So you want to know where we get our protein? You always ask, because you eat meat and we just turned down barbecued ribs/hamburger/chicken kabobs, highlighting the fact that we don’t eat meat, or don’t eat it often or are super-picky about where it comes from.
So you asked: “How do you get enough protein?”
Well…we get protein from vegetables, believe it or not. We get it from sweet potatoes, squash, spinach and a multicultural party of red, black, white and brown beans. We get it from soybeans, tofu, edamame and soy milk (no that’s not too much soy by the way, but that’s another story), and also from wheat, rye, barley (we’re not gluten-free), and also from hemp, flax, brown rice, wild rice, quinoa, oats, and also from peanuts, almonds, cashews, walnuts and pine-nuts-when-they’re-on-sale.
Is that enough for you?
A vegetarian diet can brim with protein. Check out the USDA list of protein in various foods. Only a few of them moo.
Faux meats also are a good source of protein for vegetarians, or anyone, providing amino acids, Omega oils, fiber, vitamins and other good stuff in our diet.
These “meats” are much improved from the early days that brought us rubbery “crumbles” and bland “bologna”. They’re so much improved that they’re proliferating at large supermarkets and morphing in an amazing array of faux hot dogs, bratwursts, meatballs and of course veggie burgers at the natural food stores that have always carried such products.
We suspect even non-vegetarians would enjoy many of these main dishes or sandwich fillings, if they could sort them out. So here’s our guide.
First, you’ll want to check the label if you are eating a gluten-free diet, because many of these products contain wheat. Just keep checking the labels, though, because some veggie burgers and “meats” are gluten-free.
Next, just as you would when shopping for whole vegetables, you will want to look for the USDA Organic label. Many faux meat concoctions are organic and choosing organic will help you avoid buying soy-based products that have been processed with hexane.
Hexane is a petroleum-based solvent, a byproduct of gasoline production, that ‘s used to separate the soybean oil from the meat of the bean, whether or not it leaves harmful residues in manufactured soy products is controversial. It’s also a neurotoxin.
In 2010, the Cornucopia Institute, an advocacy for organic foods, raised a red flag about hexane processing in soy-based meat substitutes. In “Toxic Chemicals: Banned in Organics But Common in ‘Natural’ Food Production,” a Cornucopia team reported that some of these products, when tested, contained contained hexane residues that exceeded the limits set in the Europe Union (the US doesn’t have a set limit). The Institute produced a list of meatless meat substitutes that identified which ones were free of hexane-extracted soy protein; basically the USDA Organic-certified products, because rules for organics don’t allow hexane processing.
Levels of hexane residue registered as high as 21 parts per million in samples cited by the Cornucopia Institute, which exceeded the EU limit of 10 parts per million.
That was still far less than what the US EPA considers safe. The US agency, which sets tolerances for pesticides and toxic chemicals, has set .06 milligrams per kilogram of weight as a safe limit for hexane. That means that a person weighing 150 pounds could safely consume 4 milligrams of hexane residues. (Since we’re comparing apples and oranges here, and in metric no less, think of it this way: 4 milligrams is way, way more than 21 ppm. So, in the EPA’s view is that there’s no big problem with these small hexane residues in soy products.)
The Soy Foods Association of North America also considers the hexane issue to be a nonstarter. The group disputes Cornucopia’s concerns about hexane in “natural” soy meat substitutes, explaining in a fact sheet that:
Hexane has been commonly used for over 70 years to extract oil from soybeans, corn, canola, cotton seed, safflower seeds, sunflower seeds and other oilseeds. It is also commonly used to produce other ingredients like flavorings and spice extracts. After oil extraction, the
remaining components go through an evaporation process that removes substantially all the hexane from the oil and defatted flour. This flour may be further separated into protein concentrates or isolates that are used in making veggie burgers and many other meat alternatives. The multiple steps to making soyfoods further eliminate residual hexane from the finished ingredients.
Indeed, much of the Cornucopia report focuses on a separate danger from hexane processing: the release of air emissions that have harmed factory workers and could affect people living near soybean processing plants.
“Many consumers of natural and organic products would likely gasp if they knew that one of the ‘processing agents’ used to manufacture their food was also used in tire manufacturing,” investigators said.
So sticking to the mechanical or expeller press extraction methods, the Cornucopia team advises, is the best way to assure both that your soy food product is pure and the air less polluted.
Mechanical, as opposed to chemical, processing of the soybean (separating the oil and the solids) costs more (as you probably guessed) but confers nutritional benefits by leaving nutrients like lecithin and Vitamin E intact, say natural food advocates.
