Meat and Milk Alternatives: Even Better Than the Real Thing

alpro soymilkIf you’re shopping for a quick, convenient, healthy meal for you and your family, do you consider (or prefer) alternatives to meat and/or dairy products? Vegetarian or vegan ‘meat’ or non-dairy milk sounds like a contradiction in terms – to some people.

I think in terms of health, environmental sustainability, animal welfare and, yes, taste, they are (to quote a U2 song), ‘even better than the real thing’.

If you are into, say, veggie hot dogs, soy cheese or almond milk, prepare for some backlash. There are a lot of negative attitudes about meat and dairy substitutes, and most of these attitudes are based on prejudice and misinformation. I thought it was time that some of these ‘myths’ were exposed and explored, to set the record straight!

10 Myths about Alternatives to Meat and Milk products

1. Only animal products are called ‘meat’ and ‘milk’Truth: vegetarian or vegan foods cannot escape some parallels with animal foods. The dictionary calls the edible kernel of a nut “nut meat”. Coconut milk is, well, coconut milk, as is coconut cream, and the edible layers of endosperm inside the coconut is called its ‘flesh’. Simply by using the words ‘meat’ or ‘milk’ in describing a vegetarian or vegan food in no way suggests some sort of sell out, or even anything necessarily ‘bad’. (Interestingly, and instructively, from the mid-1980s the animal food lobby in Australia successfully prevented soy milk using the word ‘milk’ for many, many years, and it could only be commercially referred to as ‘soy drink’).

2. Meat and milk alternatives are ‘new-age’ fad-foodsTruth: many alternative vegetarian protein foods have a very long, distinguished history. Wheat meat, or wheat gluten, or Seitan, was developed by Chinese Buddhist vegetarian monks from the 6th century (wheat meat, is a food made from gluten, the main protein of wheat. It is made by washing wheat flour dough with water until all the starch granules have been removed, leaving the sticky insoluble gluten as an elastic mass which is then cooked before being eaten – source: Wikipedia). Tempeh, a traditional protein food made from whole fermented soybeans, originated in Indonesia in the 12th or 13th century. Tofu, a food high in protein and iron was invented in China by the Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), is made by coagulating soy milk and pressing the resulting curds to make ‘bean curd’, i.e. Tofu. Interestingly, the word ‘curds’ in turn refers to a dairy product obtained by ‘curdling’ or coagulating cow’s milk with rennet or an acidic substance such as lemon juice or vinegar.

Wikipedia tells us that: ‘Plant milk has been consumed for centuries in various cultures, both as a regular drink (such as the Spanish horchata) and as a substitute for dairy milk’.  Like meat and other animal products, milk substitutes also don’t require animals to be exploited (e.g. multiple forced pregnancies and death of male ‘veal’ calves) to obtain the milk.

3. Meat and milk alternatives are highly processed junk foodTruth: some meat and dairy substitutes are highly processed, with loads of ingredients, while some, such as seitan or tempeh, or soy milk made from whole, non-GM soybeans, have minimal processing. Beans, for example, could be considered one of the healthiest foods, and a protein substitute for meat (soy beans have ‘complete protein’, equivalent to meat and eggs). I recommend reading food labels carefully and avoiding any products with a high-fat and high-sodium content.

While it is important to eat from a variety of whole foods, including vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole grains, meat and dairy substitutes are generally much superior nutritionally to their animal counterparts. My family, including my four, strapping, healthy kids (vegetarian from birth) all enjoy meat and dairy alternatives, such as veggie burgers, nuggets or hot dogs, and soy milk (including soy formula as babies). They are high in protein, and often include such important nutrients for vegans/vegetarians as iron, zinc, calcium and vitamin B12. These are valid, nutritious foods, without the animal fat, cholesterol, lactose and protein that can contribute to heart disease, digestive problems and cancer.

