4 Great Vegetarian Sources of Protein
By Kim Kash
Maybe you’re trying to reduce or eliminate animal products from your diet. Maybe you’re just looking to add additional protein sources to your dinner plate. Or perhaps you’re simply interested in culinarily mixing it up a little. Whatever the reason, it’d probably benefit you to look into protein alternatives given, according to the USDA, the average adult American male ate 293 pounds of meat last year. The average woman ate 183 pounds. No one needs to eat that much of anything.
But before we begin, to call these ingredients “meat substitutes” isn’t really fair. It sets all these yummy foods up for failure. If you’re looking for something that tastes like steak, well, only steak tastes like steak. The same goes for fish. I’d say the same goes for chicken, but everything tastes like chicken. The mistake is in thinking that you can prepare tempeh or seitan or any other nonanimal protein and it will taste like meat. Instead, learn how to prepare these four great alternative protein sources, and enjoy the flavors and textures for their own sake.
As far back as 100 BC, the Chinese pressed soymilk curds into soft, white slabs of tofu. These days tofu is available in almost any grocery store, in consistencies ranging from soft to extra firm. Straight out of the package, it is squishy and pretty much tasteless. Its beauty lies in its ability to absorb flavors. It can be cubed and thrown into your stir-fry. It can be whirled into your smoothie to make it creamier. It can be sliced in slabs, marinated, and grilled. You can use it to make mock cheesecake, “creamy” sauces and dressings, cheese-like pasta fillings, and much more.
Tofu is the most ubiquitous and versatile of the meat analogues, and in addition to being a low-calorie, complete protein (raw tofu is approximately 20 calories per ounce), it also contains omega-3 fatty acids, manganese, iron, and copper (which helps red blood cells use that iron). Most tofu is also enriched with calcium during processing. It can help lower total cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease, and its phytoestrogens (plant-derived estrogens) have been shown to ease menopausal symptoms.
But be careful—tofu becomes a problem in processed foods. Almost every “healthy” vegetarian frozen food or faux meat contains tofu or some other highly processed soy product. And that’s not good. Eating a healthy, balanced diet means not relying too heavily on any one specific food—and that includes tofu.
What’s the problem with eating soy all the time? 90% of the U.S. soybean crop is genetically modified. No studies have yet shown that genetically modified foods pose any health risks, but no genetically engineered food crops grew in this country before the 1980s. We join a large chorus of skeptics who question the wisdom of genetically modifying our food supply until more is understood about the human response to this kind of tinkering. Avoid this by only buying soy products that have been certified organic.
Another grey area surrounding soy is its relation with cancer. On one hand, researchers have found that eating lots of soy might help prevent breast and endometrial cancers in women and prostate cancer in men. However, some studies using animal subjects suggest that high amounts of phytoestrogens might actually promote breast cancer. While the scientific community works to find answers, we feel it’s OK to enjoy soy in your kitchen in moderation. Just not at every meal.
Tempeh is another soy product, but it is made from fermented, whole soybeans and is less processed than tofu. So you get all the benefits of soy—the protein, the trace minerals, the phytoestrogens—plus the probiotic boost that fermented foods offer.
After the beans are fermented, they are pressed into a firm, textured cake. Like tofu, tempeh is a versatile ingredient that absorbs other flavors like a sponge. But unlike tofu, tempeh has an earthy, nutty flavor that makes it delicious to eat on its own.
To enjoy, slice the cake into slabs and stir-fry it, marinate and grill it, use it in chili or jambalaya, or even use it to make burgers.
Also known as mock duck, this vegetarian protein is made from wheat gluten, so if you’re not on a gluten-free diet, it’s perfect if you are allergic or are trying to cut down on soy products.
Like soy, seitan is high in protein and low in fat. It also resembles meat in both color and texture when it’s cooked. Like soy products, seitan takes on whatever flavor you add to it, so it’s perfect for marinating. In fact, you can buy seitan already marinated in barbecue or teriyaki sauce. Use it as a substitute in recipes that call for firm tofu or tempeh.
Quinoa, which is grain-like (and can be cooked like other grains), is actually a seed. It’s also gluten free. Eat it in the morning as a hot cereal, use it as the base for a tabbouleh or pilaf, enjoy it in your salad, or include ground quinoa as one of the grains in a homemade loaf of multigrain bread. You may even find pasta made from quinoa in your grocery store.
Quinoa contains all 9 essential amino acids, making it a complete protein. It’s particularly well-stocked with the amino acid lysine, which helps with tissue growth and repair. Maybe that’s why quinoa was called “the gold of the Incas.” It is also a good source of folate, phosphorus, manganese, and magnesium. And it’s delicious!