Plant-based meals are growing in popularity and it’s not just vegetarians who are seeking them out. For health reasons and/or ethical considerations, meat eaters, too, are adding plant-based meals to their menu.
Just because bean burgers, tempeh “bacon” strips and jackfruit tacos are meat-free doesn’t guarantee that they’re jam-packed with good-for-you ingredients. Some are highly processed and contain salty additives while others deliver considerably less protein than their meaty equivalents.
Consider that 3.5 ounces (100 g) of chicken breast delivers 31 g of protein. The same amount of firm tofu, chickpeas and jackfruit serve up 17, nine and two grams of protein respectively.
Store-bought veggie burgers vary widely in protein – and sodium – content.
Burgers made from soy protein, pea protein or seitan (wheat gluten) deliver anywhere from 10 to 25 g of protein and as much as 500 mg of sodium per patty. (Many are also fortified with B vitamins, iron and zinc.)
Patties made from grains and vegetables, on the other hand, supply four to six g of protein per serving, contain varying amounts of sodium and not fortified with vitamins and minerals.
You need to read labels to know what you’re getting – and what you’re not.
A guide to meat alternatives:
Also called bean curd, tofu is made from soybeans that have been soaked and boiled to make a liquid, which is then curdled or set, often with a calcium or magnesium salt, to form curds that are pressed into cakes.
The firmer the tofu, the higher its protein content. Per 3.5 ounce serving, firm tofu has 17 g protein, while soft tofu has seven g.
Tofu that’s been set with calcium sulphate is an excellent source of the nutrient, providing as much as 680 mg per 3.5 ounces. It also contains potassium, iron, magnesium and many B vitamins.
Cube firm or extra firm tofu and add to stir-fries and soups or try it scrambled and seasoned with turmeric, cumin, pepper and sea salt. If you want to avoid genetically modified organisms, buy certified organic tofu, which can’t be produced with soybeans containing GMOs.
This traditional soy food is made by fermenting soybeans with the fungus Rhizopus oligosporus, a process that binds soybeans into a patty. It’s not considered a probiotic food, but tempeh is an excellent source of protein that’s easier to digest than tofu.
A 3.5 ounce serving of tempeh contains 20 g of protein, 11 g of fat and seven g of carbohydrate. It’s also a good source of fibre, iron, potassium and magnesium.
Plain tempeh can be marinated and grilled, added to stir-fries or crumbled into soup, tacos, burritos and chilli. Some tempeh products are made with grains, seasoning and spices; read labels to avoid products high in sodium.
Pronounced “say-tan,” this high-protein meat substitute is made entirely of gluten, the protein in wheat. It’s produced by mixing water into wheat flour to form a dough and then removing the starch.
It’s sold in chunks or strips, flavoured with soy sauce or other seasonings and can replace meat in pasta sauces, fajitas, tacos, stir-fries and stews. Seitan is also the main ingredient in Field Roast’s vegan burgers, sausages and roasts.
Upton’s Naturals Traditional Seitan provides 26 g of protein, 2.6 g of fat, 12 g of carbohydrate and 460 mg of sodium per 3.5 ounces. It’s also a good source of iron and selenium.
Many seitan products are high in sodium, so check labels. Seitan is not for people with allergies, intolerances or sensitivities to gluten or wheat.
Native to Southeast Asia, this meat alternative is sold raw, usually flavoured, in packages in the refrigerator section. Its texture is similar to that of pulled pork and pulled chicken.
If it’s protein you’re looking for, though, you’ll need to supplement your meal with a side of beans or tofu: 3.5 ounces of jackfruit has only two g of protein. Jackfruit does, however, deliver carbohydrates, some fibre and potassium.
Read ingredient lists
When buying packaged meat alternatives, most often choose products with ingredients you’d find in your own pantry. Soybeans, for example, are in my kitchen cupboard but highly refined soy protein isolate is not.
Of course, there are far less processed ways to get your plant protein.
Beans and lentils (15-18 g protein per cup), edamame (21 g per cup), hemp seeds (six g per two tablespoons) and nuts and seeds are protein- and nutrient-packed whole foods that deserve a regular place in your diet.
Whole grains, too, such as amaranth, farro, freekeh, quinoa, teff and spelt berries, add protein to meals.
Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is director of food and nutrition at Medcan.