Friday, October 3, 2008

VeganMoFo: Meat Analogs

A few weeks ago I mentioned that I found a great alternative to chicken, and received a comment, which I (possibly incorrectly) assumed was snarky, namely that "meat substitutes are great for the transitioning vegetarian, but a great veg cook shines with fresh veggies and leaves the fakes alone". I couldn't help but feel that this comment, while not directly pointed at me, was posted for my benefit, and it got me thinking.

I know there's a lot of debate about eating meat analogs, both in the vegetarian community and outside of it, like, "how real is too real?", "if you don't want to eat meat, why do you want to eat fake meat?", and "shouldn't we focus on eating whole foods as opposed to refined analogs?". I think these are all valid questions, and this post is my attempt to answer them.

First of all, I don't think many meat/egg/dairy analogs are really that close to the actual meat/dairy/egg, and no one is going to confuse a glass of soy milk with a glass of cow's milk, or a slice of FYH with a slice of mozzarella. That being said, I have had some foods that were just a bit too close to the real thing, which squicked me out a little, and usually made me worry about whether or not the item in question was actually vegan . While I've found meat and dairy analogs to be most useful as transitional or comfort foods, when I was a new vegetarian, I wasn't very fond of them, simply because they didn't really taste/feel/smell like the real thing. Now, in the 11 years that I've been a vegetarian, there have been vast strides in the meat and dairy analog market, and the longer it's been since I've eaten animal products, the more realistic plant-based analogs seem. I know some vegetarians who refuse to eat foods that are "too realistic", but I haven't really found that to be a problem with truly vegan foods.

As far as why a person who doesn't think animals should be eaten, would eat fake meat (or dairy, or eggs), well, there are tons of reasons people choose to be vegetarians. The three most common reasons are 1)ethical -- animals are intelligent, caring, feeling individuals that should be treated accordingly, 2)ecological -- raising livestock creates methane which contributes to global warming, and it's inefficient to grow grain to feed livestock, instead of using grain for human direct consumption, and 3) health -- vegan diets offer many health benefits, including being low in saturated fats, cholesterol-free, and helpful in lowering high blood pressure and high cholesterol. You may have noticed that none of these reasons have anything to do with animal products not being tasty... Certainly, some people may not enjoy certain animal products, but in my experience, most vegans are vegans for one of more of the above reasons, not because they necessarily think meat tastes bad.

When answering the question of focusing on whole foods or analogs, we have to first decide how analogs are defined. I've seen tofu, tempeh, and mushrooms called meat analogs. One could argue that grains and beans when formed into patties or burgers, or jackfruit, when stewed and seasoned for taco filling would be meat analogs. I define analogs as products made expressly to resemble some other specific item, and there is an understanding that an analog is generally inferior since 1) it's probably not a whole food and 2) it's likely been very refined. In my opinion, tofu and tempeh are protein sources, but not meat analogs, while seitan and tofurky are meat analogs. By this definition, yes, we our main sources of protein should be whole, minimally refined foods such as legumes, nuts, seeds, tempeh and tofu, with seitan and other analogs supplementing our diet.

That being said, I think there's room for the occasional meat analog in your diet. To me, they seem best for transitioning because of the convenience and familiarity that they offer (as far the "hey, I can cook a vegan hot dog pretty much same way I cook a kosher dog!" aspect), and as sporadic treats, for the comfort they offer. There's also something to be said for the inclusiveness they provide, especially for kids who take sacked lunchto school, or during holidays and family gatherings. For example, my parents used enjoy purchasing a Tofurky for me during the holidays, to ensure that I wasn't left out (although, honestly, I'm not a big fan of Tofurky roasts, and I'd rather just have an array of vegan side dishes for Thanksgiving).

In conclusion, analogs are probably not the most healthful food, but the emotional comfort they provide can be quite enriching, and they can be really fun and interesting in moderation. Join me later this month, for some deliscious examples of both whole protein sources and more refined meat analogs.


Jeni Treehugger said...

Hey GREAT post.
I sometimes think I rely too heavily of Tofu and Seitan but I've come to the conclusion that I don't care. They can make a great addition to meal times and I make my own seitan so it's not as heavily processed like shop bought stuff.
Not to mention that Tofu and Seitan are two of my main protein sources, not that I go protein crazy but I understand it's importance in my diet.
So yeah...I just wanted to say I agree with you on all three of your well thought out and articulated responses.

Cody said...

A reader comment in the most recent VegNews actually said that people who ate things labeled as "chicken" or "beef" weren't real vegetarians. Huh?

I absolutely agree with the idea that we shouldn't be eating something so processed, that you're supporting the big agricultural companies whether it's beef or "beef" and that it's far more expensive than real food.

But, I honestly don't understand the drama over meat analogs themselves. Besides... it's not like beef and pork just fall off the animal in patties, links and strips. The shape and seasoning are man-made whether you use meat or soy.

Sarah said...

I'm newly Vegan and I totally agree that analogs are great transitional foods! Mmmm... The thing is, I like the taste of meat, (and if that makes me NOT a vegan then so be it, at least I'm trying. And as far as I understand it, it's virtually impossible to be 100% Vegan in our society anyway and the whole point is that we do our best, right?)

