Is Processed Vegetarian Food Safe?

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Is it healthy to eat tofu and faux meats like tempeh, seitan, or textured vegetable protein?

NUTRITION In simpler days, being a vegetarian meant you avoided meat and ate vegetables. Nowadays, you are likely to run into a self-proclaimed "vegetarian" that eats poultry. There are no less than six categories of vegetarian. A growing number of meat substitutes are enticing vegans and carnivores alike.

To a vegetarian, it can be quite confusing to read on a vegan menu entrees like Spicy Buffalo Wings, Sante Fe Chickin' or Carne Asada. Apparently restaurants like The Veggie Grill and Native Foods are reaching out to the masses who are impressed when fooled with meat substitutes. In the July/August 2011 Westways magazine, The Veggie Grill co-founders, Kevin Boyland and T.K. Pillan state, "90 percent of our guests are meat eaters." Pillan continues, "If you don't look at our menu carefully, you don't know it's vegetarian." The Veggie Grill also serves a variety of entrees and side dishes to compliment the faux meat.

Anyone who has been a vegetarian for long is not generally on a quest for simulated meat flavor. There is, however, a desire to include appetizing protein with the roughage. The cuisine vegetarians look for generally includes salads, soups and stir fry or pasta dishes. Tofu, beans, nuts, and lentils are standard protein staples.

Partial List of Processed Vegetarian Food
Item Composition or Ingredients Protein (1 cup) [1]
Tempeh Usually made from fermented whole soybeans, although you can also find varieties made with brown rice, millet, barley, quinoa, or mixes of grains. [2] 5.1 g
Tofu Made of coagulated soy milk in a variety of textures, from soft to super firm. [2] 5.8 g
Liquid Egg Substitute Made mostly (99%) from egg whites. [3] 30.1 g
Textured Vegetable Protein From soy flour after the soybean oil has been extracted, then cooked under pressure, extruded, and dried. [4] 48 g
Seitan Made from wheat gluten. 120 g

Health Concerns

Processed vegetarian foods are made from natural ingredients. However, they can run afoul with the raw vegan mindset. So-called egg substitutes containing egg whites may be acceptable to ovo-lacto vegetarians, but not to vegans. Seitan (say-tahn), used for mock chicken, beef and pork, is not suitable for gluten-free diets (celiac disease). So acceptance boils down to dietary tolerances and personal taste. Sans preservatives, organic (this is key) faux meats should be no more dangerous than natural peanut butter.

Update July 30, 2011: Are there Neurotoxins in Your Veggie Burger? Many of the common brands of soy burgers contain a neurotoxin called hexane, an explosive byproduct of gasoline refinement. Workers who come in dermal (skin) contact with hexane experience immediate irritation characterized by erythema and hyperemia, and they develop blisters after several hours. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sets permissible exposure level at 500 parts per million (ppm) for workers with 8-hour exposures to hexane. If exposed to 800 ppm of hexane for 15 minutes or longer, workers can develop eye and upper respiratory tract irritation and will show mild symptoms of narcosis (unconsciousness caused by a chemical substance) if exposed to 1,000 ppm. At high exposure levels, workers will develop vertigo, headache, and nausea (after 10 minutes of exposure to 5,000 ppm). [5]

Hexane is a cost-effective and highly efficient method for separating whole soybeans into soy oil, soy protein isolate, or texturized soy protein (TVP). Tofu and soymilk are very rarely processed with hexane-extracted ingredients.

Dining In Style

Tofu, quinoa, egg substitutes, and cous cous are often readily available for home cooking. Tempeh, TVP and seitan may require shopping at a health food store or preparing from scratch. But what about eating out?

Most mainstream restaurants do little to satisfy the palates and dietary concerns of vegetarians. They generally offer a dinner salad with iceberg lettuce and cherry tomatoes, steamed vegetables, baked potato or canned soup. Some restaurants keep frozen veggie patties in stock for the occasional vegan. Depending on your location, a growing number of vegetarian food chains are opening alongside mamma-pappa vegan restaurants. Some openly identify products such as seitan, others disguise them with meat-sounding names like "chickin," while others have no distinction for non-animal products. When in doubt, ask the server for ingredient list with nutritional information. It might also be possible to have a small taste before ordering an entree.

As is the case with plain pasta, rice, grits, polenta or oatmeal, meat substitutes are bland if unseasoned. So it is egregious to simply substitute marinated meat in one dish for chunks of raw tofu. Seasoning and portions must be adjusted. Few chefs understand this like the one at Sage Organic Vegan Bistro; there is currently only one location in the Echo Park area of Los Angeles (see sidebar), so if you're in town, give them a try. In terms of presentation and breadth of vegan options available, Sage serves gourmet food in what looks like an unassuming ice cream parlor. Sage judiciously incorporates animal protein substitutes to create delightful flavors that do not necessarily replicate meat. Their macaroni and cashew cheeze [sic] balls are a fantastic example. Their Soul Bowl (pictured) includes one cheeze ball alongside fresh, grilled and fried vegetables. When you can't fight the freeways to reach Echo Park, Real Food Daily is also worthy of a visit in either Los Angeles or Santa Monica.

Tags: dietitian, fake meat, faux chicken, herbivores, mock beef, omnivorous, soy meat

  1. Self Nutritian Data.
  2. Tempeh: The Other Faux Meat.
  3. What is Egg Substitute and Does it Contain Eggs?
  4. All About Textured Vegetable Protein - TVPĀ®.
  5. Behind the Bean (PDF).