans who are also committed to making eco-friendly food choices. I think that as long as you’re balancing the occasional Field Roast with a diet full of fresh fruits, veggies, nuts, beans, and whole grains, you’re probably doing just fine.
We had such a good discussion on Facebook, and I’d love to continue the conversation here! How do you guys feel about meat substitutes?
35 thoughts on “Eating Vegan: The Fake Meat Dilemma”
I agree that for people who find it hard to transition to a vegetarian or vegan diet that faux meats can help, but from a health perspective they shouldn’t be a long-term part of a healthy diet. The environmental impacts of any processed food is going to be pretty big, and actually some of the mass-produced vegetables and fruit have a pretty big environmental impact. When you start looking at all of these factors, I think the most important thing is not to be perfect – you’ll be fighting a losing battle there – but to be mindful of your choices, and minimize the negative impacts.
That’s a really good point about not worrying about being perfect and just doing our best. I think a lot of folks think a healthy diet is too hard or they get burned out because they don’t give themselves a pass from time to time.
I am not a vegetarian but did embrace faux meat for a long time until just recently. I have been evolving my diet to try to eat as clean as possible and as much as I love Boca products (and other faux meats), they have things in them I can’t pronounce and also find them to be highly processed. I do try to find meatless dishes that my whole family like and Boca used to be a main-stay for a quick and healthy go-to meal, but no more. I would rather try to create a bean-type burger on my own or just have a good ol’ fashioned organic beef or buffalo burger. So there you have it!! My opinion!! :)
I think there is a place for fake meat. I know quite a few youngsters who have tried it and now have more veggie food in their diet than meat.
I have a small B&B and although I don’t serve it to my guests many comment that they enjoy it especially when they want a quick meal or a sandwich. It does no harm to an animal so I’m all for it!
I’ve thought about kids and faux meat a lot lately, as my husband and I talk about starting a family. When it comes to kids, I worry about too much soy. Luckily, there are lots of seitan-based meat subs, if I need them. I’m always glad to hear about kids who enjoy a veggie-rich diet. That’s awesome!
Learn as much about soya as you can, it’s a brilliant little golden bean!
Three of my grand children are veggie and follow a very vegan diet mainly because they aren’t fond of cheese and never want cow’s milk. My other daughter has 2 meat eaters, ‘carnies’ for short and they love veggie sausages and anything veggie, lentil stew, veggie pies usually homemade. If you’re not a cook get started in the kitchen asap and learn what you can before the little ones arrive …soya products are very easy to use & so rewarding, tasty and full of the best nutrients!
I agree that soy products are easy and often really delicious, but I do worry about the long term health implications of too much soy. It’s so easy as a vegan to fall into the soy trap, where you’re eating it at every meal: soymilk in cereal and coffee, soy meats and cheeses at lunch and dinner. Too much of anything is unhealthy, and soy does have its issues. You especially want to be careful about giving too much soy to kids, because it contains compounds that mimic estrogen. That’s not ideal for their growing bodies!
There are some great non-soy dairy alternatives, though! Almond milk, for example.
Nice post ! I agree there should be a good balance between whole foods and veggie meats (calling them “fake” is demeaning, they are just derived from veggies instead of animals). But I have a hunch that the big “processed” debate is just another avenue that the happy-meat folks are using as a way of trying to justify their support of violence against other species, and at the same time trying to discourage other folks from choosing veg. Everything is “processed”, especially all animal products, unless one is trying to gnaw the flesh off of a corpse, through the fur/hide. Which I doubt any of them are doing, so they are all consuming “processed” foods, it all begins with the killing, that is just the beginning of the “processing.” The only truly unprocessed foods are the ones that can be eaten directly off the bush, plant or vine, without any need for altering whatsoever. Which just so happens to be the most non-violent way to eat as well :-)
That’s a really good point. I think meat substitutes are definitely processed to different degress. Say, a Boca burger vs seitan you make in your own kitchen. The latter is probably much better for the planet!
I’m pretty vocal when it comes to my dislike of vegan meat, but I don’t just have a problem with “fake meat” – I have a problem with all fake foods.
To me, anything that includes ingredients that I can’t find in my own pantry (e.g., ethoxylated mono- and diglycerides, soy licithin, high-fructose corn syrup) isn’t real food. Following this rule eliminates more than just fake meat – it eliminates almost all processed foods, from name-brand bread to ketchup.
