Chinese Vegan Guide to Fake Meat
I try not to eat fake meat too regularly, since I’ve trained myself off the taste of meat and I do believe it’s best to avoid pre-packed foods that are overly processed. When it comes to meeting your protein requirements as a vegetarian, it’s better to look to high-protein plant-based foods such as legumes, beans, mushrooms, broccoli, quinoa, wild rice and of course a variety of soy-based products.
Fake meat is undeniably a burgeoning trend, fuelled by the vegan/vegetarian movement and global concerns around climate change. At the same time, fake meat is nothing new and has historical roots that go back millennia; as I previously wrote, the Chinese were innovators in fake meat. It’s so encouraging that people are exploring meat–free lifestyles and diets. But the danger in 2019 is that with the explosion of new fake meat products, there’s a lot of misinformation out there and it’s easy to get carried away with the hype.
Having followed the trend and also tried quite a few of the fake meat products in the UK market, I set myself the task of producing my guide to fake meat — as much for my own benefit as, I hope, yours. The main factors I wanted to delve into were the motivations for eating fake meat, how good it is for you really, and whether there are any downsides. I’ve kept it quite UK-specific context where products are concerned, since those are the ones that I have access to. It’s pointless to go too much into taste, since that is a matter of personal… taste!
Everything presented here is based on my own research, opinions and experiences. And of course it is delivered with a Chinese accent, since that is my culinary area of interest 😉.
First, how to define fake meat?
The intriguingly named ‘meat analogue’ is, according to Wikipedia: “also called a meat alternative, meat substitute, mock meat, faux meat, imitation meat, vegetarian meat, or vegan meat, approximates certain aesthetic qualities (e.g. texture, flavor [sic], appearance) and/or chemical characteristics of specific types of meat.”
In layman’s terms, it’s a food product that has been manipulated to resemble meat or convey meatiness. Already it is apparent that we are talking sliding scales — since the Wikipedia goes on to list tofu and tempeh as examples. I would argue that tofu and tempeh are categorically not fake meat, because it’s not that they are trying to imitate the aesthetic or chemical properties of meat. I would consider fake meat to be more on a scale of “I can’t believe this isn’t meat” to “this is trying to be meat but it’s not working”. And so everything that falls on that sliding scale has been designed and marketed with intention of imitating meat (i.e. not tofu or tempeh). Clue: if the product name or packaging uses meat-based language, it’s fake meat.
Is processing good? Bad? Unavoidable?
Some people would argue that anything that is being consumed other than in its original natural, whole state qualifies as processed. But if you become too puritanical about cutting out all processed foods, such dogmatic binary-ism would leave us in a ‘nuts and berries’ or nothing mentality.
The first thing to note is that fake meat products are made using highly processed manufacturing methods. So already, if you fall in the anti-processing camp, these are not for you.
I find it more helpful to discuss whether the product is empirically, nutritionally, good for you. Again, I would argue for the sliding scale model when it comes to processed food. In fact, in some cases processed foods are more efficient and economical for us to eat.
On the other hand, there are alarming statistics that over half of all UK family food purchases are ‘ultra–processed’ products (the category comes from a recently developed classification system called NOVA). Defined as foods that “go through multiple processes (extrusion, molding, milling, etc.), contain many added ingredients and are highly manipulated. Examples are soft drinks, chips, chocolate, candy, ice-cream, sweetened breakfast cereals, packaged soups, chicken nuggets, hotdogs, fries and more”. These foods go through complex processing involving chemicals almost never found in kitchens.
At the same time, there is a lot of confusion about veganism equating to healthy dietary choices, which is simply not true. Veganism is a lifestyle driven first and foremost by ethical choices. You can be a vegan and still eat ultra-processed junk!
The case for whole food plant based
Yes, tofu is plant-based and also processed, but only in so far as the processing entailed coagulating soy beans and water to form a curd. The same goes for bread. If the only three ingredients are wheat, water and salt then it’s much closer to its whole food state than a processed loaf that includes E numbers, bleach, sugar and preservatives.
That is why those who choose veganism for health reasons might prefer to use the label ‘whole food plant based’.
So what’s fake meat made of?
Fake meat is generally made of one of the following ingredients:
Soy protein, sometimes known as textured vegetable protein
Vital wheat gluten
What the general public may not be aware of is that you can eat most of these ingredients in their whole food state. It’s a question of assessing the trade-off between a desirable simulation of meaty flavour and texture, and the amount of processing you are willing to accept in your food.
Going back to the aforementioned sliding scale of processed food, consider an edamame bean as a ‘whole food’, tofu as a minimally processed food, tempeh as minimally processed via fermentation, soy flour as highly processed and textured vegetable protein as ultra-processed. These are examples of the soybean at various stages of processing.
Soy protein-based fake meat is one of the cheapest and most widely available types, making it accessible for most people. It’s considered a complete protein, meaning it has all the necessary amino acids. However, there has been a lot of debate about soy and its impact on estrogen levels and consequent links to cancer. I’m not a scientist, and I highly recommend that everyone does their own research and makes their own mind up (since almost everything ‘gives you cancer’). Also of concern is that around 80–90% of soy crops are genetically modified (GMO) — again, another controversial debate where only you can decide which side you take.
