Want to get some/all of your protein from plants? We'll tell you what's tasty

Morning Star Sausage LinksAt the  Institute of Food Technologists' 2013 convention and food expo, I drank a smoothie laced with powdered chicken. Ancient grains high in protein--for example, amaranth, millet, quinoa, sorghum, and teff --were used in recipes I  sampled, as were peanut flours with 40-50% protein.  At one of the scientific sessions, this question  was discussed: "Will protein be the next big thing?"


 The answer turned out to be "yes."  In the past few years, food manufacturers have been putting more and more protein (from both animal and plant sources) into processed foods and creating ever-increasing numbers of plant-based alternative products. Let's find out who's buying all this protein and why, what these high-protein plant products are made from, and which ones are delicious.  But first, a bit of advice:


DON'T refer to the plant-based burgers, sausages, nuggets, and fish filets you (or your friends) may be eating as "fake" (or "faux") meat. In fact, some fans of these foods will  also object to your calling these products "meat substitutes;" or even "meat alternatives." Don't compare their taste and texture to look-alike traditional items. Your Boca burger shouldn't have to trick you into thinking it's a beef burger. All it needs to do is please your palate with its own unique qualities.


DON'T make highly processed plant-protein products the mainstay of your diet, says the University of California, Berkeley Wellness Letter.  "You're better off getting most of your protein from whole foods, including legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains."  The Wellness Letter also recommends using foods that are high in protein in your own recipes rather than limiting yourself to manufactured frozen dinners.  Registered dietitian Ellie Krieger, in a Chicago Tribune article, recommends eating edamame (shelled soybeans), chick peas, quinoa, sunflower seeds, peanut butter, lentil soup, and hummus as good plant sources of protein. She also recommends the animal protein of eggs, which most vegetarians will eat but vegans won't.


DON'T FORGET to read the ingredients and nutrition labels on packages of plant alternatives.  Meat substitutes often contain common food allergens (such as wheat, nuts, soy, and dairy) that some people need to avoid. These products also vary quite a bit in the amount of protein, fat, calories, sodium, and nutrients they contain. You want to know if the calorie or fat content is high or the nutrient levels are low.




Of course, vegetarians and vegans buy these products, but they're not the only ones. Food scientist Dr. Cathy Cutter points out that the niche market for plant protein includes many  additional customers, for example, those who just want to cut down on the amount of red meat they consume, observers of "Meatless Mondays," health gurus who want to eat only plant products 2-3 times a week, athletes who believe more protein will help them perform better, and people who live with and/or prepare food for vegetarians or vegans. 


Then, there's the category of folks who eat chicken and fish but won't touch red meat or its byproducts.  Next are people who, for religious reasons, don't  eat meat and dairy at the same meal. If they replace the beef burger with a veggie burger, adding cheese is just fine. (Alternatively, "fake" cheeses can be used on the beef burger.)  Athletes who are convinced that more protein will help them perform better may seek out extra protein in beverages such as Boost or in protein-enhanced foods.




The Berkeley Wellness Letter explains how the following four "meatless meats" are created:


Tofu (soybean curd) is made by curdling soy milk, straining it, and pressing it into blocks.

Tempeh is made by fermenting whole soybeans into a cake form. 

Textured soy vegetable protein (called TSP or TVP) is made from defatted soy flour mixed with water.

Seitan (wheat gluten) is a non-soy meat alternative made by removing starch from wheat flour.


Meat alternatives are also made from beans, lentils, rolled oats, brown rice, nuts, sunflower seeds, and vegetables. 




Fortunately for this article, my daughter Marcia has 700+ Facebook friends. She posted this question: "What plant foods and products high in protein do you like?" Here are some of their responses and  recommendations:


Burgers, meatballs, and crumbles:


 Garden burgers

 Nate's Vegetarian Meatballs

"Beyond Meat and Garden products are winners!"

 "Beyond Meat Field Grain and Garden are my favorite faux meats."

"Boca Crumbles work great for tacos."




Morningstar Vegetarian Sausage Patties

Morningstar Farm sausage links

Trader Joe's sausage-less Italian sausages

"Trader Joe's soy chorizo." 

"Tofurky products, especially their Italian sausage with pasta sauce"

Morningstar corn dogs




Quinoa products (recommended for vegetarians who can't tolerate soy; good for protein)

Soy puffs ("They're fun and good to throw into soup.!" )

"Don't forget nuts--nothing better than almonds, I think."

Chao and Daiya cheese alternatives (a non-dairy cheese for vegans)

Morningstar bacon

"Mac and cheese made with Cashew Cream and Nutritional yeast is awesome!"

High-protein grains such as kamut and quinoa

"Grilled eggplant is delicious and has a meat-like consistency."

Bananas and spinach (for iron and potassium) 

Spectrum Naturals Light Canola Mayo Eggless Vegan 


Praise for the Beyond Meat brands is echoed in the Wellness Letter article, which says, "The good news is that the meat substitutes currently available have gotten far better over the years.  Some new companies, notably Beyond Meat, deliver plant-based protein that mimics meat exceptionally well--so well, in fact, that even the food journalist and cookbook author Mark Bittman was fooled."