Choosing organic has yet another benefit: No pesticides are allowed during the growing of the soybeans, which rules out modified (GM) or genetically engineered (GE) soybeans designed to be grown with the help of pesticides.
For many consumers, yet another benefit is knowing that Organic methods help restore the soil and don’t contribute to chemical run off or superweeds.
Non-organic growers defend their practices by saying the chemicals enable them to grow more per acre, which keeps prices down and food supplies abundant, though organic advocates dispute that, saying their process provides for better long term yields.
We’ve now arrived at the cutting edge of the debate over organic vs. non-organic foods, where researchers debate the harm, yields and sustainability of their respective methods. This is a long story for another day.
Returning to the hexane issue, we wrote to a couple prominent companies to get their response to being on Cornucopia’s don’t-buy list because they “likely” use the polluting chemical.
One, Gardein, wrote back to say it does not use hexane-extraction.
Laurel Spencer, spokeswoman for Canadian-produced Gardein was unequivocal: “We do not use hexane in the processing of our products and hexane is not used or present in our plant.”
She also sang the praises of eating plant-based protein. “The protein in Gardein products is a combination of soy, pea, wheat and ancient grains. The soy we use is soy protein isolate – specifically chosen because of its high quality and the many nutritional benefits it adds to our foods. Soy protein isolate is a complete protein – one that contains all the essential amino acids and contains less than one percent fat. Unlike animal protein, it has no cholesterol and little or no saturated fat.
This sounded wonderful. And we were so relieved. We could eat Gardein!
Cornucopia, though, cautioned against taking companies at their word. Food companies that say they “do not use hexane in the processing” of their products, could be skirting the actual question and playing a semantic trick.
“Many food manufacturers buy soy protein ingredients from large corporate suppliers like Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) and Solae, which is a joint venture between agribusiness giants Gunge and DuPont,” Cornucopia investigators wrote in their report.
“The company that makes and markets the veggie burger or nutrition bar indeed does not use hexane to process soybeans in its own food processing plants; rather, it buys soy protein ingredients from companies that use hexane to transform whole soybeans into processed soy ingredients.”
We did not hear back from Ms. Spencer for additional information, which means we’re back to this advice: Buy organic to be safe. (You can also make your own veg meat dishes like this “meatloaf” from a blog called Mother Sara’s Recipe Box, or Crosby’s Lentil Nut Loaf from our own files.)
Here’s Cornucopia’s “Quick List” of products that don’t use hexane-extracted soy ingredients.
1 — Amy’s (Some of their meatless entrees are not Organic, but Cornucopia reports that Amy’s promised to forego hexane processing after its report came out.)
3 — Field Roast
4 — Helen’s Kitchen
5 — Primm Springs Foods
6 — Soy Deli
8 — Tofu Shop
10 — Turtle Island Foods (which makes Tofurky and other products)
11 — Wildwood
Here’s our more specific list:
1 — Tofurky Sausages in Italian, Kiebasa and Beer Brat flavors by Turtle Island Foods in Hood River, Oregon. Zesty, firm and in the case of the Italian sausages, great with pasta. The Beer Brats are good on the grill in place of much fattier things you could put there.
2 – Tofurky Roasts — These classic holiday “turkey” roasts are a delectable soy and wheat concoction (if you cook them right). They come pre-stuffed. A pioneer in the field (sold since 1995), also by Turtle Island Foods. http://www.tofurky.com/tofurkyproducts/holiday_products.html
3 – Field Roast sausages by Field Roast. The flavor is just amazing and the texture will make you forget you’re foregoing meat.
4 – Sunshine Burgers. When you feel like something fresh and nutty, these will hit the spot. Don’t expect a substitute for hamburger so much as a crunchy wallop of 8 grams of protein and a sophisticated blend of flavors that begs for a bun, lettuce, tomato, pickles and mustard.
5 – Amy’s burgers. These are also good and more closely mimic a real burger. We’re always watching for them to go on sale. (You do have to pay more for Organic.)
6 — Amy’s Veggie Steak and Gravy with Mashed Potatoes and Green Beans. This is Amy’s answer to frozen dinners that contain a beef “steak” with mashed potatoes etc. So don’t expect a ribeye. Now we’re in the land of double disguise. But this is delicious anyway. And in this case, you don’t have to worry about the mystery meat. You can see on the label it’s made with wheat, mushrooms and walnuts.
And it’s got 8 grams of protein, thank you very much.