But homemade vegan dishes such as veggie burgers, tofu “egg” salad, and tempeh chili aren’t the least bit “fake.” Anything made from scratch using whole ingredients epitomizes real food.
I think that’s fair, Rachel! And I’d love to see your vegan egg salad recipe! Mine is delicious, but it uses Veganaise, which is not so much a health food.
omg i love veganaise
While i’ll agree that field roast is pretty processed, i challenge you to find ingredients on there that aren’t in a well-stocked kitchen, save for _maybe_ vital wheat gluten, but i bet you could find that in many a vegan kitchen.
Not all processed foods contain the same thing.
This is awesome news, Adam! Here is where I confess that I have not carefully read the ingredients in Field Roast beyond a quick scan for animal ingredients. I’ve even got vital wheat gluten in my pantry. :)
You’re definitely right. Another rule of thumb is to avoid foods that contain more than four ingredients. Doing so helps you avoid all of the overly processed stuff that has a huge carbon footprint.
You’re absolutely right, Adam. I’m working on a book with Field Roast owner, David Lee, and I can attest that, with the recipes, anybody could make Field Roast products in their own kitchen with products available in your local supermarket and health food store!
the problem with all the fake meats is the idea that many have that they are the green alternative to other frozen crap. they are belching the hot pockets out of the same equipment and similar ingredients as the frozen veggie burgers. people just need to pitch the microwave and realize that food might take more than 5 minutes to create, but that time used might just get tacked on to the end of your life instead of having a heart explosion at 54 because you munched down all the quick, processed garbage. the other thing though, is that many people equate old with good. since people have been making tofu for a very long time, it is not a processed food, but actually it is according to Rachel’s guidelines. i don’t think most people have GDL, in a useable form, or magnesium chloride in their pantry. i love tofu, don’t get me wrong, and it is nowhere close to all the other processed junk, but according to those guidelines….
Good point. I certainly couldn’t make tofu or tempeh from the ingredients in my pantry! I consider them whole foods because, like you said, they’re foods that people have been making for thousands of years.
But it’s interesting to think of tofu and tempeh as the orginal “processed foods.” A lot of scientists are on the fence about these soy products (good for prostate cancer yet high in estrogen-like chemicals that can increase the risk of breast cancer? etc.), so I think it’s important to eat in the same manner that you should eat meat: in moderation.
Also to keep in mind: many meat substitute products based on unfermented soy (tofu, soy tvp), which proves to have a host of negative health impacts.
Yes, definitely. One of the things that’s gotten me thinking more about faux meats is wanting to limit soy in my diet. Hail seitan! :)
I try to limit my soy intake to one or two servings a day (yes, most of it in the form of fake meat and dairy comfort foods) because there is at least one “the jury’s still out” health concern based on limited but not-easily-dismissed research: an increased risk for dementia. That said, almost all of the other claims about “the dangers of soy” are nonscience/nonsense-based. They don’t stand up to scrutiny and emanate primarily from an ideological meat-promoting organization: the Weston Price Foundation. John Robbins has effectively critiqued some of their – truly – propaganda. The most egregious example I know of is a book called The Whole Soy Story. A condensed version of it published in Mothering magazine was roundly debunked in the letters section: http://www.mothering.com/letters-whole-soy-story. I also pointed out some examples of the book’s deceptiveness in a review: http://eatkind.net/wholesoystory.htm
It’s important to distinguish between people who have an allergy or intolerance to soy, as can occur with almost any food, and any generally adverse effects.
Woah, I’d never seen increased risk of dementia as a soy health risk! Do you have link?
Thanks for mentioning allergies, too! I think wheat gluten and seitan get a bad rap in a similar way, because folks can be sensitive or allergic.
I would just like to offer up a whole lot of research that I have done on soy in the diet– I have a whole page of compiled information on my website– from reliable sources, not just repeated internet rumours: http://www.bryannaclarkgrogan.com/page/page/3476771.htm
including a section on the claim that soy causes dementia:
As you will see, the anti-soy stuff originates with virulently anti-vegetarian factions, such as the Weston A. Price Foundation mentioned above by Syd.
A good resource, Bryanna, that I don’t recall seeing before. All you need to do is add my debunking of The Whole Soy Story (http://eatkind.net/wholesoystory.htm), and it’ll be perfect ;-)
I read your section on the dementia question and noticed where you fell victim to a common problem of confusing the different ways of measuring soy: dry, cooked, by protein content.
