All the talk about plant-based diets may have sparked some curiosity in you. Is a plant-based lifestyle truly healthier? Does plant-based meat actually taste like real meat? And how exactly is plant-based meat made?
Believe it or not, plant-based meats are crafted using a range of common ingredients, some of which can closely resemble the taste of real meat. Let’s delve into the world of plant-based meat production and explore whether it’s a healthier choice overall.
The Art of Processing Plant-Based Meat
Plant-based meat is exactly what it sounds like – a substitute for real meat made without the use of animal products. It primarily consists of vegetables, grains, and legumes. Brands like Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger have pioneered the art of creating plant-based burgers that look, cook, and taste like animal meat.
Beyond Burger, for instance, uses a blend of peas, mung beans, and brown rice, which contains all nine essential amino acids, making it a “complete protein.” On the other hand, Impossible Burgers are designed to emulate the taste and texture of regular beef patties, even “bleeding” like real meat due to the inclusion of soy leghemoglobin. Other plant-based meat ingredients include tofu, tempeh, and seitan.
While the specific process may differ among brands, plant-based meat companies prioritize several key aspects during production.
Ingredients: The Building Blocks
Products labeled as “plant-based” typically exclude animal ingredients, although this isn’t always guaranteed. The first step for plant-based meat manufacturers is to gather ingredients that meet this criterion and can blend harmoniously. The core elements of plant-based meat are a protein source (such as tofu, tempeh, or soy), plant oils (like sunflower or canola oil), and a vegan binding agent (like gluten, aquafaba, or beans).
Consistency: The Texture Game
Plant-based meats aim to mimic the texture of real meat. Manufacturers carefully select ingredients and conduct recipe tests to achieve the desired end product, whether it’s crispy coconut bacon strips, stringy jackfruit pulled pork, or juicy beet patties.
The process often involves machines like slicers and spiralizers, along with extrusion technology. This technology subjects plant-based proteins to thermal and mechanical stresses, enhancing their rawness. An extruder feeds ingredients through a stationary barrel and a revolving screw mechanism, kneading and compressing the product. Alternatively, wet texturization technology adds moisture during extrusion, creating a stringy, sinewy texture with the help of starches and fibers.
Flavor: The Taste Test
A plant-based food product can only succeed if it tastes as good as, if not better than, the real thing. Therefore, plant-based meat manufacturers are constantly exploring ways to enhance base ingredients like vegetables and legumes with flavor. This involves the use of abundant seasonings and spices, yeast extracts, nut-based sauces, mushrooms, and coconut oil. Due to the diverse range of ingredients and processes used, some plant-based meat brands have successfully replicated the taste of real meat, while others offer a similar but distinct flavor profile.
Appearance: The Visual Illusion
Manufacturers are on a quest to make plant-based meat look like the real deal. One method gaining popularity is extrudable fat technology. This process forces soft fats through an extruder, altering their texture. The fat is then combined with the plant-based protein, creating a seamless integration. This technique achieves effects like marbling, closely resembling animal meat.
Are Plant-Based Meats Healthier?
Now that you have a glimpse into the intricate process of crafting plant-based meat, the question arises: are these products truly healthier?
In general, plant-based options tend to offer higher nutritional value due to the abundance of vegetables and plant proteins present. They typically have less saturated fat than real meat, and their calorie content is often lower (though this is not always the case).
Some plant-based meats even provide more protein per serving than their animal counterparts, aiding in meeting one’s daily protein requirements and promoting satiety. However, it’s important to note that certain essential amino acids found in “complete” animal proteins may be absent in plant-based proteins. Therefore, it’s wise to opt for plant-based products that utilize “complete” plant proteins, such as soybeans or quinoa.
It’s worth mentioning that plant-based meats are highly processed for flavor preservation and extended shelf life. Thus, those following paleo diets or seeking whole food options may not consider plant-based meats as the purest choice. Additionally, it’s crucial to be mindful of additives, such as salt, sugar, and refined coconut oil, which are often incorporated to enhance taste. This can result in high sodium or fat content in certain plant-based meat products.
Enhancing Your Plant-Based Culinary Skills
Whether you’re personally committed to a plant-based lifestyle or interested in serving plant-based foods to others, understanding the process behind creating plant-based meat is crucial. Familiarizing yourself with the science of plant-based cooking and the diverse nutritional profiles of plant-based products can pave the way for a successful career within this niche industry.
If you aspire to prepare plant-based meat dishes in a professional setting, such as a vegan restaurant or as a recipe researcher, specialized training may be necessary. The Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts offers Plant-Based Culinary Arts Diplomas and Associate Degrees, both online and on-campus in Boulder, Colorado. Explore their program and embark on a plant-based culinary journey today!
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