Plant-based diets (PBDs) are being increasingly consumed by people all around the world. This rise in consumerism has driven brands to come up with innovative foods that satisfy cravings without compromising on vegan values.
In the growing world of vegan products, a majority of the innovation has been in the field of mock meat, trying to take it as close to actual meat as possible. This has led to the creation of a variety of mock meat options, each catering to different needs and preferences of individuals.
The vegan meat market is driving some of the most interesting research in the space of nutrition. But given that veganism is also adopted because of its health benefits, it becomes important to understand whether consuming it is as good for you as it can be for the environment.
So, in this article, we are going to take a look at the various ingredients used in making vegan meat, and weigh in the pros and cons to understand whether it is a worthy addition to a vegan diet or not.
What is vegan meat and what is it made of?
Vegan meat is an alternative meat product made from plants that is meant to taste like and have the texture of meat. The texture is made to resemble meat by processing vegan protein sources, and the taste is achieved through added flavours.
The majority of the plant-based meat (PBM) products are made from plant-based proteins like textured soy protein (TSP), wheat gluten, legume (pea or soy) protein, protein derived from fungus (mycoprotein), and mixtures thereof . The appearance, texture and flavours are then perfected by adding a binding agent, seasonings, colour and fat from vegan sources.
Let’s take a look at each of these ingredients, starting with the base: protein.
1. Textured protein
Objectively, the protein ingredients used in vegan meats are great sources of protein, and are fairly comparable to animal-based protein. The catch, however, lies in the processing and additives required to make them look and taste like meat. There is a range of different protein sources that are used to make mock meat:
- Textured Soy Protein (TSP)
TSP is a form of soy protein that is highly processed and textured to achieve a quality and texture similar to that of animal protein . It’s also easy to digest with a protein digestibility of 66.1%, which is comparable to beef's 73.2% . The processing, however, reduces the micronutrient content that is otherwise present in soy and leaves only tiny amounts of some minerals (like iron, calcium, magnesium and phosphorus) and fibre .
A major drawback of TSP, apart from low micronutrient content, is that people with soy allergies cannot consume it.
A type of vegan meat is also directly made by soy protein analogs i.e. soy protein concentrate and isolate. This version has more nutrients than TSP (because of less processing), but it also comes with a strong soy taste that's disliked by many [1, 5].
- Wheat Gluten
Seitan is made entirely out of hydrated gluten, the main protein found in wheat. But even though it is completely made of protein, it’s considered an incomplete protein source because it lacks an essential amino acid called lysine [6, 7].
Mock meat made from seitan is also highly processed. Its cohesive and chewy texture makes it one of the top choices for vegan meat. It is a great alternative for people with a soy allergy, however, anyone with gluten or wheat intolerance should avoid it. Furthermore, early evidence suggests that gluten may contribute to a ‘leaky gut’, which increases the risk of food sensitivities and autoimmune diseases (but more research is required to confirm this) [8, 9].
Also, readymade versions of seitan contain high amounts of sodium because of preservatives, which is not ideal for people with heart conditions or blood pressure issues .
- Pea Protein
This protein is extracted from yellow and green split peas, which results in a very high-quality protein that’s also rich in iron [11, 12]. It is a safer ingredient for vegan meat because it’s less processed than TSP and also because of its minimal allergy risk . Pea protein has a variety of health benefits; for example, it boosts muscle growth  and improves heart health [15, 16, 17].
Pea-based mock meat, however, is weaker than its soy-based counterparts because it easily disintegrates and needs binding agents to maintain the structure and texture of meat . It also lacks an amino acid called methionine and needs to be combined with other proteins (like rice protein) to complete its amino acid profile [18, 19].
Mycoprotein is made by fermenting and processing a naturally-occurring fungus called Fusarium venenatum. It has a really high protein and fibre content, and is low in fat, cholesterol, sodium, and sugar. Its nutritional composition makes it a really healthy plant-based protein alternative and a great option to consider for mock meat .
Having said that, there’s some conflict between a few institutions like the Centre for Science in the Public Interest and the FDA about its safety in the context of human consumption. So, our recommendation currently would be to try and avoid or limit mycoprotein-based meat until there’s proper confirmation on its safety.
Verdict: Vegan meat made from pea protein and soy protein are overall healthier options as compared to TSP and wheat gluten. However, the game sort of changes when there are additives in the picture; their health impacts need to be considered as well. This can be done on a product level, by reading the ingredients list.
Here are the rest of the ingredients essential in making vegan meat:
2. Vegetable fat
Traditionally, meat analogs are low in fat (for example, tofu). So, in order to make the modern meat analogs (such as vegan sausage, patty, etc.) more tender, juicy and flavourful, mock meat products contain added fats to make their taste and texture close to actual meat .
Different types of vegetable fat used in vegan meat have different impacts on its nutritional profile. For example, corn oil, sunflower oil, sesame oil, have high amounts of omega-6 fats, which can cause inflammation when consumed in excess [21, 22]. Canola oil, on the other hand, is a good source of monounsaturated fat which is great for our heart health [23, 24].