You write that:
“William Shurtleff (world-recognized expert and researcher on TRADITIONAL Asian soyfoods) writes in “History of Soybeans and Soyfoods in China (1949 to 1980s)”: “Prior to 1949 and up until about the mid-1960s, most Chinese, especially peasants, ate meat only three times a year, on their great festivals: New Year’s, Autumn Festival, and Dragon Festival…Chinese derived 2.60 kg of protein per person per year from these animal products. By comparison, the average Chinese consumed 8.3 kg of soybeans containing 38% protein. Assuming that 95% were consumed directly with 90% protein recovery, these soyfoods provided the average Chinese with about 2.69 kg of protein per year, slightly more than was derived from animal products.”
Shurtleff has to be using dry soybeans for his data, because cooked soybeans are 16.8% protein, according to the USDA database. What this means is that average yearly consumption of cooked soy foods wasn’t 8.3 kg, which is really very modest, amounting to less than an ounce a day, but closer to two ounces or about 44 grams of cooked soy when you crunch the numbers. This is on the modest end of the consumption range of Western soy lovers today – equal to about a cup of soymilk, a small soy hot dog or half of the kind of big soy burger that’s heavy on the soy protein concentrate/isolate.
So you’ve unwittingly underestimated traditional soy consumption in Asia. This is what our friends at the Weston Price Foundation, too, although I’m not so sure of the “unwittingly” part. We get a classic example of this later in your discussion where you quote the Weston Price/Kaayla Daniel claim that “The average soy consumption in China is about 10 grams or 2 teaspoons per day.” this is another not-so-benign case of mixing up dry weight and cooked weight. There’s a letter to the editor in Mothering Magazine where much of this is hashed out. Daniel admits her mistake and acts apologetic, but then she and her WPF colleagues proceed to forget all about it and continue to use the misleading figure, including in subsequent reprints of Daniel’s polemical book about soy. Here, I’ve hunted down the exchange at http://mothering.com/letters-whole-soy-story:
I have a few comments about last month’s article by Kaayla Daniel on soy. In regard to a set of data that I collected, to which she refers, she has grossly misread and misused these numbers in a way that indicates either a “hidden” agenda to distort facts or an ignorance of food processing and ingredient labeling. For example, she takes numbers from an old report of ours for kilos of soybeans consumed per person per year in China, Indonesia, Korea, Japan, and Taiwan and equates these into grams of soybeans per day. That she does correctly. But 36 grams of soybeans, at 40 percent protein, is equivalent to 14.4 grams of soy protein per day, or about two glasses of soy milk. And this is the high end of the spectrum she refers to. Dr. Daniel makes a big mistake by thinking of soybeans, soy protein, and finished food products like tofu and soy milk as being one and the same. Soy milk contains 90 percent water and about 10 percent solids and is only 3 percent soy protein, or about 7 grams of soy protein per serving, not 240 grams of soy as she states.
Likewise, tofu is 85 percent water and 15 percent solids and contains about 9 grams of soy protein per serving, not 252 grams of soy as she states. These soybean equivalents, not the ones Dr. Daniel claims, are indeed equivalent to what many people in Asia consume daily: one or two servings of soybean-based foods that deliver 5 to 15 grams of soy protein per day. Over the years, writers like Dr. Daniel, and indeed even noted researchers, have confused consumers by equating grams of soybeans to grams of soy protein, grams of soy isoflavones, and, in extreme cases like Dr. Daniel’s, finished products such as soy milk, which contains 90 percent water, on a one-to-one basis.
Dr. Daniel responds: I share Mr. Golbitz’s concern about the many researchers who confuse terms like soy foods (used by many people as their main source of protein), soy protein (a fractionated, highly processed product in which the soybean’s fat, carbohydrate, and water have been removed), and isoflavones (the estrogenic component found in soy’s protein fraction). I failed to understand that Golbitz meant “raw dry soybeans” when he gave figures for “soybean” consumption in China, Indonesia, Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. I am well aware that foods like miso, tofu, soy milk, burgers made with soy protein isolate, etc. all contain different levels of soy protein, fat, carbohydrate, and water, as well as other ingredients and various additives and residues from processing. Because Golbitz’s data refer to the weight of raw soybeans, he is quite correct in suggesting that the people in Japan and Taiwan consume higher amounts of soy foods than I calculated. My figures are more accurate for countries such as China, where people consume considerably less soy. Overall, Golbitz’s figures represent the high end of estimates of soy consumption in Asia, with other researchers reporting smaller amounts.
