By Mary Winter
Many Americans are turning to new meat-like foods made of soy and other plant proteins but with the approximate taste and appearance of traditional chicken, burgers, bacon and ground beef as alternatives to animal flesh.
Some do it for environmental and ethical reasons as a protest against factory-farm methods commonly used to raise poultry and livestock, which they consider inhumane. But many are also incorporating the so-called meat analogues into their diets for health reasons.
Soy alternatives generally are free of fat and cholesterol or contain low levels of them. Soy products also can provide essential fatty acids, and are generally good sources of protein and fiber.
Last spring, New York Times food critic Mark Bittman gave a Maryland-based maker of soy-based chicken strips a huge endorsement when he wrote that he was fooled badly in a blind taste test comparing the product with real chicken.
Beyond Meat, now available in some prepared foods in Whole Foods markets, is made by Savage River Farms, co-owned by Ethan Brown. Here is what Bittman wrote about the product in an article entitled Chicken Without Guilt:
On its own, Browns chicken produced to mimic boneless, skinless breast looks like a decent imitation, and the way it shreds is amazing. It doesnt taste much like chicken, but since most white meat chicken doesnt taste like much anyway, thats hardly a problem; both are about texture, chew and the ingredients you put on them or combine with them. When you take Browns product, cut it up and combine it with, say, chopped tomato and lettuce and mayonnaise with some seasoning in it, and wrap it in a burrito, you wont know the difference between that and chicken. I didnt, at least, and this is the kind of thing I do for a living. Brown does not see his product as a trendy meat replacement forvegansbut one with more widespread use.
Ingredients in Beyond Meat include: water, soy protein isolate, pea protein isolate, amaranth, natural vegan chicken flavor (maltodextrin, yeast extract, natural flavoring), soy fiber, carrot fiber, expeller-pressed canola oil, dipotassium phosphate, titanium dioxide, white vinegar.
The veggie chicken strips have no saturated or trans fats, no cholesterol or dairy, no antibiotics or hormones. Additionally, Savage River Farms boasts that 3 ounces of the product contains 19 grams of protein, 190 mg sodium, and only 100 calories.
Beyond Meat is the result of 20 years of research by Fu-Hung Hsieh, a professor of biological engineering at the University of Missouris College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources.
According to the college, Eating soy protein may help reduce the risk of heart disease by lowering blood cholesterol and increasing the flexibility of blood vessels. The FDA has approved a health claim stating that 25 grams of soy protein in a daily diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol can help reduce total and LDL cholesterol that is moderately high to high.
Additionally, soy protein is a good source of high quality protein, B vitamins, iron and fiber, and is very low in total fat, according to the Soyfoods Association of North America.
Bittman speculates that Beyond Meat has the potential to replace some of the chicken in a McNugget, or become a meat substitute at Chick-fil-A or Chipotle.
He points out that the Department of Agriculture already permits up to 30 percent soy products in school lunch meats, and that a third of Americans now eat meatless meals a significant amount of the time, according to a Harris poll commissioned by the Vegetarian Resource Group.
Nancy Chapman, executive director of the Soyfoods Association of North America, said that worldwide, sales of soy-based meat alternatives are steadily going up.
In 2011, consumers spent $662 million on soy-based meat alternatives, up from $607 million in 2008, $622 million in 2009, and $649 million in 2010.
The best-selling soy-based product in 2011 was energy bars, ($1.09 billion) which surpassed soy milk sales ($1.03 billion) for the first time in 2011.
In the past 15 years, from 1996 to 2011, soy food sales increased from $1 billion to $5.2 billion, and saw a dramatic uptick following the FDAs approval of the health claim linking soy with heart disease reduction in 1999, Chapman said.
Companies such as Kelloggs and Kraft have been making vegetarian products under such names as Morning Star Farms and Boca burgers for several years. Newer companies, including Savage River Farms and Canadas Gardein have made dramatic advances in texture and flavor, she said.
Todays large variety of soy products ground-beef-like crumbles, chicken-like strips and sausage-like links are easy to utilize in popular dishes, she added.
Soy-based meat analogues offer protein equivalent to that of animal products, and are the perfect bridge food for anyone wanting to move toward less meat and more plants in their diets.