An increased interest in plant-based eating has led to an increased number of “convenient” vegan and vegetarian options on grocery store shelves. But the golden rule of food still applies: the more processing involved, the less nutritious the food will be.
Just as I would encourage someone who eats meat to purchase raw, boneless, skinless chicken breast instead of breaded, pre-fried chicken nuggets, I also would encourage someone sticking to plant protein to choose natural sources such as:
- Soy foods, like tofu, tempeh or edamame.
- Lentils, beans, nuts and seeds
- Peas or one of the several of the whole-grain proteins available
I’d recommend you buy these if you’re going “meat-free” instead of faux meat crumbles or meatless burger patties. If you need to find a few convenient meatless options, make sure to ask the following questions.
How Long is the Ingredient List?
Just like the deli meat and hot dogs made with meat, the meatless alternatives can be loaded with fillers, thickeners and stabilizers. Xanthan and guar gums, as well as carrageenan, are common examples. Although food additives are approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there’s certainly no nutritional value. When you can, you should avoid them. Look for options with short, easy-to-read ingredient lists.
How Much Sodium?
Salt not only improves flavor but can also help with freshness, so it is no wonder it is used in nearly all processed foods. Meat alternatives are no exception. A general rule is to stick to foods with 200 mg of sodium or less per serving. So the vegan hot dog with 560 mg of sodium wouldn’t be my first choice.
What Is the Protein Source? Is It Complete?
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. The human body can make many amino acids; however, there are nine “essential amino acids” that must come from food. All meats are considered “complete” proteins because they contain all nine of the essential amino acids.
There are several plant-based complete proteins: quinoa, soy (tofu, tempeh, edamame and soy milk), Ezekiel bread, spirulina, as well as hemp and chia seeds. Combinations such as rice and beans, pita bread and hummus, or peanut butter and whole wheat bread have all nine essential amino acids. The essential amino acids do not need to come from the same food or even the same meal, as long as you get enough of each throughout the day. In addition to making sure you are getting all the proper building blocks of protein, you should also be aware of the quality.
Soy protein isolate, for example, is an inexpensive, but highly processed vegan protein source. Other products rely on wheat gluten, or seitan, which must be avoided by those with celiac disease or gluten intolerance. Mycoprotein, used by the company Quorn is made from fungus, and although the FDA has deemed it safe, if you have severe allergies you should avoid it.
It Might Be Free of Cholesterol, But What About Fat?
Fat is an important part of a healthy diet, but some choices are better than others. Cholesterol is a fat specific to animal products, so nearly all vegan options will be free of it.
But they will all have some type of added fat because it adds flavor and texture. With that idea in mind, choose items with canola, olive, flaxseed and safflower oils. These oils contain more healthy unsaturated fats.
Tropical oils, such as palm and coconut, are extremely high in saturated fat. Although it’s slightly different than animal-product saturated fats, there’s little research on how high amounts of these oils affect our health in the long term. Regardless of which type of oil they have added, always return the product to the shelf if the word “hydrogenated” comes before the type of oil. The process of hydrogenation creates trans-fat which is very hard on your health.
You can apply what you've learned with this great recipe for Teriyaki Tempeh and Vegetables.
Lauren Cornay, RD, LN, is an Outpatient Dietitian at Avera Heart Hospital. Learn more about healthy nutrition.