If you’re thinking about trying plant-based meat but feeling unsure about the ingredients, you’re not alone. Even though it may feel like the American diet is based largely on consuming meat — including red meat — the plant-based movement is bigger now than ever. Many of us who previously swore we’d never trade our beef burger for a veggie patty are now thinking about opting for meat alternatives more often.
One reason is that eating fewer animal products is good for the planet. Far fewer resources (like water and land) are required to grow plants than to farm animal meat. Going plant-based can also be better for your health for many reasons, including reducing your consumption of saturated fat that can lead to heart disease.
However, not all vegan diets are created equal, and certainly not all vegan meat is either. Join us as we answer the question, “What is plant-based meat made of?”
The 8 Most Common Ingredients in Plant-Based Meat
You’d be hard-pressed to find someone these days who hasn’t heard of Impossible Foods or Beyond Meat. These are just two brands among many that are creating meat substitutes for real meat like chicken, pork, and red meat. While it’s great that there are so many alternative protein sources to the animal meats that Americans seem to love, it’s important to be selective about which ones you choose. After all, is it really better to choose a product loaded with ingredients you can’t even pronounce?
Here are eight of the most common ingredients you’ll find in meatless meat products along with an explanation of each.
Soy and Tempeh
When meatless meat companies first came to market, many of their products were made from soybeans — hello, tofu and tempeh. Many companies continue to use this vegetable protein because of its meatlike texture. Also, because it doesn’t have a strong flavor of its own, soy more readily takes on the seasonings and flavors of other ingredients, making it quite versatile.
Soy is also high in protein and contains all nine essential amino acids. This makes it one of the rare plant sources of a complete protein (along with quinoa and pea protein), a dietary requirement normally filled by animal meat.
However, there has been some debate about soy’s relationship to estrogen levels, cancer, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Soy is also a common food allergy, so it may be a good idea to talk to your doctor or dietitian about how much soy protein you should consume.
Beans and Legumes
Black beans, chickpeas, mung beans, lentils — there’s an endless array of legumes to create meatless meat. Beans and legumes are considered to be a whole food and are excellent sources of protein and other nutrients like iron, folate, copper, manganese, fiber, and antioxidants, to name a few.
They are hearty and have a texture that serves as a good base for meat alternatives such as veggie burgers and sausages. Be careful, though, as beans and legumes can cause bloating and gas due to their high fiber content and high amounts of raffinose, a complex natural sugar.
Similar to beans and legumes, grains can be a great base for many meat alternatives. Millet, oats, quinoa, and brown rice are often found in veggie burgers because these grains can produce a chewy texture that mimics that of meat. Considered to be a whole food, grains can be high in fiber, B vitamins, iron, magnesium, and selenium.
That said, the source of the grains matters — a lot. Highly refined grains can be devoid of nutrients, and their high level of simple carbohydrates can lead to overeating and spikes in blood sugar.
Plus, if they aren’t organic, many grains may contain high levels of glyphosate, an active ingredient in the herbicide used to manage grain crops in the U.S. There has been concern about the use of glyphosate as it relates to long-term health risks like cancer, kidney and liver damage, harms to reproductive health, and more. Whenever possible, be sure the grains you consume are from organic, non-GMO sources.
Pea protein is one of the most common proteins used in many meat alternatives. It’s made from yellow peas and contains all nine essential amino acids, making it one of those rare plant-based sources of complete protein. It’s also more easily digested than some other plant-based proteins and doesn’t contain many of the top food allergens, such as gluten, dairy, and nuts.
Better still, pea protein is a sustainable alternative to chicken meat as farming chickens for meat uses 1.3 times more land and 3.6 times more water and emits 10.2 times more carbon dioxide (CO2) than farming peas for plant-based meat.
Fruit and Vegetable Juices
Beet juice and carrot juice are most commonly used in veggie burgers to produce a color similar to a typical real meat beef burger. The ever-popular Beyond Burger from Beyond Meat uses beet juice to get that red, beeflike color, and many other meatless companies have done the same. As a bonus, fruit and vegetable juices can enhance flavor, leading to a tasty final product.
Wheat Gluten and Seitan
Vital wheat gluten is the natural protein found in wheat. What makes wheat so attractive is the chewy texture that results when water hits the two main proteins: glutenin and gliadin. This glutinous texture makes for a “chews like the real thing” meat substitute, which is why wheat is often used in meatless meat products.
Vital wheat gluten is high in protein, low in fat and carbohydrates, and is a good source of minerals like iron and selenium. Combine water with vital wheat gluten and you get a product called seitan, which you’ve probably seen in most grocery stores. Because of its chewy texture, seitan is commonly used to replace pulled pork or chicken.
One caveat: wheat gluten (and seitan) contains gluten. As such, if you follow a gluten-free diet for any reason, this alternative meat is off-limits.
It’s hard to find a meatless meat product that doesn’t include some kind of oil. Many, if not most, plant proteins on the market are made with canola oil, though some use coconut oil or sunflower oil.
