If you’ve been watching my Twitter stream lately, you’ve seen that I’ve been obsessed with meat substitutes.
Ever since attending a handful of food processing panels at South by Southwest, one of which featured the founders of Beyond Meat and Hampton Creek Foods, I’ve been thinking about the challenges and advantages of this quickly expanding segment of the grocery industry.
These so-called meat analogs are plant-based proteins like "Chicken-Free Strips" and "Beefless Ground" that are eerily realistic to their animal-based counterparts. The origin of these products goes way back, at least as far back as the invention of TVP (texture vegetable protein) in the mid-1960s. TVP is the original soy protein isolate, but now companies are also isolating protein from peas and other plants, and the extrusion technology is improving, which is why the texture is getting better.
Although there are health concerns about the hyperprocessing involved to make these soy and pea isolates, as well as some of the inherent levels of phytoestrogen in soy, the fact that there are now more than half a dozen companies selling meat analogs in grocery stores around the country means that they are gaining in popularity.
While I was at the Roger Smith Conference on Food in New York earlier this month, I heard from Allison Lakomski, a PhD candidate and vegan activist who advocates against eating these kinds of meat substitutes, but not primarily because of health reasons. She argues that meat analogs only reinforce the desire for the real animal products, thus hurting the overall movement to encourage people to not eat meat.
My counterargument then (and now) is that the best way to get meat-eaters to eat less meat — which because of the impossible-to-ignore environmental impact of the meat industry we absolutely need to push for — isn’t trying to persuade them to ditch meat altogether. A reduction in meat consumption, which is already happening, is the best we can hope for, and that’s why I’m actually kind of excited about these plant-based substitutes that die-hard carnivores might actually eat.
Not a week goes by that I don’t get a pitch about a new meat alternative, and when I saw a new array of products in the frozen endcap at H-E-B last week, I couldn’t help but pick up two of them: a ground beef substitute from Gardein and the Alton Brown-heralded Chicken-Free Strips from Beyond Meat.
Taco night was the perfect place to try out Beefless Ground. I sauteed onions, as I would for traditional ground beef tacos, added the meatless crumbles and taco seasoning and successfully pulled the wool over my kids’ eyes about what they were eating. I actually enjoyed the flavor and texture of the product in the taco, but the texture was softer than meat eaters are used to. A few nights later, I added the leftover crumbles to pasta sauce and had the same experience: "I could eat this."
I couldn’t say the same about Beyond Meat’s fake chicken. Later that week, I bought a rotisserie chicken from the store and seared the frozen Beyond Meat strips in a pan with a little oil. It was the ultimate side-by-side taste test, and the Chicken-Free Strips failed pretty miserably. The slightly fibrous texture is definitely spot on, but the flavor was just over-the-top processed. Peas that has been smashed on the floor was the first thought that came to mind, even when dipping the strips in barbecue sauce. I mixed the chicken and Chicken-Free Strips together on a plate with both ketchup and barbecue sauce and asked my oldest son to do a taste test "for the sauces."
Yes, I was tricking him to see which chicken he would pick up first and if he’d notice anything about the chicken instead of the sauces. Sure enough, based on looks alone, he picked up one of the fake chicken strips — a solid win for Beyond Meat — dipped it in the ketchup, took one bite and then said, "Mom, I’m not really hungry."
He didn’t complain outright about the flavor of the plant-based protein, but I did.
Next up is a new shelf-stable product called Neat that is made with ground pecans and garbanzo beans. It’s a dry mixture that you have to assemble with a little water and eggs, which means it’s not a great fit for vegans, although you can make it with egg substitutes or chia seeds, but I like that it doesn’t have any of those futuristic pea or soy isolates.
Have you had the same experience with any of these meat subsitutes? Do you have any new favorites that have come out in recent years? What about cooking tips? Would love to hear your thoughts here or at Facebook.com/RelishAustin.