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The Ultimate Vegan Meat Guide

Vegan Meat. Faux or Fake Meat.  Mock Meats. Meat Analogues. Whatever you call them, vegan meat products are more common today than ever before. Not surprisingly, there has been a lot of talk about these alternatives to traditional animal-based products. Are fake meats healthy? Are they better for the environment? How do fake meats help the animals? And, do vegan meats taste like real meat?

I’m here to answer those questions and more.

Soy burgers may not save the world, but they do save the life of cows. Let me show you how.

FAQ: If vegans don’t like/want to eat animal meats, then why would they want to eat something that looks like and tastes like meat?

This question is more common than you might think.

Some people have a hard time understanding why vegans would want to eat something that tastes like meat but the answer is really very simple; vegans eat meat-free meat products because they like the taste. Vegans remove animal meats from their diets not because they don’t enjoy their taste, but because of ethical convictions to do so. It should also be noted that there are some people who choose to remove animal based meats from their diets for health based reasons.

More Frequently Asked Questions

Vegan meat, also called faux or fake meat, meat substitute, mock meat, imitation meat, or meat analogues are products that mimic certain qualities (texture, flavor, and/or appearance) of animal-based meat products. These products can be made from a variety of ingredients such as soy, textured vegetable protein, or wheat gluten just to name a few.

It should be noted that there is a difference between “meatless” and “vegan meat.”  The term “meatless” can refer to a product that still contains trace amounts of animal products (such as eggs, casein, whey, or other animal derived enzymes) while “vegan meat” does not contain any animal ingredients at all.  Check the labels carefully when purchasing.

It’s inevitable that people will compare the taste of fake meats and their animal based meat counterpart. Comparisons like this will always result in the person exclaiming, “it tastes nothing like meat!” And, they’re right. Mock meats don’t taste like meat. These products are reminiscent of animal based meat with their chewy texture, or in the way they mimic the taste of meat- or even in the way that they can appear, shaped like burgers for instance.

Meat analogues can also provide a bit of familiarity for those people who are transitioning towards a vegan diet by offering vegan versions of their formerly favorite animal based meat items.  And, let’s not forget- the ritual of food within someone’s familial and social life should not be ignored. Food is powerful in the way it brings people together. Having vegan options that mimic traditional foods allow everyone to participate in the celebration together. Besides, they taste good.

If you lived solely on vegan meat products and not whole foods, fruits, and vegetables then yes, it would be expensive. Eaten in moderation, these items are no more or less expensive than any other processed pre-packaged food item.

Meat-Free Basics

Often referred to as “fake,” vegan meat and dairy products are actually quite real.  So why do people call them fake?  A look back at the etymology of the word “meat” actually shows that the word is rooted from the Old English term, “mete,” which literally meant “item of food.” (1)

What is Faux or Fake Meat?

Vegan meat, also called faux or fake meat, plant-protein, meat substitute, mock meat, imitation meat, or meat analogues, are products that mimic certain qualities (texture, flavor, and/or appearance) of animal based meat products. These products can be made from a variety of ingredients such as mushrooms, soybeans, textured vegetable protein, or wheat gluten, just to name a few.

Note: There is a difference between “meatless” and “vegan meat.” The term “meatless” usually refers to products that still contain trace amounts of animal products (such as eggs, casein, whey, or other animal derived enzymes) while “vegan meat” does not contain any animal ingredients at all. Check the labels carefully when purchasing.

Should You Eat Vegan Meat?

There are plenty of good arguments that can be made in favor of vegan meat analogues. For some people, meat-free meats help them transition into a full vegan diet.  Vegan meats imitate products that people are already familiar with, making it easy to swap out the animal based products with vegan versions. Plus, they’re convenient- most come precooked.

And, let’s not forget- the ritual of food within someone’s familial and social life should not be ignored.  Food is powerful in the way it brings people together.  Having vegan options that mimic traditional foods allows everyone to participate in the celebration together- not to mention they taste spectacular.

But perhaps the biggest, most important thing to consider is this; no animal had to live or die for the creation of vegan meats. If we can live without harming others, why wouldn’t we?

Nutrition & Health

Let’s be honest, meat analogues are processed foods. There I said it. Does this mean that you shouldn’t eat a vegan bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich? Nope, not at all. Vegan meats should be eaten in the same manner as any processed food- in moderation.  A healthy vegan diet is designed around whole foods, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds- not vegan chick’n nuggets and soy burgers.

Obviously, taste is subjective, but nutrition is not. Here’s some information to consider when choosing to consume these vegan alternatives.

Sodium

Most meat substitutes are loaded with sodium. Used as a flavor enhancer and preservative, salt is ubiquitous in processed foods – and vegan items are not exempt. Our bodies need some sodium for basic functions like muscle contractions; however, in excessive amounts, salt can increase blood pressure. Known as hypertension, this condition causes the heart to work harder and can stress additional organs, like the kidneys, and lead to a stroke.

Reducing your intake and adding some basic protein-rich staples into the mix will help balance out your sodium levels.

Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)

MSG is a form of concentrated salt that is used, among other things, to enhance the flavor of pre-made and processed foods, vegan meat products being among them.

