The Deets on Mock Meats

Ground "beef," tofu hot dogs, veggie burgers and fake chicken nuggets -- you name it and a veg-friendly, faux meat is available at the supermarket. Here's what we think of some of these substitutes and how often you should turn to them.
By: Janel Ovrut Funk
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There's no missing the umpteen faux meat products at the supermarket. Ground "beef," tofu hot dogs, veggie burgers and "chick-un" -- you name it and a veg-friendly "meat" option exists. Here's what I think of some of these substitutes and a few words of warning.

How Much Is Too Much?

First things first, packaged mock meats shouldn't be your everyday vegetarian choice. Sure, they add texture, provide cholesterol-free protein and can help recreate a meaty main, but look at the ingredients list. You probably won't be able to pronounce half the words on that huge list. Turn to these packaged substitutes only when you really want some beans and franks, a deli sandwich or need a quick fix -- that is, a couple times a week or less. You can get the same protein fix and meaty bite from beans, tofu, nuts, seeds, whole grains, mushrooms and more.

Sliced Deli "Meat"

When I used to eat meat, I never really liked sliced deli meats, so it's no surprise that imitation deli meat doesn't wow me. I've tried LightLife's Smart Deli slices (available in most supermarkets) and found the texture slightly rubbery. Unlike most mainstream lunch meats, vegetarian options are free of fat, cholesterol, nitrites and MSG. But imitation or not, deli meats are full of sodium; four slices of LightLife's "meats" use up 20% of your daily sodium. For a protein fix, try peanut butter or a bean-based spread (like hummus) on your sandwich.

"Chick-un" Patties & Nuggets

Americans love chicken, so it's no wonder there's a huge variety of imitation chicken products out there -- or as I like to call them, "chick-un." There is everything from nuggets to patties from brands like Bocca, Morningstar Farms and more. Flip the package over and look at the long list of ingredients. I counted 50 on the nuggets in my freezer. One common item is "textured vegetable protein," or TVP, which is a dried, concentrated soy protein that is versatile enough to work in many faux meat products. It's a heavily processed ingredient, so don't overdo it. I'll admit I do like munch on nuggets sometimes. To me, they taste identical to the real thing and, when baked, cook up nice and crisp, just the way I like them.

Veggie Dogs

Sometimes -- at a cookout or the ballpark -- you just want to sink your teeth into a hot dog. Veggie dogs (and sausages) have some advantages over their beef, chicken or pork counterparts: fewer calories, less fat, less sodium and more protein. However, they also may contain potentially harmful ingredient vegetable gum carrageenan, which helps hold these mock meats together. The jury is still out on how hazardous it is in the long run but less processed is always better. Another downside: "not dogs" can be mushy (especially when boiled or nuked) and don't hold up in a bun. I usually mix them into vegetarian baked beans and soups and stews. The American Dietetic Association invited a group of taste testers, including vegetarians AND meat eaters, to rate which of popular veggie dogs they liked best. LightLife's Smart Dog was the winner. Morningstar Farms Veggie Dog came in second, and Yves Good Dog rounded out the pack. Morningstar Farms Veggie Dogs aren't available currently, but they have some "sausages" that are carrageenan-free.

Ground "Beef"

When I decided to rework my mom's meatloaf recipe, I worried the soy-based grounds out there wouldn't cut it, but Lightlife's Smart Ground has a similar texture to ground beef and blended well with my spices and seasonings. I suspect you'd get similar results if you made mock meatballs or burgers, or tried other brands. If you're looking to experiment with a veggie meatloaf, you can find my Meatless Meatloaf recipe here.

Veggie Burgers

If you want a burger that's more beefy, you'll like Bocca's wide variety. They taste great when cooked in a toaster oven or on an outdoor grill and don't crumble or get mushy. Sometimes I'm even fooled when my boyfriend makes a Bocca burger -- it almost smells like meat. Other folks prefer veggie burgers to have a more grainy flavor and lots of veggie chunks (which means they might fall apart more). You can find mushroom-flavored, black bean-flavored and even cheese-infused variations. Test different brands and find your faves. Of course, the smartest option is always to make your own -- check out some of my recipes below:

Janel Ovrut, MS RD LDN, loves experimenting with vegetarian and vegan cooking. Read her food blog, Dine Dish Delish, and follow her on Twitter @DietitianJanel. Catch up on her previous posts here.

TELL US: Do you ever turn to mock meats? What are your favorites?
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