Consuming a lot of fat, regardless of its kind, is associated with adverse health effects. It is advisable to look at the total fat breakdown of the product options before making a purchase decision.
3. Binding agents
Starches, flours, binding ingredients or gums are used to improve the consistency and stability of mock meat products .
From a nutritional standpoint, these can be viewed as both healthy ingredients, because of their dietary fibre content, or detrimental because of the presence of refined starches or sugars. Generally, the binders used in meat analog products include a combination of dietary fibre, starches, and sugars, making it difficult to determine their impact on our health .
The common binding ingredients are:
Methylcellulose is derived from cellulose, the dietary fibre found in plants . It is an effective binder when added in appropriate quantities. Also, when heated, it forms a gel that enhances the bite, firmness and juiciness of meat alternatives .
Pro tip: Check whether methylcellulose is amongst the first 3-4 ingredients on the label. If yes, it more than likely makes the bulk of the product and may cause diarrhoea.
Gums are essentially dietary fibre that are used to enhance the structure of vegan meat . There are a few options of these gums that can be used for this purpose; xanthan gum is most commonly used.
- Potato Starch
The starch from potatoes, apart from binding all the ingredients, gives the finished product the appearance of real meat. Its adhesion provides elasticity and chewiness similar to that of an animal-based product [18, 31, 32, 33].
It could be a better binding agent than the options above. However, since it is usually required in very small amounts, the benefits are not that significant.
Most commonly used ingredients for meat analogs (like soy protein and gluten) have a beige or yellow-brown colour, while real unprocessed meat is red/pink in colour and cooked meat is brown. Certain colours are added to give mock meat the appearance of actual meat.
There are two types of food colours - chemically produced and natural extracts. The former is synthetically made and the latter is extracted from actual foods.
For example, betanin, which is present in beetroot, is used to create the red colour of meat. Another example is leghaemoglobin, a protein derived from soy that’s similar to the haemoglobin found in animals and gives vegan meat products a ‘meatier’ feel and natural colour .
Natural colours have gained popularity in recent years because of their antioxidant properties . Certain synthetic colours have been associated with hyperactivity in children and may also cause allergic reactions in sensitive individuals [35, 36].
While synthetic colours are not dangerous for most people, avoiding processed foods that contain synthetic dyes can improve our overall health. Studies on natural colourants such as lycopene or betanin indicate that those ingredients possess antioxidant properties, which is why they should be preferred [37, 38].
After getting the texture and appearance right, all that is left is the flavour. It’s pretty simple - the taste of mock meat is optimised by adding flavours to resemble the taste of meat as closely as possible.
- Yeast Extract
Yeast extract comes from fresh yeast and gives mock meat an intensely specific meaty or umami flavour (the flavour that’s popularly associated with MSG or ajinomoto). The intensity of the flavour depends on the choice of yeast extract, and there’s a wide range of them available for use .
A major drawback of yeast extract is that it is high in sodium . This, in addition to the sodium present in salt from preservatives, can make the end product really high in sodium, which is not suitable for people with heart-related issues. Its consumption should be limited in general as well.
- Hydrolysed Vegetable Protein (HVP)
HVP is another seasoning agent that gives vegan meat a savoury umami flavour.
It is made by processing vegetarian protein sources like soy, wheat gluten, rice, and maize, etc., so anyone with an allergy or sensitivity would need to be careful of the source before consuming anything with HVP in it. Like yeast extract, it is also high in sodium and should ideally be consumed in moderation .
In India, spices go hand in hand with food; using them to make meat alternatives more palatable is quite naturalt to us. A wide range of spices are used in mock meat products - the most popular mix includes dried onions, dried garlic, black pepper, garlic, chilli, paprika, and ginger. Many combinations also contain a wide range of herbs such as sage, rosemary and thyme .
Spices are rich in antioxidants, so adding them to the formulation is definitely a plus. But since they are present in tiny amounts, there’s no significant health benefit of adding them either .
Another component that adds to the flavour, but is mostly used to extend the shelf life of mock meat, is salt . There are health risks associated with the excessive consumption of salt, so selecting a product with a lower sodium content goes without saying.
Vegan meat substitutes are innovative and interesting, but high sodium levels and the number of additives that are being used to give the product its look and feel are a concern . So, it's best to choose a vegan meat substitute that is minimally processed and has minimal additives with recognisable ingredients.
Having said that, including them in your daily diet, even when it is of good quality, is not advised. Eating them infrequently, say once a week, would give you the pleasurable aspects of meats while giving you the benefits of a vegan diet. Moderation and information, as always, are key.
We are still in the early days of vegan meat alternatives, with some cutting-edge research working towards actually growing meat protein from plant-based ingredients. We hope that this blog has shed some light on the pros and cons of currently available vegan meat alternatives and has equipped you to make an informed decision.
If you have any further questions related to vegan meats or other alternatives, please feel free to ask them in the comments section below. We’d love to answer them for you! :)