“MSG is made by either a bacterial fermenting process, protein hydrolysis (a breaking of protein into its constituent amino acids), or by synthesis. When a product is 99% pure MSG, the product is called “monosodium glutamate” by the FDA and must be labeled as such. However, when a hydrolyzed protein contains less than 99% MSG, the FDA does not require that the MSG be identified.” (2)

RELATED READING: MSG By Any Other Name

Many food products manufacturers advertise “No MSG” on their food packages, but this is misleading. MSG can also be described as “hydrolyzed vegetable protein,” “glutamic acid,” “natural flavor,” “yeast extract,” “contains maltodextrin,” and “autolyzed yeast” on labels.

NOTE: This does not mean that all vegan meat products contain MSG. Please read the label carefully to determine which products might contain MSG.

Hexane

Hexane is a known neurotoxic petrochemical solvent that is purified from crude oil. It is used to extract edible oils from seeds and soy protein isolates or texturized soy protein (TVP) from soybeans. The vast majority of soy protein ingredients in meat analogs have undergone hexane processing. You’ll see them listed on the label as soy protein isolate, soy protein concentrate, or textured vegetable protein. Classified as an air pollutant by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and as a neurotoxin by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), exposure to high amounts of hexane carries risks:

Acute (short-term) inhalation exposure of humans to high levels of hexane causes central nervous system effects such as dizziness, giddiness, slight nausea, and headache. Chronic (long-term) exposure to hexane in air is associated with polyneuropathy- damage or disease affecting peripheral nerves in roughly the same areas on both sides of the body. Symptoms can include numbness in the extremities, muscular weakness, blurred vision, headache, and fatigue. (3)

But how much hexane, if any, remains in the food after processing and are consuming these trace amounts a health hazard? According to the University of California, probably not- but it’s hard to know for sure. Not only does the FDA not monitor hexane in foods, the US has yet to even set limits for allowable hexane residue levels in soy foods. The industry has stated that hexane is only used in the initial steps of soy processing, and virtually all of it is eliminated by the time the soy ingredients are incorporated into other products. Critics point to a study which found trace amounts of hexane in soy oil as evidence to avoid soy products.

This dietitian says the occasional hexane-processed soy food is fine when consumed in moderation.

If you want to avoid hexane-treated soy foods, there are a couple of things you can do. Since hexane has been banned in organic food production, look for “100% organic” products that also contain the USDA seal. Keep in mind that this is different from a label that just says “made with organic” ingredients. You can also look for expeller-pressed or other physical extraction methods for oils that do not involve a solvent. Tempeh is made from whole soybeans and typically does not undergo hexane processing. Check the label to be certain.

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO)

A genetically modified organism (GMO) is any organism whose genetic material has been artificially manipulated in a laboratory using genetic engineering techniques. Scientists alter genes with DNA from different species of living organisms, bacteria, or viruses to get desired traits such as resistance to disease or tolerance of pesticides and herbicides.

There are criticisms about the practice surrounding the bioengineering and the production of genetically modified organisms. In more than 60 countries around the world, there are significant restrictions or outright bans on the production and sale of genetically modified organisms. Here in the US, the government has approved the use of GMOs based on information contained in studies conducted by the same corporations who created them (and profit from their sale).

Learn more about GMOs at The Non GMO Project.

When looking at soy tempeh, unless the product is specifically labeled as GMO-free, then there’s a good chance the product was made with genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Look for organic products or products specifically labeled as using non-GMO ingredients.

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Vegan Meat & the Environment

Studies on the environmental impact of packaged vegan meats vs. animal based meats have shown results that indicate in many cases it takes as much energy to produce vegan meat as it does animal based meat. (4)  We’ve already mentioned hexane, however in an environmental context, hexane is being released into the atmosphere.  It can lead to smog, which is ground-level ozone, which can lead to a bunch of health problems, like asthma. (5)  There is also the issue of the massive amount of packaging involved in some products.  A four pack of veggie burgers, for instance, involves a cardboard box along with four individual plastic wrapped burgers. There is definitely room for improvement with meat analogues in this regard.

Quite obviously there are serious environmental impacts to eating non-vegan food as well, which cannot be discounted or ignored. When comparing the environmental impact of a non-vegan diet versus a vegan diet, the vegan diet proves to be better on the environment in multitudes of ways. And the bonus in choosing vegan products, albeit processed ones, is that they save the lives of animals. And that’s no a small thing.

For the full picture on how eating animal meat is destroying our planet, visit my guide Veganism & the Environment.

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Your Daily Vegan is committed to providing accurate information to the vegan community. The information and data presented in this article has been meticulously researched, and is based on the information available to me at the time of publication. Each guide is periodically reviewed for accuracy and updated as necessary. You can find the update date listed at the end of every guide. Please contact me if you find out-of-date or incorrect information.

1. ^ Online Etymology Dictionary (OED). “Meat.” Retrieved June 5, 2014

2. ^ Happy Cow. “Effects of Monosodium Glutamate (MSG).” Retrieved June 1, 2014

3. ^ Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “Hexane Summary.” Retrieved June 5, 2014

4. ^ Mother Jones. “More on Veggie Burgers and Neurotoxins.” Retrieved June 6, 2014

5. ^ Science Direct. “Environmental Impact of Four Meals with Different Protein Sources: Case Studies in Spain and Sweden.” Retrieved June 5, 2014

This guide is authored by KD Angle-Traegner. Last update September 2016.