Published in Optimum Nutrition Winter 19/20

Food fact file


Growing numbers are going meat-free but how do vegetarian and vegan alternatives stack up? Rebecca Attenborough and Louise Wates look at some of the most popular types of alternatives

This Veganuary, many will go meat-free for the first time — maybe for just the month, or maybe for a more permanent way of life. Fortunately, whereas the vegetarians and vegans of yesteryear often struggled to find nutritious and tasty alternatives, there is now a cornucopia of easily available products — some of which that have been staple foods for millennia.

From tempeh to tofu, seitan to ‘mock duck’, new and not-so-new products that were once the preserve of health food shops can be found in supermarkets everywhere. Yet for the novice, it can be confusing as to how to cut out meat without cutting out good nutrition.

One of the primary concerns is whether meat alternatives contain adequate protein. Many are high in protein but some — unlike animal products — are not what are called ‘complete’ proteins, i.e. they do not contain all of the essential amino acids that we need. However, it is possible to overcome this by eating other protein sources such as grains, nuts and seeds.


Jackfruit

Renowned for its ‘pulled-pork’ texture, jackfruit has fast become an en-vogue meat alternative. This south Asian staple, which can be found in tins, soaks up flavours, making it ideal for stews, curries, vegan burgers, tacos and fajitas, or for marinating in BBQ sauce. It is also found in some ready-made products in the chilled or frozen aisles.

Nutrition:
Although higher in protein compared with most other fruits, jackfruit is low in protein when compared with other vegetarian choices (canned jackfruit may contain around 1.2 g to 1.9 g per 100 g) and is not a complete protein. It is high in other micronutrients such as potassium; 100 g of raw jackfruit is estimated to contain around 448 mg. (The NHS recommends 3,500 mg a day.) It also contains fibre roughly the equivalent to that found in potatoes, and is a source of magnesium, vitamin C, and B-complex vitamins B6, niacin, riboflavin, and folic acid.[1,2]

Allergies:
Jackfruit allergy has been associated with birch pollen-related food allergies.[3]

Comment:
Registered nutritional therapist Louise Robbie says: “Jackfruit can be a great tasty addition to vegan-based meals, but its protein content is low and therefore needs beans or lentils added to boost the protein [content] of a dish. Do watch the salt and sugar content on [ready-made] sauces that come alongside jackfruit — with a fairly bland taste it needs a lot of flavour boosting.”


Pea protein

Derived from dried and ground yellow split peas, pea protein is available in powder form and is increasingly found in many meat-free products such as burgers and sausages.

Aside from adding the powder to smoothies and porridge, cooking with pea protein needs a little more culinary imagination. Its earthy flavour is minimally palatable, but by combining it with suitable ingredients and seasoning you could create your own veggie burgers or ‘meatballs’.

Nutrition:
High in protein — although not a complete protein — pea protein can be a source of a range of micronutrients, depending upon the brand. The mechanical (rather than chemical) process for producing pea protein also allows the end product to retain soluble fibre.[4]

Allergies:
Currently not considered an allergen, but in 2019, writing a case study, one paediatrician warned against pea protein as a potential allergen.[5] It is also a source of purines so people with gout may need to restrict consumption.[4]

Comment:
Louise Robbie says: “Peas are a great additional source of protein to add to a meal, around 5 g per 100 g and are used frequently in meat alternatives which can taste great. Watch for sugar and salt content [in ready-made foods] as these can be used for flavour enhancement.”


Seitan

For a meat-like texture, seitan (aka wheat meat or gluten meat) is a good option. Derived from the wheat protein gluten (which gives wheat products their elasticity), it tastes very bland on its own, but readily absorbs flavours, making it ideal for virtually any dish; whether steamed, baked, boiled or fried it will take on a different texture. Try marinating and slicing it into strips for fajitas and stir–fries; bread-crumbed and baked or fried. It is also found in cans as ‘mock duck’, which can be served with pancakes and hoisin sauce.

Nutrition:
Seitan can be a good source of protein, but is not a complete protein.

Allergies:
Should not be eaten by people with coeliac disease or those on a gluten-free diet. Also, check the ingredients list for added ingredients such as soya.

Comment:
Louise Robbie says: “These gluten-based alternatives can be highly inflammatory to clients with poor gut integrity and can lead to bloating and abdominal pain, common complaints following consumption of highly-processed meat alternatives.”


What is a complete protein?

A complete protein is any that contains all nine essential amino acids — essential because our bodies cannot make them.

These include: tryptophan, threonine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, valine and histidine.

Vegetarians can obtain these from eggs and dairy. Vegans need to ensure they take in a combination of protein sources.Seeds such as amaranth, quinoa and chia are all sources of complete protein.

Vegans should supplement vitamin B12, because this cannot be naturally obtained from a plant-based diet.


Soya/soy

Once classed as the health food, soya (from soya beans) was heralded as an ideal substitute to meat. Still available today as ‘mince’ or ‘chunks’ it is a versatile meat alternative. It is found in other forms, too; as edamame (young soya) beans, in traditional Asian foods such as tofu or miso, and now throughout the ready-made food chain as an added ingredient or in dairy-free alternatives.

Nutrition:
High in protein, it is also a ‘complete’ protein. It may also offer some health benefits. Soya is high in phytoestrogens, (plant oestrogens, or isoflavones, which are naturally occurring chemicals).