— end of excerpt —
It’s a revelation to look at the debunkings of Weston Price Foundation propaganda against soy, but not enough of the people who fall victim to their polemical skills ever do. Even legitimate media often roll out the red carpet for these guys, because they have a good “story” to tell. Fact-checking? That would only get in the way.
I don’t know of any good, up-to-date discussions. I wrote a now out of date feature in 2000 (http://www.aquarianonline.com/Wellness/soy.html). There’s a good discussion here (http://www.veganhealth.org/articles/soymessina#cog), but it predates a second epidemiologic study which is reported here: http://www.foodnavigator.com/Science-Nutrition/Soy-products-may-raise-dementia-risk-study That study also found fruit increased dementia risk(!) while tempeh had the opposite effect (go figure), fodder for those who believe fermented soy is exclusively healthful.
Omni spouse! that’s where our ‘fake meat’ purchases come into play. Not everyone eats like me– though vegan-cooking-friendly, he’s not gonna take the time to cook something with real ingredients, and I can’t always cook ahead for fast leftovers… so, either he’s gonna stop & get fast food crap for lunch, or go to the store & get stuff like CAFO’d up edible foodlike substances (that I will NOT buy!), such as ‘ham & cheese hot pockets’ (shudder!)… BUT: if I stock Tofurkey feaux ham, Daiya cheddar, & spicy mustard, he can make a sandwich that is at least not AS bad as what he’d do otherwise– not ideal, but still worthwhile! Soy/ tempeh/ seitan based ‘feaux meat’ makes it easier for vegans with omni spouses (‘spice’? haha) to shop without buying CAFO junk… sometimes a partial win is still a win! I think that’s valuable. :-)
The omni spouse thing is definitely tricky. I’m in a similar situation, though luckily my husband is fine eating vegan most of the time. The general rule around here is that if he wants meat, he has to make it himself. He normally gets it at Whole Foods, so it’s not factory farmed at least. I wrote a more detailed post about our situation over on my personal site…maybe I’ll cross post it here! In the meantime, here’s a link, if you’re interested:
I love the some of the soy vegan Italian Sausages, but as good as they taste, I quit eating them to a large degree because they are loaded with salt! Currently we save the vegan Italian Sausage for topping a vegan pizzas.
Yeah, I wish there were low salt versions! I’ve seen a few good recipes for making vegan sausage at home. It might be fun to come up with a low salt recipe. Though, I guess sausage is supposed to be a sometimes food, for omnivores too.
I make seitan myself; We eat it to add variety to our meals. Something I don’t hear mentioned very often is that vegan cooking is developing as a cuisine, and no art thrives in a vacuum. Dishes inspired by meat-based ones seem important to me in incorporating the art into the mainstream. It already draws heavily from Asian cooking, and the inclusion of native dishes may be less alienating to some. Maybe it will develop its own styles in time. I’m impressed by how much recipes have developed since my start in the 80s, and I think that’s one force that’s really helping the vegan cause.
Often, I think that the stringency of some vegans online is pushing ordinary people away from the diet.
That’s a really interesting point, Peter! I agree – many folks are more comfortable easing into things, and the vegan community isn’t always open to that overall.
@liz: I don’t think so!
Off-topic, but just curious, hos is it so easy for so many to ignore killing and eating plants, but not animals? A lifeform is a lifeform. Most of the beef-cattle I’ve seen don’t have nearly the worries of a free-range cow: they always have regular meals, dont have to fear natural predators, have medical treatment, and when death comes, it is quick and as painless as it can be made, not at the hands of predators that terrify and eat the animal while it’s alive.
It’s not that far off-topic. For me, I guess, it’s about compassion. Some farm animals may live a decent life while they’re alive, but I feel like the killing them at the end part really negates anything you could do for it while it was alive. Sure, wild animals have predators, but farm animals face the same fate and are often just as afraid at the end of their lives. You also paint a very idyllic picture of farms, but the vast majority of our meat comes from factory farms (CAFOs), where the animals live in cramped, unsanitary conditions until we kill them.
There are also the environmental and social issues with raising animals for food. It’s incredibly inefficient from land- and water-use standpoints, and thanks to our population’s taste for meat, we’re cultivating more and land for animals while some people starve. We could be growing enough food for everyone if we took back that land and grew fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans etc.
I hope this answers your question!
It is all about pain… it is all about a nervous system. Plants as far as we know up to now do not have a brain to process sensations, in particular pain. About the beef-cattle lullaby, it is seems you never watched any documentary about slaugher houses.