7 Meat Substitutes This Nutritionist Loves
Dietitian Cynthia Sass shares her top healthy meat substitutes, from BBQ jackfruit to meatless burgers, and the balanced ways to enjoy them.
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Choosing meat substitutes
As a nutritionist, I made the decision years ago to stop eating meat. And that means I've evaluated just about every meat alternative out there, and I'm pretty picky. As a dietitian, I don't want to eat overly processed products made with a slew of ingredients I can't pronounce.
Most of the time, I get my protein from whole foods, like lentils and beans, combined with whole grains, nuts, and seeds, and I advise my private practice clients to do the same. But, like many of the people I counsel, I sometimes crave a burger or other meaty, comfort food meal, and there are plenty of meatless ways to get my fix. In fact, the demand for these products is rising.
The science behind plant-based meat
Even before Covid-19 triggered a potential meat shortage, a lot of consumers were cutting back on meat. According to a January 2020 Gallup poll, 23 percent of Americans reported eating less meat in the previous year, with women being about twice as likely as men to make the switch. A 2018 study published in the journal Public Health Nutrition, found that two-thirds of U.S. adults surveyed reported specifically eating less red and processed meat than they did during the previous three years.
In the Gallup poll, the top reason cited for consuming less meat was health, with nine out of 10 people saying it's a major factor. Indeed, eating a more plant-based diet can play a major role in protecting your health. One 2019 meta-analysis, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, looked at plant-based eating patterns, defined as eating more plant-based foods and fewer animal-based foods, and the incidence of type 2 diabetes. Researchers found that plant-based dietary patterns were associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, even after adjusting for body mass index (BMI). In other words, the effect held true regardless of body weight.
However, to best benefit from going meatless—or simply cutting back—the replacements should be healthful. Here are my picks for the best of the fake meat bunch, including the least processed options I have found, nutrient and ingredient highlights, and my suggestions for healthful, balanced ways to enjoy these meaty imposters. In addition to being fully plant-based, each of the products listed is also free from both gluten and soy.
Abbot's Butcher Chorizo
This hearty chorizo alternative allows you to feel satisfied without also feeling heavy or weighted down. The simple ingredients include pea protein, organic tomato paste, extra virgin olive oil, and seasonings, like red wine vinegar, onion, garlic and chili powder, smoked paprika, ground cumin, and chipotle peppers. I love that the product is non-GMO, and contains no preservatives or artificial additives. A half-cup portion provides 16 grams of protein, 5 grams of carbohydrate with 3 grams as fiber (2 grams of net carbs), and 6 grams of fat, along with 6 percent of the daily goal for iron, and 420 mg of sodium, 18 percent of the daily advised cap.
Since this product is pre-seasoned, I simply warm in a skillet and pair with veggies sautéed in a little extra virgin olive oil, like spinach or broccoli, and a healthy starch, such as oven-roasted spaghetti squash. It's also fantastic served in crisp lettuce wraps, sprinkled with roasted corn and pumpkin seeds.
Upton's Naturals Bar-B-Que Jackfruit
Jackfruit is popping up everywhere these days. You can find it fresh in Thai and Vietnamese markets, and in the exotic fruit section of most mainstream supermarkets. Harvested from giant fruit-bearing trees, a typical jackfruit ranges from 15 to 30 pounds. While it's not high in protein, jackfruit is often utilized as a meat substitute, because of its meat-like texture.
The ingredients in Upton's Naturals include just jackfruit, tomato paste, vinegar, molasses, filtered water, onion, sugar, sea salt, garlic, black pepper, chili powder, paprika, and liquid smoke. A 2.65 ounce portion, a fourth of the package, provides 1 gram of protein, 10 grams of carbohydrate with 4 grams as fiber (6 grams of net carbs), 4 grams of sugar (one teaspoon worth), no fat, 250 mg of sodium, 11 percent of the daily advised max, and 4 percent of the daily target for potassium.
Barbeque jackfruit resembles pulled pork. Because it's low in protein, I like to pair it with protein-rich black beans or black-eyed peas, along with sautéed green beans or a garden salad.