Research indicates these may act in a similar way to the hormone oestrogen, which is why soya products are often recommended to help alleviate menopause symptoms. There has been some concern as to whether phytoestrogens might reduce or increase the risk of breast cancer, but evidence is inconclusive. However, the NHS recommends restricting soya for people with hypothyroidism, for people who have been diagnosed with breast cancer, and babies who have soya-based infant formula.[6]

Allergies:
A listed allergen.

Comment:
Louise Robbie says: “Soy has been somewhat maligned over the years with concerns it can increase oestrogenic activity in the body. We do know that phytoestrogens found in soy can have health benefits, such as during menopause in the management of hot flashes and supporting bone health. I would always advise the majority of a client’s soy intake to be the least processed as possible and to enjoy soy in moderation as part of a balance of other protein sources. The thing to watch out for is soy protein isolate; this is the highly-processed form of soy which depletes its nutrient value and can cause digestive issues.”


Tofu

Made by curdling fresh soya milk (which is made from soya beans) before being pressed and compacted into a white block, tofu comes in two variations: firm and silken. Firm tofu is ideal for frying, searing, grilling and baking, whilst silken tofu, which has a softer texture and falls apart more easily, is more suitable for desserts or vegan scrambled eggs. Tofu is quite bland to taste so needs to be cooked with other ingredients. Like soya, it is a good source of complete protein and is a good source of calcium, iron, selenium, phosphorous, magnesium, copper, zinc and vitamin B1.

Allergies:
Should not be consumed by anyone who is allergic to soya. Also, as with soya, it should be restricted for people with hypothyroidism, for people who have been diagnosed with breast cancer, and babies who have soya-based infant formula.

Comment:
Louise Robbie says: “Tofu can be a great source of soy protein and a delicious addition to meals. I would always recommend organic sources of tofu to reduce the chemical load that can be present from its production.”


Tempeh

Another by-product of soya, tempeh has almost double the amount of protein than tofu, because of the fermentation process used to make it. It also can have a higher fibre and vitamin content and, according to one study, contains only 18.07 per cent of the original soya bean phytoestrogens.[7]

Also because of the fermentation process, it can also contain vitamin B12 — being associated with the presence of opportunistic pathogens like Klebsiella pneumoniae[8] — but levels are insufficient for recommended daily intake and it is unclear how much can be metabolised by the human body. So tempeh is not recommended as a source of B12. Although also made from soya, it differs from tofu in taste and texture, with a firm, dense texture and a mushroom-y, nutty, earthy flavour. Traditionally, it is made by a natural culturing fermentation process that binds soya beans into a firm block and which makes the tempeh more easily digestible.

Try grilled or fried, as a vegan burger, in salads and stews, or use a cheese grater to make a minced meat consistency.

Allergies:
Should not be consumed by anyone who is allergic to soya. Also, as with soya, it should be restricted for people with hypothyroidism, for people who have been diagnosed with breast cancer, and babies who have soya-based infant formula.

Comment:
Louise Robbie says: “Tempeh is a great protein source. Being fermented, it can add good bacteria to your gut leading to increased digestibility and has good levels of fibre and other nutrients such as iron. I would highly recommend it to most clients looking for a ‘cleaner’ plant-based protein source.”


Mycoprotein

Better known as Quorn, this protein-rich food is unique among the line-up of meat substitutes because it isn’t derived from plants. Made from a naturally–occurring edible fungus, it is processed to give it a meat-like structure. A complete protein, it is also a source of fibre. Further still, it is classed as high in zinc, selenium, phosphorous, manganese, copper, chromium and riboflavin.[9] A study (funded by Quorn) found that mycoprotein may be just as good for muscle growth post-exercise as animal protein/milk protein. Products may be vegan or vegetarian (containing egg). Mince or chunks are highly versatile, taking on the flavours of other ingredients.

Allergies:
People who react to other fungi may experience a reaction. Some people may experience discomfort and flatulence.

Comment:
Louise Robbie says: “Mycoprotein is a readily available protein alternative with a wide selection of products. It is, however, processed food... I recommend enjoying in moderation and [to] include natural, wholefood ingredients alongside when using it as part of a meal.”


Going meet free?

Why not try...

  • Aduki beans — little red-brown bean with a ‘nutty’ texture and flavour, recommended for veggie ‘Bolognese’
  • Red split lentils — very easy to cook, great for making daal and soups
  • Green lentils — delicious in a French-style red wine sauce
  • Chickpeas — great for curries, hummus, falafel, stews and even some cakes
  • Cashew nuts — good for stir-fries, pâtés and curries
  • Butter beans — delicious as homemade baked beans or in vegetarian pâtés

References:

  1. onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1541-4337.2012.00210.x
  2. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6339770/
  3. onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1398-9995.2004.00544.x
  4. www.jrnjournal.org/article/S1051-2276(17)30151-6/fulltext
  5. www.jaci-inpractice.org/article/S2213-2198(19)30175-8/fulltext
  6. www.nhs.uk/common-health-questions/pregnancy/can-i-eat-soya-products-during-pregnancy/
  7. www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308814616306537
  8. www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0023643818304900
  9. journals.lww.com/nutritiontodayonline/Fulltext/2019/01000/Mycoprotein__Nutritional_and_Health_Properties.4.aspx