A few years back, I was cooking dinner in my mom’s kitchen. She looked over my shoulder into the pan, “What is that?” she asked. “It’s vegan sausage, mom.” “Eww,” she replied, “What’s it made from?”
I’m sure many of us have gotten this response from people when the subject of vegan meat comes up. For whatever reason, it just seems to gross some people out.
What’s so ridiculous, though, is that vegan meat is basically made from grains, vegetables, and spices, while meat from animals is made from blood, flesh, and bone. Who’s saying “eww” now, mom?
Thankfully, with plant-based meat alternatives booming in popularity, public opinion is starting to change. Still, I think many people don’t understand what exactly vegan meat is.
So, what is vegan meat made of? Let’s break down the most common ingredients:
Soy is still the main ingredient in a majority of vegan meats today. The practice of making plant-based meat from soy is not new, it actually goes back over a thousand years to seventh century China. Soy is the main ingredient in products by Gardein, Tofurky, and Impossible Foods – they make a burger you might have heard about. Soy is also the main ingredient in tofu and tempeh.
Soy beans have a neutral flavor and they’re packed with protein and other nutrients. Additionally, soy is a complete protein – meaning it contains all the essential amino acids your body needs.
To make the texture of soy meat-like, many vegan meat producers isolate the protein out of soy beans by a process of washing away the sugars and fibers. Once the protein is left, the texture of it can be manipulated by heating and cooling. It is then fashioned into the shape of meat and seasoned to taste.
Soy Curls, however, are an incredible meat substitute that use the whole soybean. You must try them!
Using wheat to create plant-based meat also goes back over a thousand years. Wheat gluten, or wheat protein, has a texture that’s pretty similar to meat. Also called seitan, wheat can be found as the main ingredient in products made by Field Roast, Tofurky, and Upton’s Naturals.
Peas, or pea protein, is the newest trendy ingredient being used to make plant-based meat alternatives. It’s used in Beyond Meat products, Lightlife’s Plant-Based Ground, and Good Catch’s fish-free tuna. What’s so amazing about pea protein is that, similarly to soy, it’s a complete protein with a neutral flavor. And while unfounded rumors have circulated for years about soy’s alleged health effects, pea protein does not carry that baggage.
The thing that makes meat sizzle on a grill is a fat. In plant-based meat, this is recreated using vegetable oils. Both the Beyond Burger and the Impossible Burger use coconut oil for its higher saturated fat content. But plant-based meat producers also use canola oil, sunflower oil, etc. While some vegan meats can have a pretty high fat content, they’re still much better for you than animal meat. A Beyond Burger has about half the saturated fat of a beef burger, and all vegan meats are naturally cholesterol-free.
Meat from animals has connective tissue and muscle fibers to hold it together. Many plant-based meat producers use starches from vegetables like corn or potatoes to help hold the ingredients together so that it mimics the texture and mouth-feel of meat.
Herbs and Spices
Much like you’d season animal meat, vegan meat is flavored using onions, garlic, salt, pepper, etc.
And that’s about it.
The innovation and technology used to create meat from plants has come a long way since ancient China. And the remarkable thing is that many of the vegan meats on the market today are truly indistinguishable from animal-based meat. They’re also much cleaner, better for the environment, and don’t require innocent animals to be slaughtered.
I get that people at first might be taken aback by something new that they’re unfamiliar with. But when you reduce it to its essentials, the answer to the question “what is vegan meat made from” is really quite simple. It’s made from plants.
Main image photo credit: Meatloaf made with Impossible Foods’ meat by Instagram/simonekrolikowski