Vital wheat gluten
Vital wheat gluten is the natural protein in wheat. It’s made by hydrating wheat flour to activate the gluten, then processing it to remove everything but the gluten and drying it back into powder. It’s what seitan is made from — the socalled ‘wheat meat’ or original mock meat, invented by the vegetarian Chinese Buddhist monks centuries ago. Due to the elasticity of the gluten, seitan makes for a convincing meaty texture, as well as absorbing any flavourings and sauces.
Seitan is higher in protein than tofu, and even more than steak, and it’s certainly less processed than a lot of soy protein–based meat substitutes (such as veggie mince). It’s rich in phosphorous, selenium and iron.
However, it’s not suitable for coeliacs and those with gluten sensitivities. Beware also of store–bought seitan, as they can contain high levels of sodium.
The divisive fungal protein, trademarked as Quorn until recently, is fermented and grown in vats, and has dominated the fake meat market since 1985. The original vegetarian version is bound with egg albumen, but there are now vegan Quorn options that use potato protein instead.
Mycoprotein is high in protein and fibre while low in calories, and it’s also a complete protein, meaning it contains all the essential amino acids. However, it has not been without controversy, from accusations of mis–marketing to fears around allergies. You also can’t deny that despite its benefits, it’s an ultra-processed product that uses industrial-grade additives and manufacturing techniques.
This is one fake meat you can’t make at home; one you wouldn’t want to attempt, anyway.
Some of the newer fake meat brands and products on the market are made of pea protein instead of soy protein. Pea protein is extracted from yellow split peas, with the starch and fibre removed to increase the protein content, and tends to be rich in most amino acids. Unlike soy protein, it isn’t likely to be chemically isolated or genetically modified.
Beyond Meat is a notable example of a brand using only pea protein; in fact some of these vegan meat brands have a shtick about bashing soy protein.
Jackfruit really is a superfood in that its abundance and cheapness in tropical countries has caused it to be lauded as a food that could ‘feed the world’. Its fibrous flesh (not the seeds) has the consistency of meat when slow cooked, making it a popular ingredient in vegan pulled pork. My major issue with jackfruit is has negligible protein in it. And personally I prefer to eat it as it is — that is, as a fresh fruit. So beware if you are looking for vegan protein — it’s not jackfruit you're looking for.
What do I miss about meat?
Aside from certain nutritional elements, which aspects of meat can we not get out of vegetables? Most often people who have turned vegetarian say they miss the flavour or texture of meat. If that is the case, then here is the argument for harking back to the masters of ‘meat analogue’ — the Chinese!
Through learning to cook easy and healthy recipes at home, you really will not need to buy fake meat products.
I have written quite a few articles about umami, the ‘fifth flavour’, which can be described as savoury and satisfying. Meat is rich in umami and I believe this is what most people miss when they say they miss the flavour of meat. By learning to cook with plant-based ingredients rich in umami flavours, you can learn to satisfy that craving — which has additional benefits of making you feel fuller on less.
Some people miss the texture of meat — perhaps the chewy, tender or melty aspects of flesh. Once again, here is where the Chinese mastery of mouthfeel shows its colours. Ways of cooking with certain vegetables are arguably designed to be more interesting in texture than flavour.
My personal recommendations? Shiitake mushrooms (dense and meaty), oyster mushroom (tastes like chicken), black fungus (cartilaginous), beancurd skin (satisfyingly chewing), aubergines (like a melting chateaubriand… kinda!) and tempeh (meatloaf–y).
It’s not my place to talk about how much protein each person needs, since this depends on the individual, but there has been a lot of work done on debunking the myth that vegetarians don’t get enough protein. To read about vegan or vegetarian sources of protein, take a look at One Green Planet and Greatist.
Fake meat products in the UK
Having said all of the above, I thought I’d show a small selection of fake meat products available in the UK. I must laud the increasing variety on the market, with new products being launched every month. Having tested a selection, I’ve been impressed by the flavour, textures and affordability of all these products. Indeed, anything that encourages people to eat less meat is a good thing.
But — and here’s the big BUT — I personally would be very wary of eating this stuff every day. Just looking at the ingredients below, it’s clear that most of these products have been through a high level of processing to end up resembling something like meat, and even if they are not ultra–processed, one should be aware of the high levels of salt, sugar and additives being used. I would even bring your attention to certain products where the vegetable protein content is shockingly low (15% in Pulled Oumph! — the rest is just sugar and water…)
With a little time and kitchen know-how, I would much rather buy plain tofu and cook it in simple and tasty way, or buy a big bag of pure soya protein chunks or mince and make burgers from scratch with my own seasonings. It’s not so difficult!
Should I buy fake meat?
What can I conclude in this guide? My recommendation is that if you’re at all concerned about how it tastes, its environmental impact or nutritional benefit (and you obviously are, to have read this far!), then go through this checklist when deciding how to choose your fake meat product:
Why do I ‘need’ to eat a meat analogue? Can I recreate the umami flavour, texture and mouthfeel using whole food plant based ingredients instead?
Can I make fake meat myself, using e.g. textured vegetable protein or tempeh?
Can I understand everything on the ingredients label and is there anything that looks scary to me?
Is the product excessively packaged for the portion size and is the packaging recyclable? Could I buy a larger pack that economises on packaging?
Does the fake meat supply the right nutrients for my needs (e.g. protein, fibre), or is it empty calories?
What is the sugar and salt content? Can I buy the unflavoured version and season it myself?
Finally, remind yourself that everything is OK in moderation — just don’t go overboard and eat fake meat every day.