Dr. Cutter prepared a lot of plant-based products during the time that her daughter  was a vegetarian. Here's a paraphrase of her comments. The following products were all "pretty acceptable"--alternative meatballs, chicken patties, sausage patties, and corn dogs.  If you took a taste test to see if you could identify which product was made with  animal meat and which with plant protein, you could probably pick out the "real" meat product.  But the "fake" products have a pretty good flavor.   Even the crumbles are okay if used in tacos.  If masked with cheese and/or condiments, they don't taste bad.  Boca burgers are also palatable; they taste pretty good.


BUT, Dr. Cutter sees one big disadvantage to dining on processed plant products: in general, they are much more expensive than the comparable animal products.  For about the same price, you'd get a lot more patties or meatballs if you buy "real" meat.  If you're cooking for one or two, you might not care, but, if you have a large family and a limited food budget, it would be much more economical to make your own plant-based dishes. 


Tofu Shirataki Angel HairHere's one example of the high cost of plant-based processed items: tofu shirataki, an angel-hair  shaped noodle that's a substitute for pasta.  The 8 oz. package is supposed to be 2 servings, but  (after rinsing it well to avoid the bitter taste I was warned about) I ate almost the entire package.  It was good, though more slippery and less firm than "real" pasta.  But, of course,  you can serve a whole family with a $1 box of real pasta; this package with meager  servings for 2 cost a few dollars.  Now, I know you're wondering (since real pasta is also a plant-based product)  why anyone would buy this tofu shirataki (which is mostly water, soybeans, and yam flour).  Well, one serving (half the package) is only 10 calories!  Furthermore, it's gluten-free and contains no cholesterol.


As you can see, there are a lot of products and a lot of brands.  My one relative who's a genuine, strict vegetarian, Maryellen F., says i: "In terms of processed plant-based foods, it takes some time to get used to the taste and learn about all the various products and how to work with them." 




1) Brad's Raw Crunchy Kale:  I'm not a vegetarian, but curiosity got me to buy .It may look like dinner for a bovine, but I actually thought it was tasty (though my daughter didn't and my husband wouldn't even try it).  The kale  is not just kale.  It is flavored with  fake cheese and some other seasoning.  I enjoyed the flavor and the crunchiness.  By  the way, t's an organic product.


2) A  Quorn product: This brand includes a variety of meatless, soy-free processed foods made with mycoprotein , a fungi (like mushrooms and truffles).  We tried the company's chick'n tenders.  My daughter and I agreed that the product itself is utterly tasteless, though it does mimic the texture of chicken very well.  If tossed into a casserole, it might pass for chicken.  One cup of the product has 10 grams of protein.


3) Morning  Star sausages: These are quite bland but not bad.  My daughter often eats 2or 3 of them for breakfast.


Final comments on taste and choice:  The Wellness Letter says, ""The meat substitutes currently available have gotten far better over the years."  And the variety is impressive; you can even find pulled "pork," faux "prawns", and "fish" fillets.




None of our Facebook responders said that they missed eating meat.  But let them tell you in their own words:


"I've been a vegetarian since about 1990 and never miss eating meat." (Liga S.)


"I'm not a vegetarian but I stopped eating beef in 1996 because it started to make me feel ill.  I don't miss eating it, the taste, but the smell of a steak on the outdoor grill gives me a nostalgic longing..." (Nancy N.K.)


"I have never missed not eating animal products." (Peggy B., a vegan for 10 years)





Dr. Cutter says, "The jury is still out on the environmental issue. I've seen no research that proves the environmental advantage of the plant-based diet."


The University of California, Berkeley Wellness Letter agrees: "Mock meats are not eco-friendly in all ways.  Vegetarian meals are generally associated with lower greenhouse gas emissions and less impact on global warming, but according to a 2010 paper in Food Research International, it takes about the same amount of energy to produce a pea-burger as it does a pork chop, calorie for calorie, because of the processing, storing, and other factors involved." Furthermore, the Wellness Letter points out, "Industrial farming has devastated rainforests in Brazil."  There are also concerns about possible dangers to human health from the chemical used in the manufacturing of most processed soy products.


The Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter reported on a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine.  The study showed that the lowest risk of developing colorectal cancer was not achieved by vegetarians or vegans but by people who were mostly vegetarians but ate fish at least once a month. 




University of California, Berkeley Wellness Letter, "Fake meat gets real: meat alternatives a getting so good, they're even fooling foodies," December, 2014.


Shelflifeadvice.com  "What's New in Food?  IFT Expo Offers Tasty Innovations," July 23, 2013.


Chicago Tribune, "Eating less meat?  Pick substitutes with care," by Ellie Krieger, June 17, 2015.


ift.org  "A New Crop of Plant Protein Pioneers"



Catherine Nettles Cutter, Ph.D. , Pennsylvania State University, Department of Food Science



You must be logged in to post a comment or question.

Sign In or Register for free.