PAWS Feature: Meat Substitutes


Mia Taggart

Meat substitutes, they’re everywhere; but what are they?  You might be familiar with tofu, perhaps the most common alternative protein, but what about tempeh? Seitan?  Not just for vegetarians anymore, here’s the skinny on substitutes.

Tofu may be new on the food scene in the U.S., but it’s been a part of Chinese cooking for the last two thousand years.  This source of protein is made from the coagulated juice of soybeans, the resulting bean curds pressed to form the blocks of tofu we can buy at the grocery store.  Tofu comes in differing textures, silken tofu most like a liquid, and firm or extra-firm varieties are more likely to be used in dishes to substitute for meat because they hold their form.

Similar to tofu, tempeh is also a soybean product, but its roots are Indonesian rather than Chinese.  To make tempeh, soybeans go through a controlled fermentation process, in which they are formed into a dense cake-like texture.  The full beans are present in the final product, giving tempeh a chewier texture and nuttier flavor than tofu.

Seitan, or wheat gluten, is a meat substitute free of soy ingredients.  To make seitan, a basic flour-water dough is prepared and kneaded, and the wheat ingredients of the flour are gradually washed away, leaving just the gluten. The texture of the gluten is a firm, but malleable dough that is cooked in water or broth before being cut and placed into part of a meal.  Many believe Seitan is the meat alternative protein that tastes and acts most like meat.

Per half cup serving, firm tofu, tempeh, and seitan have 88, 160, and 240 calories respectively.  Seitan is significantly higher in salt than tofu and tempeh, and has significantly more carbohydrates.  Seitan has the least amount of fat per half cup serving, at just three grams; tofu has five, and tempeh, nine.  Tempeh has the most fiber of the three.  Tofu contains 10 grams of protein per half cup serving, tempeh contains fifteen and a half, and seitan contains thirty-six.  All of these protein substitutes have their own benefits, and their nutritional information varies depending on how they are prepared.

Tofu and tempeh are commonly used in stir-fries, and cooked in sauces, but both can be fried for a snack, and tofu is also sometimes served raw.  Both proteins are typically marinated in sauce before cooking, allowing them to better absorb the flavors of the dish they become a part of.  Seitan is more commonly used as an exclusive meat substitute, often served marinated in barbecue sauce, but can also be used in stir-fry dishes.

Now that they’ve been hopefully somewhat demystified, why not consider these lean proteins in light of their health benefits as opposed to “meat substitutes.”  They’re just new forms of protein to try, regardless of whether you’re a vegetarian or not.