Longève Plant-Based Protein Crumbles
$24.99, 6 ounce
This is one of my favorite new food finds in a while. It's shelf-stable pea protein you moisten with hot water and then use in place of ground meat. The only single ingredient is non-GMO texturized pea protein, and a 1.5 cup serving provides an impressive 40 g of plant protein, 4 g of carb (all fiber, so zero net carbs), 4.5 g of fat, 530 mg of sodium (23 percent of the daily recommended limit for most healthy adults), and 60 percent of the daily goal for iron. Unlike soy, pea protein is not a common trigger of food allergies or intolerances. It's also eco-friendly and incredibly versatile.
My go-to way to use Longeve is in plant-based taco salads. After adding the hot water and waiting five minutes, I season the crumbles with add-ins like garlic, onion, cilantro, chili powder, cumin, and sea salt, and place over a bed of greens, along with grilled peppers and onions, black beans, pico de gallo, avocado, and lime. They're also a great option in dishes like curries and veggie chili. (Check out some of the best plant-based protein sources.)
Pan's Mushroom Jerky
$35.00, 4 flavor variety pack
Jerky has exploded in popularity recently, with choices ranging from traditional beef to exotic options like alligator and ostrich. In the plant-based space, my favorite is mushroom jerky.
Pan's is made simply from organic, dried shitake mushrooms, water, avocado oil, organic coconut sugar, Himalayan pink salt, and organic chia seeds. A 3-tablespoon portion provides 1 gram of protein, 16 grams of carb with 5 grams as fiber (11 grams of net carbs), 5 grams of sugar (just over a teaspoon worth), 7 grams of fat, 190 mg of sodium (8 percent of the Daily Value), and 45 percent of the daily goal for immune-supporting vitamin D.
Like jackfruit, mushrooms aren't high in protein. To up the protein content of a savory on-the-go snack, I like to pair the jerky with protein-rich crunchy lupini beans.
Dr. Praeger's All American Burger
While this burger won't fool you into thinking that you're eating meat, its ingredients are pretty stellar as far as faux meats go. Its made from just hydrated pea protein (water, pea protein), avocado oil, onions, sweet potato puree, butternut squash puree, carrot puree, natural flavors, methylcellulose, fruit juice color, oat fiber, potato starch, roasted garlic, and sea salt (in case you're wondering methylcellulose is plant fiber used to hold foods like veg burgers together). One patty packs 22 grams of plant protein, 10 grams of carbohydrate with 6 grams as fiber (so 4 grams of net carbs) and 12 grams of plant fat. One burger also provides 30 percent of the daily target for iron and 8 percent for calcium. The sodium content isn't bad, either: At 530 mg, that's just 23 percent of the recommended maximum for your day.
My favorite way to enjoy the All American is wrapped in crisp lettuce along with sliced avocado, tomato, and red onion, paired with a side of vinegar-based slaw and baked potato wedges.
Dr. Praeger's Classic Chick'n Tenders
The sole poultry alternative on the list, these tenders are made with texturized pea protein, combined with a rice flour-based coating that incorporates whole grain amaranth flour and seasonings, along with avocado oil, white bean and cauliflower powder, methylcellulose, and potato starch.
A three tender portion provides 14 grams of protein, 18 grams of carbohydrate with 7 grams as fiber (11 grams net carb), 9 grams of fat, 510 mg of sodium, (22 percent of the Daily Value), and 25 percent of the daily goal for iron.
I love to drizzle the tenders with a little hot sauce and dip into fresh guacamole, along with crisp raw veggies, like celery and carrots.
Beyond Meat Breakfast Sausage, Spicy
These sausage rounds are so authentic I think they can easily fool even the most dedicated meat enthusiasts. While the ingredient list may look long, most are recognizable, some are simply the technical names for added vitamins, and none are genetically modified. Two patties provide 11 grams of protein, 6 grams of carbohydrate with 2 grams as fiber (so 4 grams of net carbs), 12 grams of fat, 15 percent of the daily target for iron, and 270 mg of sodium, 12 percent of the daily advised cap.
I like to reserve these satisfying veg sausages for Sunday brunch, paired with a generous portion of sautéed veggies and sliced avocado, and a side of breakfast potatoes or fresh in-season fruit. They're also delicious crumbled in a chilled pasta salad, tossed with a generous portion of chopped veggies and a scoop of brown rice penne.
- Gallup: “Nearly One in Four in U.S. Have Cut Back on Eating Meat”
- Public Health Nutrition: “Reducing meat consumption in the USA: a nationally representative survey of attitudes and behaviours”
- JAMA Internal Medicine: “Association Between Plant-Based Dietary Patterns and Risk of Type 2 Diabetes: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis”