By Perry Santanachote, Life by Daily Burn
One of the biggest meat-eating holidays is upon us: Thanksgiving. A time when even the most steadfast vegetarians crave a centerpiece to carve; when steely will and tasty side dishes alone won’t cut it.
Many imitation turkey products, including “Tofurky,” are available this time of year to cater to the 7 percent of Americans that consider themselves vegetarians—especially those who still miss their meat. Dr. Brian Wansink, a food psychologist at Cornell University and author of Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life, says, “People who are attracted to meat-shaped veggie foods are vegetarian for health reasons, not animal-rights reasons, and they’re the biggest growing part of that market.”
A Mintel report shows that indeed 36 percent of consumers (including non-vegetarians) are buying meat alternatives to be healthier. But are these products really any better for us? Sure, cutting back on meat (especially red meat) can help prevent heart disease and cancer in some cases, but replacing it with processed meat substitutes comes with a price of its own.
Most meat substitutes are highly processed and full of artificial fillers—not unlike the hot dogs we might have already sworn off. Many are made from soy protein isolate, wheat gluten and other textured vegetable proteins, but also questionable ingredients that help gel and mold them into meat-like shapes.
Rachel Berman, R.D., author of Boosting Your Metabolism for Dummies and health editor at About.com, says to read the box before buying. “Be wary of a long ingredient list,” she says. “The more it has, the more likely there are additives and preservatives in there to stabilize the food, add flavor, or change its consistency.”
Some of these additives put into processed foods include unhealthy amounts of extra salt, fat and sugar — and those are the ingredients we can pronounce! Other artificial additives have been shown to have side effects that include nausea, dizziness, weight gain, decreased absorption of minerals and vitamins, and even cancer. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has a list of additives to avoid and their potential side effects.
Most ingredients in imitation turkeys still do look better than processed meats, and better than many other meat substitutes in the frozen food section, too. But not all are created equal.
For those vegetarians buying a fake turkey this year, Berman recommends opting for an all-natural choice like Gardein’s Savory Stuffed Turk’y. “They’re making an effort to use all-natural ingredients, nothing genetically engineered and mostly things that you’re able to pronounce,” she says. “Plus, they contain no chemicals or genetically modified soy, which most others use.”
Products like Quorn’s Turk’y Roast, which uses mycoprotein, a processed mold, gets a big thumbs down for Berman. “There have been many reports of this stuff causing gastrointestinal distress and no research saying this is something that is healthy,” she says. “It’s totally artificial and basically a fungus made in a test tube.”
Like many processed foods, fake meat is also high in sodium, but it doesn’t have as much saturated fat as the real stuff. Most of them, however, match real turkey gram for gram when it comes to protein, plus they include fiber, which is a bonus. So, treating yourself to a faux turkey one day out of the year isn’t going to kill you, but it’s not exactly health food, either. “I don’t really like to label any one food good or bad because it’s really about the sum of what you’re eating in a day,” says Berman. “If you’re going to eat an imitation food, just make sure the rest of your meal is coming from the earth.”
So why not just opt for Thanksgiving tofu and green beans instead? Many vegetarians find it’s hard to shake tradition on this holiday. “It’s not just about food, but it’s also rituals and visuals,” says Wansink. “There’s a lot of variation with other holiday dinners, but not with Thanksgiving. There’s the traditional five dishes, and if you stray too far, people will think you’re robbing them of an experience.”
“It’s not the goal of Thanksgiving to be the healthiest meal of the year anyway,” adds Wansink. “Its goal is to be gleeful and thankful.”
What’s Really in Tofurky and Other Vegetarian Turkey
Here are some of the most common imitations roasts available during the holiday season, ranked in order from best to worst by Rachel Berman.
1. Gardein Savory Stuffed Turk’y Serving Size: 1 piece (150 g)Calories: 280, 110 calories from fatFat: 12 g (1g sat. fat)Sodium: 590 mgCarbohydrates: 21 gProtein: 23 gDietary Fiber: 3 g
Ingredients:water, soy protein isolate*, vital wheat gluten*, expeller pressed/canola oil, organic ancient grain flour (kamut ®, amaranth, millet, quinoa), natural flavors (from plant sources), modified vegetable gum, yeast extract, sea salt, potato starch, organic cane sugar, onion powder, garlic powder, pea protein, carrot fiber, beetroot fiber, extractives of paprika and turmeric. stuffing: water, stuffing crumbs (wheat flour*, natural cane sugar, yeast, sea salt, canola oil), onions, celery, cranberries, canola oil, natural flavors (from plant sources), yeast extract. breading: wheat flour*, water, sugar, wheat gluten*, spices, salt, paprika, leavening (baking soda, cream of tartar), yeast, onion powder, extractives of paprika. *non-genetically engineered soy and wheat
2. Tofurky Roast Serving Size: 1/6 roast (147 g)Calories: 300, Calories from Fat 60Fat: 7 g, (0 g sat. fat)Sodium: 620 mgCarbohydrates: 16 gProtein: 42 gDietary Fiber: 3 g
Ingredients:ROAST: Water, vital wheat gluten, organic tofu (filtered water, organic whole soybeans, magnesium chloride, calcium chloride), expeller pressed non-genetically engineered canola oil, natural vegetarian flavors, shoyu soy sauce (water, non-genetically engineered soybeans, wheat, salt, culture), non-genetically engineered corn starch, white bean flour, garbanzo bean flour, lemon juice from concentrate, onion, carrots, celery, salt, calcium lactate from beets.
STUFFING: Organic brown rice, whole wheat bread cubes (whole wheat, filtered water, unbleached wheat flour, organic evaporated cane juice, organic palm oil, sea salt, yeast, natural enzymes, ascorbic acid), onion, celery, expeller pressed non-genetically engineered canola oil, organic wild rice, natural vegetarian seasoning, granulated garlic, herbs and spices.
3. Field Roast Celebration Roast Serving Size: 4 ounces (114 g)Calories: 280, 90 calories from fatFat: 10 g (.5g sat. fat)Sodium: 710 mgCarbohydrates: 16 gProtein: 31 gDietary Fiber: 6 g
Ingredients:Filtered water, vital wheat gluten, expeller pressed safflower oil, naturally ﬂavored yeast extract, barley malt, whole wheat flour, granulated garlic, butternut squash, organic wheat ﬂakes, onion powder, apples, garlic, mushrooms, yellow pea ﬂour, lentils, lemon juice, irish moss (sea vegetable) extract, sea salt, red wine, tomato paste, black pepper, rubbed sage, rosemary, paprika, spices, natural liquid smoke and carrots.
4. Five Star Foodies Vegetarian Harvest Roast Serving Size: 1 roll (170 g)Calories: 290, 110 calories from fatFat: 12 gSodium: 830 mgCarbohydrates: 16 gProtein: 30 gDietary Fiber: 1 g
Ingredients:Seitan (water, wheat gluten, whole wheat flour), unbleached white, oat, rye, soy flour, millet, poppy & sesame seeds, soy sauce (water, wheat, soybeans, salt), vegetable seasoning, yuba (soybeans, water), organic sugar, salt, olive oil, spices, yeast
5. VegeUSA Vegan Whole Turkey Serving Size: 2.5 ouncesCalories: 160Fat: 9 gSodium: 450 mgSugar: 3 gProtein: 13 gDietary Fiber: 1 g
Ingredients:Soybean fiber, soybean protein, vegetable protein, raw cane sugar, starch, soybean oil, natural vegan flavor, sea salt, cinnamon powder, tofu skin
6. Quorn Turk’y Roast Serving Size: 90 gCalories: 100, 40 calories from fatFat: 4.5 g (1g sat. fat)Sodium: 540 mgCarbohydrates: 3 gProtein: 13 gDietary Fiber: 4 g
Ingredients:Mycoprotein (59%), Water, Onion, Natural Flavors From Non-Meat Sources, Refined Rapeseed Oil, Rehydrated Egg White, Milk Proteins. Contains 2% or less of Potato Maltodextrin, Salt, Tapioca Dextrin, Yeast Extract, Onion Powder, Sage Extract, Garlic Powder, Gum Arabic; Sunflower, Coconut and Palm Kernel Oil.
For comparison: Roasted Turkey Meat with SkinServing Size: 3 ouncesCalories: 165Fat: 6 gramsSodium: 54 milligramsSugar: 0 gramsProtein: 26 gramsDietary Fiber: 0 grams
Originally posted on November 2013. Updated November 2015.