Katie’s Healthy Bites: Comparing Meat Alternatives

by in Healthy Recipes, Vegan, April 21, 2011
Tofu Tacos
Tofu Tacos - Image Courtesy Food Network Magazine

Whether you’re a new vegetarian or just want to eat a few more meatless meals each week, we’ve got the nutritional breakdown and the basics about 3 of the most popular meat alternatives: tofu, seitan and tempeh.

Tofu
Tofu, the most well-known meat alternative, originated in China and is made from soybeans through a process of coagulating soy milk.  Tofu is sold on the market in a variety of textures ranging from soft to extra-firm, as well as variations of fresh and processed.  Soft or silken tofu contains the highest amount of moisture and is useful for making desserts, smoothies and sauces.  Firm tofu is useful for sautéing with other vegetables for a meat alternative.  Tofu is very bland by itself, however when paired with seasonings and sauces, tofu absorbs other flavors very quickly. Compared to seitan and tempeh, tofu contains more fat, however is much higher in calcium and iron.

Seitan
Seitan, also known as “wheat meat,” is made by washing wheat flour dough with water until all the starch is dissolved and only wheat gluten is left. Seitan originated in Japan and China, where it is commonly consumed as a vegan meat alternative. Seitan has a chewy and dense texture, but because of its density it doesn’t absorb flavors as quickly as tofu. Seitan is sold many different ways, like Tofurky deli slices or marinated ready-to-eat strips. If you are a meat lover looking for an alternative, seitan may be the best choice for you.  However, most vegetarians who dislike the texture of meat stay away from seitan. Of the three alternatives we’re comparing, it has the most protein but also the most sodium.

Tempeh
Tempeh is a traditional soy product originally made in Indonesia, making it unique in comparison to tofu and seitan. Tempeh is made from soybeans during a natural culturing and fermentation process that binds soybeans into a solid form. Tempeh has a nutty flavor alone and absorbs marinades and brines, similar to tofu. Tempeh is often prepared in thin slices and fried, producing a crispy crust with a soft interior.  Tempeh may be eaten with salads or sandwiches, or used as an addition to chili, sauces, or stews. Tempeh contains the most fiber and more protein than tofu because it contains the whole bean.  The soy protein in tempeh is more digestable because of  the fermentation process.

All three meat alternatives are excellent healthy sources of protein. Interested in incorporating some meat free meals into your diet?  Try these tasty recipes:

Seitan Miso Stir Fry
Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients:
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 medium onion, cut in half and sliced thinly
1 Tablespoons minced fresh ginger
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 medium sized carrot, peeled and sliced very thin
2 cups broccolini
1 cup shredded green cabbage
1 red pepper, sliced thinly
8 oz seitan
2 T light miso
2 T tamari (soy sauce)
2 T rice vinegar
Pinch crushed red pepper (optional)

Directions:
Heat oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add onion and pepper and cook for 2 minutes. Add garlic and ginger. Cook 2 minutes. Add broccoli and seitan and cook for 2 more minutes. Mix miso into 1/4 cup warm water.  Add tamari and rice vinegar.  Stir to combine.  Add to stir-fry and cook for 2 more minutes. Serve.

Nutrition Info Per Serving:
167 calories, 15 g protein, 15 g car, 5 .5 g fat, .45 g sat fat

TELL US: What is your favorite meat alternative?

Katie Cavuto Boyle, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, personal chef and owner of HealthyBites, LLC. See Katie’s full bio »

Jennifer Bishara also contributed to this article.

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