Until my taste buds evolve to fit this new way of eating, I think I'll most likely keep a few analogs around. I had no idea there were debates within the vegan/vegetarian communities about fake meat! Wow. I have so much to learn!

JD said...

The thing that boggled me about the twitter post that elicited this comment was that it was in response to your using a dried, rehydrated mushroom to replace chicken in a vegan conversion of a traditional chicken salad recipe. To me that isn't a meat analog in any way, shape or form.
I say this as an omni that loves your cooking because it is delicious, and you do make the "veggies sing" to me in a way that no omni chef has ever been able to do.
As an omni who still enjoys the real thing often enough to be able to taste the difference, I can say that I am inevitably disappointed by "chik'n" substitutes and the like. But when I don't feel like the chef is trying to deceive me, and tells me "this is a mushroom salad", I'm more likely to try it.
(Except that I don't really care for most mushrooms, but you understand the point.)
Great point about cutlets, links, and chops not "falling" off the critters in that shape.

Monique a.k.a. Mo said...

I absolute despise when veg*ns get all holier-than-thou with the meat analog issue. I'm with you on this subject. I didn't stop eating meat because of the was that whole image of something dying that did it.

I especially hate when people say that eating a meat analog is basically showing approval that animals are here for food supply. What the crap?

You are so right in your response to this.

Chantal said...

I started eating meat analogs a decade after becoming veg. I didn't like them at first and it took me some getting use to. The reason I did is because my partner is omni and doesn't really like legumes. It was the best comprise we could think of to have common meals once in a while. He is not a big fan of meat analogs either, but will eat them. And eating them does not go against any of my core values. I still eat with compassion. Each one should be free to decide for him or herself. Meat analogs work for my partner and me... that's all that matters to me.

Jenny K said...

I truly agree with your post! I'm a recent vegan (within the last year), and meat analogs really helped me make the transition at first.

With being a busy grad student, I think using meat analogs to whip up a quick meal and then be on my merry way of studying is better than not eating at all or eating meat.

Also, meat analogs help my onmi boyfriend and I make one meal instead of two for dinner.

Anyway, great post. I'm looking forward to reading more entries in your blog.

aTxVegn said...

Great post, Christina! Vegan cuisine has come such a long way thanks to great chefs like you.

Keith said...

I think that some of the backlash to meat analogs is a little bit of perception playing tricks on us.

The only reason that we call something like tofu or tempeh a "meat analog" is because meat eaters have had hegemony in the arena of eating for quite a long time. It's only called "fake meat" because it doesn't quite fit under "vegetable" and it provides protein. Just because end products of meat-eating and vegan-eating can look similar doesn't always mean they are the same ethically -- it is just the perception of that one narrow facet.

What if Tofurkey dogs were created before nitrate-laden pork hot dogs? Or if seitan was more popular than chicken throughout the development of the western world...would we even be having this discussion? Would meat eaters be worried that their "hamburger" is so much like our soy-oat patty, etc?

And what about the fact that omnivores everywhere are drinking soy milk and eating Morningstar Farms products "because they taste good" and they're easy to find at the grocery store? That actually saves animals from being eaten, even if it's by accident.

I guess I don't get the fervor against meat analogs. We're not legitimizing meat eating by eating a patty...if anything, our "faux meat" products can go to such tongue-in-cheek levels that it makes actually eating meat like some kind of cruel joke.

Christina said...

Thanks for all the kind words, everyone.

Cody, great point.

Mo, I think you know JD from slam poetry!

Sarah and Jenny K, congrats on your new veganism!

I remember when I was a child, years before I was a vegetarian, wondering why people ate analogs, and just truly not getting it, so I can understand omnis who question it, but I definitely do not understand the veganer-than-thou people. I appreciate people trying to give me advice, engage in a debate, or offer opinions, but I've never understood why some people get so bent out of shape over another person's personal choices, when those choices affect no one but themselves.

And, like many of you have attested, analogs help omnis eat less meat. I, for one, am always happy about that.

Jeni Treehugger said...


Juliet said...

I love mock-meats.

They've helped transition my meat eating family members into my vegan meals. They're so versatile, I can go and make just about any recipe out there with these substitute meats.

I'm 38 and I started having problems with meat when I was about eight years old; for me it was really about getting grossed out when I'd come across a vein, or I'd see the blood at the bottom of the meat tray before my mom would cook. I've always been an animal lover, and I remember being very disturbed and upset when I was four and my dad took me fishing -- so the animal rights thing developed naturally alongside my distaste for flesh.

Meat tastes good. But the thought of what it is and, now, especially to me, what it does to animals, makes me refuse to eat it. So what if I still want some flavor?

Also, you're supporting companies that are helping more people become veg. You give them more money, they get more popular, have more to spend on their research -- you get better foods and more companies that make veg options.

I can't fathom having a problem with mock meats and I can't believe some of the people out there y'all are talking about since I haven't come across them yet. I'd give them the "what what"!