Meat Analogs

Golden palaces of mock meat. Most towns have one; if you don't know where it is, ask your local vegan or vegetarian. These Chinese restaurants serve classic dishes like Peking "duck," "beef" and broccoli and lemon "chicken," but instead of using actual meat, they are made with meat analogs.

Staples in many vegetarian and vegan diets, meat analogs are food products that look, feel and taste like meat from an animal. Analogs blend plant-based proteins with flavoring, fat and coloring to replicate beef, poultry or seafood, and in some cases are used as filler in meat.

These meatless morsels are often made of wheat gluten (also called seitan). Gluten is the protein produced when combining wheat's two major proteins, gliadin and glutenin, with water or milk through the process of kneading.

The dough formed is elastic and high in protein so it makes an excellent meat substitute. Because seitan has a mild, neutral flavor, it easily picks up spices and flavors added when cooked.

Other meat analogs are made of soybean derivatives or a combination of wheat gluten and soy. Soybeans also make an excellent meat analog because they are high in protein and fiber. Soy protein is extracted through various methods including boiling and high-pressure extraction of the de-hulled soybean. Like seitan, most soy-based meat analogs are mild tasting and easily adopt flavors and seasonings added during preparation.

Cultural Background

"Fake" meats have recently picked up steam in the U.S. market, but wheat- and soy-based meat replacements have been consumed for centuries in China, Korea and Japan. These plant-based protein sources are especially important as vegetarianism is promoted by several Asian philosophical and religious practices, including Buddhism, Taoism and Hinduism.

In his book Cooking with Seitan (Square One Publishers 2008), author Leonard Jacobs writes that seitan was introduced to the United States from Japan in the early 1960s by a macrobiotic teacher. By the end of the decade, seitan was regularly exported to America.

The Chinese call seitan mien chin or fu shin and initially introduced it as "Buddha food" in America because of its association with vegetarian monks. There are historical references to various forms of wheat gluten dating back to the Yuan Dynasty (1271 to 1368).

Today, some mock meats are shaped to look like the animal meat they're replacing. Stroll through your Asian market and you may find meat analogs realistically sculpted to look like whole chickens, drumsticks, shrimp, fish and ham.

Health Profile

Vegetarian and vegan clients may have questions about the healthfulness of "fake meat." As with most manufactured foods, there is a spectrum of healthfulness depending on the level of processing and ingredients. Generally, consuming a variety of meat alternatives is a great way to stick to an animal-free or a reduced-meat diet.

Wheat gluten and bean curd are relatively good sources of protein. For example, one standard brand of tofu contains seven grams of protein in a three-ounce serving, while one brand of vital wheat gluten contains 23 grams of protein in a quarter-cup serving.

Whether you're an omnivore trying to reduce animal protein intake or a lifelong vegan, shop around when looking for meat analogs. Not only do meat analogs vary in fat, protein and sodium content, but some have more fiber than others. Keep an eye out for additives such as MSG or coloring. Aside from taste, consider plate appeal as some have a more appetizing appearance than others.

Vegans should check the ingredient list carefully on mock meats as many have whey or eggs to help bind the product. Those with celiac disease, gluten intolerance or a soy allergy should check for the presence of wheat protein and soy derivatives.

Besides allergens, there are some other nutritional pitfalls to look out for when choosing a meat analog:

Some mock morsels are high in sodium with greater than 20 percent of the Daily Value or greater than 480mg of sodium per serving, especially in some marinated varieties. Of the 10 products I reviewed, there was a range from 220 to 450mg of sodium per serving (or 10 to 19 percent DV). Reading labels and watching portion size are important.

Low Fat Turned High Fat
Some meat analogs contain added plant oils or have even been breaded and deep-fried. Check labels and look for non-breaded meat analog dishes (braised or steamed are best).

Once you have found the perfect nonmeat to try, don't worry that preparing it will require sophisticated culinary skills; you can cook most of these vegetarian vittles in the same ways you would any animal protein, by broiling, baking, grilling, sautéing or stir-frying.

Choosing mock meat can be a great, lower-fat way to meet daily protein needs and add some meat-free variety at home or on the go. Even non-vegans enjoy the novelty and surprisingly delicious taste and texture of the wide variety of meat analogs.

Tali Sedgwick
Tali Sedgwick, RDN, blogs at and works with vegan and vegetarian clients in San Francisco.