Formulating Better Meat Analogs

Beef consumption has declined 15 percent over the past 20 years, according to the USDA. What’s making up for this decline? Maybe it’s an imposter.

By John K. Ashby, Contributing Editor

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Whether it's fear of mad cow disease, personal or religious preference or a desire to eat more healthfully, Americans are eating more vegetarian meals. What surely helps this drift toward partial, and even total, vegetarianism is better meat analogs. Basically, phony bologna and its cousins are getting more and more like the real thing. And the variety is endless, too.

A dozen years ago, meat analogs were imprisoned in the "natural foods ghetto" along with the other oddities such as soy milk, organic yogurt and tofu. Now analogs based on soy or other substitutes are found all over the store in virtually every form that you can find real meat.

Is some massive national vegetarian conversion supporting this rapid growth? The answer is, yes and no. According to a 2000 national poll sponsored by the Vegetarian Resource Group, 2.5 percent of the U.S. population can be defined as vegetarian, almost three times as many as 30 years ago.

It's not a corn dog, it's a Quorn dog! Quorn-brand meat analogs are based on a protein derived from a member of the fungus kingdom (i.e., mushrooms).

But then there are the "flexitarians," people who eat a significant portion of their diet as vegetarian, but who also eat meat on occasion. Charles Stahler, co-director of the Vegetarian Resource Group, estimates around one-third of all consumers have some interest in vegetarian products - eating meat on some occasions and eating vegetarian meals, including meat analogs, on others.

Gardenburger Authentic Foods Co. (, Portland, Ore., was one of the early meatless foods pioneers with its eponymous ersatz burger patties. The company is promoting the flexitarian idea by marketing not just to vegetarians but to sometime vegetarians. Gardenburger, founded in the early 1980s, is unusual in that it does not rely on protein isolates or the more common textured vegetable protein for its fake burgers. The goal was to create a healthy, nutritious product using only natural ingredients that could be used in place of meat.

‘Better for You' Burgers

Ethical considerations in several forms are part of the explanation of this vegetarian/flexitarian phenomenon, including animal rights, resource consumption and religious convictions.

Whereas killing an animal for human benefit is ethically unacceptable for committed vegetarians, the flexitarian shift from meats is related to the way the animals are treated in the conventional animal processing industry.

Nutrition - specifically the desire to control exposure to saturated fat and cholesterol – is one of the major driving factors. As researchers and consumers learn more about the value of vegetables in the diet, this increases the pressure to reduce meat consumption and increase non-meat options in the diet. Meat analogs usually contain less saturated fat and less overall fat than meats and, of course, no cholesterol.

They also contain fiber and are usually a source of other nutrients not found in meat. However, as the push continues to improve the taste of meat analogs to appeal to those who like the taste of meat, product developers in some cases are increasing the fat content of their products.

Resource consumption is another driving force in the switch from meats to vegetable protein sources. The principle is that it takes fewer resources to create a pound of vegetable protein than a pound of meat protein. Therefore, given a finite amount of resources, you can feed protein to more people more efficiently via vegetables than meat.

Then there's the fact that we'll never have to confront Mad Soy Disease. Food safety is a major factor influencing some of the upsurge in meat substitute sales. In fact, E. coli, salmonella and bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease) often are cited by consumers as reasons for cutting back on the cow.

TVP or Not TVP - That is the Question

Turtle Island Foods (, Hood River, Ore., in 2004 was the fastest growing company in the Natural Foods Channel's Frozen/Refrigerated Meat Alternatives market. "When we formulate a new product, we look for groundbreaking, unexplored niches instead of the knock-off type products," says Seth Tibbott, who founded the company in 1980. "We also use strictly organic, traditional soy foods such as tempeh and tofu for our products as opposed to modern soy protein isolates or concentrates."

Soy protein isolates appeared on the scene in 1903, according to the Soyfoods Center. This crude vegetable protein was first used as a substitute for dairy casein in paints, textile and paper-sizing applications.

Lightlife, a division of ConAgra, offers the remarkably diverse "Smart" line of meat analogs. Above, looking for all the world like pulled pork, is "Smart BBQ." The line also includes Smart Bacon, Smart Cutlets and Strips, Smart Ground Burgers and Sausage, Smart Chili and Smart Tex Mex.

By the early 1900s, soy protein isolates were recognized as having potential for human consumption, but were not used in foods in a substantial way except for hydrolysis into monosodium glutamate by Japan's Ajinomoto Co. By the early 1940s, Glidden Co. began making soy-protein isolate as a "soy albumin whipping protein." The turning point for the soy protein explosion was the late 1950s with Central Soya making its Promine brand soy isolate, with Ralston Purina, Anderson Clayton and Carnation moving into mass production.

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