Where’s the Beef? Today’s Fake Meats Bring You the Taste — But Not the Health Risk — Of the Real Thing

Ground round, bacon, pepperoni, deli ham… not since the Bradys’ daily roast have Americans of all backgrounds embraced meat with such careless abandon. But flip over a package of Yves Breakfast Links or Lightlife’s Smartdogs and you’ll find something missing: the cholesterol, the saturated fat, and, yes, the meat.

Courtesy of Turtle Island Foods

More and more companies are introducing their own meatless variations of old stand-bys. With names like Not-So-Sausage, Wheatballs, Phoney Bologna and Wham, these soy- and wheat-based products are popping up among the 40,000 items on the average supermarket’s shelves, making it easier for people to stay healthy while satisfying their taste buds. “It’s an exploding multi-million dollar industry and I’m thrilled!” says Claire Crisculo, cookbook author and restaurateur. “It’s a wonderful time to eat less meat!”

The Better Burger

While the number of U.S. vegetarians (about 15 million) is holding steady at one percent, the alternative meat market seems to be burgeoning. The total sale of meat analogs (imitation meats) topped $250 million in 1998, and is expected to exceed $1 billion by 2001. In fact, fake meat’s current 48 percent growth rate makes it one of the top ten fastest growing categories in U.S. supermarkets.

So who’s buying this stuff? A growing number of shoppers, 80 percent of whom are not strict vegetarians. They’re taking the advice of the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Pediatrics, which all recommend that people reduce their consumption of red meats and animal-derived foods. Such chronic diseases as stroke, heart disease, and breast, colon and prostate cancer have been linked to high-fat, high-cholesterol diets, of which meat is a major player.

“All over the country, people are wanting to eat less meat for health reasons,” says Crisculo, who owns Claire’s Corner Copia in New Haven, Connecticut. But “most people simply take the meat off the plate. They have to remember that no matter what kind of diet, the rules are the same. You need protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals.” A healthful way to still balance your palate is by putting the meat back in—as an analog, that is.

Plant protein, the building block of imitation meats, has some clear advantages over animal protein. It is lower in fat, high in fiber, and has no cholesterol. Soy protein, in particular, is a good source of all nine essential amino acids, and is full of isoflavones, recognized for their protective qualities against breast cancer and for smoothing out post-menopausal symptoms. Several studies have indicated that compared to animal proteins, soy proteins cause less calcium excretion from the body, reducing the risk of osteoporosis. It has been found to lower “bad” cholesterol (LDL) and actually raise the “good” (HDL) , battling heart disease and stroke as well.

Lucy Moll, author of Energy Eating the Vegetarian Way, warns that fat and sodium levels may vary between brands. “It’s important not to automatically think that just because the word ‘vegetarian’ is on a product, it’s vastly superior,” Moll says. “The best thing to do is turn it over and look at the facts.” However, she points out, you can still be sure that no matter what veggie meat product you pick up, you’re still leaving behind the saturated fat, the cholesterol, the growth hormones, the risk of food-borne pathogens, and everything that may have first been sprayed on the grains the animal ate.

For instance, Vegi-Deli’s Meatless Pepperoni has 139 calories, three grams of fat, 316 milligrams of sodium and no cholesterol. Traditional pepperoni weighs in at a hefty 280 calories, 26 grams of fat, 940 grams of sodium and 60 milligrams of cholesterol. Worried about getting enough protein? That same meatless pepperoni has 18 grams and the real stuff, only 10. Many meat analogs are fortified with other nutrients such as calcium and vitamins, plus iron and zinc.

Name Game

There are a few more good reasons to pick up that Fakin’ Bacon or Beef-Not. Producing each pound of beef protein costs 2,500 gallons of water, 35 pounds of eroded American topsoil, 16 pounds of grain and soy feed, and a gallon of gasoline. And according to the General Accounting Office, more plant species in the U.S. are eliminated or threatened by livestock grazing than any other cause.

“Environmentally, vegetarianism is the right way to go,” says Brenda Oswalt, president of Dixie USA, which manufactures everything from soy-based gyros to fake homestyle meatloaf. “Morally, we may know that to be true, but our taste buds have a mind of their own.” Luckily, there’s an answer for the people who want to have their meat and eat it, too. “There are a number of marvelous companies that do nothing but explore and research ways to use soy, and they’re coming up with a lot more choices,” says Sue McGovern of Lightlife Foods.

To begin incorporating these foods into your diet, says DarleneVeverka, spokesperson for the Vegetarian Resource Group, you need only push your cart as far as the frozen foods aisle of your local supermarket. The case once reserved for green beans and salisbury steaks (thanks to Amy’s, also available as a meatless clone) now sports a multitude of veggie burger brands.

A Nielsen report in July of 1998 estimated that vegetarian burgers represent 70 percent of total meatless sales, up 57 percent from the previous year. They’re either “meat-like” soy burgers, made from soy protein and designed to imitate the real thing, or veggie/grain patties, which have a legion of followers for merits all their own. Boca Burgers, Morningstar Farms Grillers and Gardenburger’s hamburger-style patties fall into the first category. Garden Gourmet’s Veggie Patties, Imagine Foods’ “Ken & Roberts” and Seenergy are in the second.

The produce aisle is where you’ll find most refrigerated meat analogs, including hot dogs and deli slices. Vegi-Deli’s line includes meatless cold cuts styled after salami, chicken and turkey, too. It’s not all beef: fish and poultry taste-a-likes are also caught up in the soy revolution. Health is Wealth, for instance, has a whole line of chicken-free nuggets and patties, and Worthington boasts Skallops and Tuno.

In the natural foods aisle, you’ll find boxed shelf-stable meals which, already flavored with spices, usually require little more effort than boiling water and adding pasta. Fantastic Foods offers taco and sloppy joe mixes, as well as veggie chili. White Wave just introduced vegetarian entrees which include a microwaveable Thai Coconut Curry, and a Chicken and Gravy dinner. Harvest Direct goes so far as to introduce BBQ Veggie Ribs, to be whipped up in less than 20 minutes from a mix made primarily from wheat gluten.

Then there are the companies that seem to do it all, like Yves Veggie Cuisine, a Canadian company with full lines of veggie wieners, burgers, deli slices, ground meat alternatives and ready-to-heat meals. Alternative-meat industry leader Worthington Foods, maker of Morningstar Farms and Loma Linda, stacks its Harvest Burgers right next to its Meatfree Buffalo Wings, Corn Dogs a

nd Sausage-Style Crumbles.

Sparing Tom Turkey

With Thanksgiving right around the corner, there’s even a replacement for the traditional centerpiece of your holiday dinner. The “Tofurky” roast offered by Turtle Island Foods is actually made from tofu and wheat gluten. An entire dinner to feed four adults comes complete with dressing, four drummettes, “giblet” gravy, and, of course, the wishbone. A portion of the proceeds goes to benefit the Farm Sanctuary’s Adopt-a-Turkey program.

So with all these new products, where does one start? Anywhere, says Crisculo. If you’re not crazy about one veggie dog, try a different brand before you blame the whole group. And until your taste buds adjust, don’t underestimate pouring on the bean chili or sauerkraut. When it comes to meatless meats, they may not fool Uncle Al, who’s been living off stick pepperoni and sloppy joes for years, but slide it onto a pizza with mushrooms and sauce, or stir it into a thick bean chili, and you’ll probably come close.

The U.S. Soyfoods Directory, sponsored by the Indiana Soybean Board provides contacts and links for 46 companies that offer meat analogs, as well as descriptions of soyfoods, nutritional information and tried-and-true recipes.