Unfortunately, canola oil is not a very good source of nutrition as it may contain small amounts of harmful trans fats, so it’s best to avoid it. Coconut oil can be a healthier choice, though there is some debate because of its high levels of saturated fat.
Sunflower oil is another option with potential downsides. However, despite some people’s hesitation about it, sunflower oil has many attractive health qualities. As with any oil, it’s important to choose a high-quality, well-sourced product. (That’s what we do here at Nowadays.)
When creating meat alternatives, it’s next to impossible to get by without a little help from some natural flavors. Many companies have come up with their own set of flavors combined to make up their own unique flair. Examples of natural flavors include yeast extract, fruit and vegetable juices like the ones mentioned above, spices and seasonings, and more.
One of the downsides of using natural flavors versus natural ones is their tendency to be high in sodium. As such, be particularly mindful about sodium content when shopping for plant-based meat products.
It’s also worth mentioning that many meatless companies use binders, gums, and bleaching agents (like titanium dioxide), all of which we avoid here at Nowadays (because … yuk!). Be sure to read the ingredient list and steer clear of any products with artificial flavors.
Health-Conscious and Non-GMO: What Nowadays Plant-Based Meat Is Made Of
What is plant-based meat made of? Now that you have a basic foundation to answer that question, let’s explore one option for you to consider: Nowadays plant-based vegan nuggets.
When we set out to create our meatless chicken nuggets, we came at it with one overarching goal: to make classic comfort food favorites that are better for you and the planet. Made with only seven simple ingredients that even kids can pronounce, our nuggets are non-GMO, 100% plant-based, and soy-free.
They are also free of thickeners, binders, artificial flavors, most common allergens, and sugar. After many iterations in the test kitchen, we came up with the perfect blend of whole ingredients to make a juicy-on-the-inside and crispy-on-the-outside nugget to rival any of those they aim to replace.
What’s more, each serving has 13 grams of protein and only 120 calories. Nowadays meatless nuggets are also cholesterol-free and contain less than half the amount of fat, carbs, and sodium compared to the leading chicken nuggets on the market.
Let’s break down our list of ingredients so you can see for yourself.
Depending on the source, most tap water is known to contain contaminants like aluminum, ammonium, arsenic, lead, nitrates, mercury, fluoride, copper, and too many others to mention. That’s why we use only filtered water for our nuggets. Because we only want the best, most health-conscious ingredients, right down to the water.
Organic Yellow Pea Protein
While pea protein is a common vegetable protein used in the making of many meat alternatives, we went the extra mile to ensure it’s organic, non-GMO, and sustainably grown by U.S. farmers. Not only does this ensure a better-for-you nugget, but it’s also supporting local farmers.
Whole Wheat Flour
We chose to use whole wheat flour for our breading instead of white flour. That’s because whole wheat flour contains more protein, iron, fiber, and calcium than its white flour counterpart. We’re also working on a gluten-free version of Nowadays meatless nuggets. Sign up here to be the first to know when they drop!
If you’re going to eat fried food, it’s a good idea to make sure that the oil your food is fried in isn't one full of unhealthy trans fats. We chose sunflower oil as it’s a good source of vitamins E and K and may be beneficial for heart health.
There’s no way around it: If you want to end up with a meat-like flavor using a plant protein source, you have to get creative. But you must do so wisely. That’s why we use yeast extract in our meatless nuggets. It is truly the not-so-secret ingredient for our umami (aka meaty flavor). It’s also how we were able to reduce the sodium content of our nuggets.
Yeast extract is rich in proteins and amino acids, which lend themselves to the deep layers of umami in our nuggets. This means we don’t have to use as much salt (read: sodium) because the flavor from the yeast extract is already so robust. Score!
One of the challenges meatless meat companies face is finding acceptable binders to replace eggs. An egg is a binder that effectively holds other food ingredients together. Without eggs, you need a viable alternative.
While many other meat substitutes contain things like xanthan gum, guar gum, and corn starch, to name a few, we’re thrilled to use maple fiber. (Yes, as in fiber from maple trees!) This sustainable source of healthy fiber is the perfect egg replacer.
Again, when it comes to producing meat alternatives from plant proteins, it’s impossible to do so without a little help from some friends. We chose a mushroom extract from cordyceps mushrooms to help us achieve that natural, chicken-like flavor for Nowadays nuggets.
What Is Plant-Based Meat Made Of? Be Sure You Have The Answer Before You Buy
Your cells are fueled by the food you eat, so it’s crucial to inform yourself about what you and your family are actually consuming. (In this instance, you want to be a picky eater.)
Whether you’re shopping online or at the grocery store, be sure to scan the ingredients with your now superpowered, super-informed eyes. Here at Nowadays, we’ve made it our mission to be a company you can trust when it comes to the health of you, your family, and the planet.So the next time you’re in search of a meat alternative, consider checking out Nowadays chicken nuggets — you’ll find wholesome ingredients you recognize and a tasty, easy way to crave better.