Check That Chicken Nugget: It Might Just Be a Plant

It may look like the real thing, but this hot-dog-like sausage is animal-free.
It may look like the real thing, but this hot-dog-like sausage is animal-free. (Gerald Martineau - The Washington Post)
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By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Allison Don is not a paranoid eater, but when faced with dishes made with mock meat, the vegetarian occasionally has one of her carnivorous friends take the first bite -- just to be certain it isn't the real thing.

"You can't tell sometimes," the 24-year-old Arlington resident said of the latest generation of imitation meats, a sample of which appeared in her "Chicken" Deluxe lunch at Java Green in Washington. "I wouldn't be able to tell unless one of my friends tasted it, or I picked it apart."

As sales have grown, so has the intrigue about these plant-based meat substitutes, which strongly resemble butcher's wares and fishermen's daily catches. For instance, uninformed diners at the Vegetable Garden in Rockville might think that the main ingredient in the Hunan beef once grazed in verdant fields. Or that the "chicken" in Java Green's ramen soup once clucked. Fake meats are masterful copycats: The "shrimp" are tinted pink and curl like apostrophes; "bacon" is marbled with white strips of yam masquerading as fat.

"It looks too real," said Terry Yuin, the 56-year-old native of Taiwan who runs Terry's Healthy Food in Rockville, which sells to retail customers and supplies imitation meats to about 40 area restaurants, including Java Green and the Vegetable Garden. "A lot of people are scared."

Of course, some vegetarians might relish the idea of eating a pig's foot made of soy protein; others, however, would rather starve than chomp on an ersatz appendage. Why, carnivores might ask, would someone who shies away from meat want to dine on a simulacrum of it? Why not just eat your veggies? It all depends on what kind of non-meat eater you are: philosophical or pragmatic.

Philosophical vegetarians, says Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, avoid meat for ethical reasons and prefer foods that taste and look like plant life. Conversely, pragmatic vegetarians love meat but not the nutritional pitfalls that come with it. "They want [vegetarian food] to taste like ground beef," Wansink said, "but without the animal fat."

For both types of non-meat eaters, flavor and texture are imperative. Diners with advanced palates will no longer settle for veggie burgers that resemble sun-baked mulch or tofu hot dogs as rubbery as erasers.

"Some of the fake meats are better than others: the chicken and the pork," said Per Milam, 24, a San Diego philosophy student, He was referring to mock meats in general, not his jobche noodles at Java Green."The shrimp is really bad," added Allison Don, his girlfriend, who works on the Hill. "It is made of yam and smells of stinky seafood."

While Buddhists in Asia have been dining on imitation meats for ages (per their harm-no-living-creatures diet), one of the earliest alternative meats to appear on Western shelves was the VegeBurger, created in 1982 by the English natural foods pioneer Gregory Sams. The healthful burger was made of wheat protein, sesame seeds, oats, soy protein and dehydrated vegetables: an innovative alternative to the ubiquitous beef patty.

More than two decades later, veggie burgers and their ilk no longer require explanation or apology. They are (almost) mainstream: In 2002, Burger King started serving the BK Veggie Burger nationwide, and some pro league sports stadiums sell veggie burgers. See, real men do eat fake meat.

To meet the rising demand for more salubrious cuisine, mock meats have been vastly improving and evolving, earning a place on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's food pyramid (look under "Meat & Beans") and in the kitchens of many professional and home chefs. From 1992 to 2006, the Soyfoods Association of North America reported a spike in soy food sales from $300 million to $3.9 billion nationwide. Soy also received a boost in 1999, when the Food and Drug Administration approved the health claim that the protein reduces heart disease. A soy chicken a day. . . .

"More and more people are becoming open to eating meat alternatives," said Joan Salge Blake, a nutrition professor at Boston University. "Plant-based protein has no cholesterol and is low in saturated fat." Two MorningStar Farms veggie sausage links, for instance, contain 0.5 gram of saturated fat, 9 grams of protein and no cholesterol. By comparison, an equivalent amount of beef sausage contains 5 grams of saturated fat, 8 grams of protein and 37 milligrams of cholesterol.

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