4. True vegetarians or vegans shouldn’t eat or want meat or milk alternativesTruth: I didn’t give up meat because I didn’t like the taste or texture (although even if it was cruelty-free now, I couldn’t stomach it after 35 years abstinence). I gave it up because I didn’t want to eat dead animals. Much later I discovered the delights of such fare as tofu, falafel, tempeh and lentils, almond milk and oat milk, but having come from a small country town, at first I could only relate to protein foods that could easily replace the meat I grew up eating. I simply could not have made the transition to vegetarian then later vegan without meat and dairy substitutes, and they are still a valid way of people making, and maintaining that transition.

5. Meat and milk alternatives are fake foodTruth: many people incorrectly refer to meat or dairy alternatives as ‘mock’, or ‘fake’. I purposefully do not use terms like ‘mock’ or ‘faux’ or ‘fake’ meat, or ‘mock’ or ‘fake’ milk for soy or other non-dairy milk. These are derogatory terms that cater to non-veggos’ prejudice against anything that is different to what they consume. Just as a fake bank note cannot be used (legally), and a fake plastic steak cannot be eaten, the word ‘fake’ implies that something is counterfeit, or not useful in the same way as the original. The word ‘mock’ also has negative connotations, meaning ‘to attack or treat with ridicule, contempt, or derision’. The fact is, most, if not all the criticism of animal-free alternatives are based on misinformation and propaganda – convenient myths to defend the meat, milk and animal product industry.

6. Only hippies, hard-core vegans or ‘health-nuts’ are into meat and milk substitutesTruth: the meat-substitute industry is big, and growing bigger. An online article noted that even the meat industry is looking to jump on the bandwagon (surely the ultimate case of ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’?!). This article noted that one-third of Americans are choosing to leave meat off their plate more frequently, and that over the past 10 years, the annual per capita red meat consumption in the US fell 15% to 101 pounds. Research referred to in the article values the global meat substitute market at $3.4 billion in 2014, with an annual growth rate of 7.5%, reaching $5.81 billion by 2022. It is estimated that meat substitutes or alternative proteins could make up one-third of the entire meat market by 2050.

A recent news item here in Australia indicated that so-called ‘alternative milks’ are continuing to rise in popularity.

Ms Lauren Magner, an analyst from IBISWorld, said in this article that due to the rise of the alternative milk market (in particular soy and almond milk) the industry is now worth about $150 million. The same article noted that US consumers are turning away from traditional dairy products ‘in droves’.

“This figure has been growing quite quickly over the past five years as the popularity of alternative milks has grown, and we have expected 6 per cent per annum growth over the past five years,” she said.

A global market analyst Mintel study recently found that while sales of alternative milks in the US rose by 9 per cent in 2015; dairy milk sales decreased by 7 per cent, costing the US industry $17.8 billion in lost sales.

7. Meat alternatives taste like cardboard or dog food – Truth: In another online article, titled Fake Meat So Good It Will Freak You Out, one of the founders of Twitter, Biz Stone, a vegan of over ten years and potential investor in ‘Beyond Meat’, commented on the vision of Beyond Meat’s founder Ethan Brown:

“My first reaction was, if I was given this in a restaurant, I’d get the waiter to come over and ask if he’d accidentally given us real chicken. It has a plumpness to it, what they call a ‘mouthfeel,’ like a kind of fattiness.

“I’d rate Beyond Meat as being 90 to 95 percent as realistic as chicken, but in every other way, it’s superior. It requires far less energy to produce, it’s got no saturated fats, no antibiotics, and no animals are harmed in the process.”

I accept that taste is a subjective, personal and cultural aspect of human experience, and that some people, even including some non-meat eaters, don’t like the taste of certain meat alternatives. That’s perfectly understandable and normal. However, now it’s fair to say that there is a large enough range of meat substitutes, ranging from traditional foods like tofu to gourmet vegan sausages, to suit most palates.

In terms of taste, texture, and type, meat substitutes have come a long, long way from basic ‘TVP’ mince (Textured or texturized vegetable protein (TVP), also known as textured soy protein (TSP), soy meat, or soya chunks is a defatted soy flour product, a by-product of extracting soybean oil. It is often used as a meat analogue or meat extender. It is quick to cook, with a protein content far greater than meat – source: Wikipedia).

8. Meat and milk alternatives don’t have the variety of the ‘real’ thingTruth: the US and UK have a huge range of substitutes for beef, chicken, sausages, hotdogs, burgers, milk, cheese and convenience meals, including Beyond Meat, Gardein, Impossible Foods, Goodlife, Redwoods, Linda McCartney Foods and many more.

Here in Melbourne, Australia, we have access to a huge variety of meat alternatives, many of which are vegan (check labels – there is often egg-white used as binders in these products, for example). These include Sanitarium’s ‘Veggie Delights‘ range; Fry’s Vegetarian ‘meats’ range; Quorn’s veggie meat selection (all Quorn foods contain mycoprotein as an ingredient, which is derived from the Fusarium venenatum fungus and is grown by fermentation. The fungi culture is dried and mixed with egg albumen, which acts as a binder, and then is adjusted in texture and pressed into various forms – Quorn now has a vegan range); Zoglo’s Vegetarian Choice range and Vegan Perfection’s imported veggie meat substitute products. Importantly, many of these products are available in your local supermarket, and some in certain health food stores.

When I first gave up cow’s milk there were no plant milks or dairy substitutes in the local supermarket. Now, more and more people are choosing dairy alternatives for their smoothies, baking, or cream in their coffee.  It’s as now as easy as grabbing some almond, soy, rice, oat or coconut milk and you’re good to go. Other non-dairy alternatives such as vegan cheese have also come along way, with a plethora of quality varieties now widely used and available.

9. Meat and milk alternatives are too expensiveTruth: meat substitutes can range from incredibly cheap, such as beans, lentils and falafels, to higher-priced speciality foods, including gourmet meat and cheese analogues. It depends on a number of factors, including whether the products are imported or made locally, and how big the market is for the product.

I remember when I first went vegan in the early 1980s, soymilk – only available from some health food stores – was over $3.00 a litre – way out of my student price range! Now, well over 30 years later, I can get regular soymilk for a little over a dollar (Australian) per litre in my local supermarket. Meat, on the other hand, has gone way up in price since I ate meat in the ‘70s; except for chicken. Prime cuts of meat, particularly red meat, are not cheap, and in many cases far more expensive than the less processed whole-food plant protein sources such as beans, nuts and grains.

10. Meat and milk alternatives are for wimps who can’t handle the ‘real thing’Truth: there are plenty of super-fit and strong athletes, including some male athletes, who only consume vegan protein foods. For example, Patrik Baboumian, an Armenian-German with 50-cm biceps is one of the strongest men in the world, holding world records in log-lifting and dead-lifting (in September 20, 2015 Patrik officially beat his own world record by completing the ‘yoke walk’ with 560kg!). Patrik went vegetarian in 2005, then vegan in 2011. Patrik’s main protein sources are: soy-milk, soy-protein-powder, tofu, nuts and beans. He famously stated in 2013:

“Almost two years after becoming vegan I am stronger than ever before and I am still improving day by day. Don’t listen to those self-proclaimed nutrition gurus and the supplement industry trying to tell you that you need meat, eggs and dairy to get enough protein. There are plenty of plant-based protein sources and your body is going to thank you for stopping feeding it with dead-food. Go vegan and feel the power!”

David Carter is a huge US NFL defensive lineman, now known as the ‘300 pound vegan’. David needs a lot of (non-animal) protein for his size and his sport, which comes from many different sources, including rice and beans (which together make complete protein); whole grains like millet, quinoa, and couscous; supplements like spirulina and hemp protein; and nuts, which give him one of his favorite ingredients, cashew cheese made with nutritional yeast. Says David of his diet:

“People ask me if I want to get a steak and I tell them I actually don’t eat that, or any meat or dairy. They’re usually thinking, ‘Wait, you’re supposed to be small and weak.’ But of course they can’t say that when they’re looking at me.”

The truth is, plant food and drinks rich in protein that are vegan/vegetarian substitutes for meat and dairy products are abundant and hugely diverse. They can include more natural foods like beans, rice and nuts, and also more processed foods like veggie mince, protein supplements and plant milk and cheeses.

I would love to hear about your favourite meat and dairy alternatives, and how you incorporate them into your recipes and everyday meals. Let me know in the comments, or send me an email!

Tom Perry