Freezer cases and grocery shelves are full of plant-based protein options, but which ones are top-rated by people in the know?
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It’s hard to spend any time in a grocery store these days without coming across the words “plant-based protein” splashed across all kinds of package labels. We have more options than ever for non-meat alternatives, so HuffPost talked to plant-focused chefs and nutritionists to find which brands they consistently reach for.
They have opinions about what to choose, and even about what to call the products themselves. “These vegan products are often described as a ‘meat substitute,’ but I prefer to call them an ‘alternative,’” vegan chef and cookbook author Sophia Hoffmann told HuffPost. “I’m not trying to replace something, but to make an alternative choice for ethical, health-related and ecological reasons.”
“I like a vegan meat alternative that has a robust nutrition profile, so I look for a good amount of protein, not too much sodium or saturated fat and not too many additives,” said registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) Sharon Palmer, author of “California Vegan.” “I also look for products that are versatile enough to use many ways, such as in cooking, sandwiches, salads and grilling. For example, crumbles or grounds are great for so many recipes, and sausages are great in cooking, grilling and for slivering into sandwiches. And of course, it always has to taste good.”
“I always read the nutritional panel to make sure that the product contains an ample amount of protein,” said Amy Gorin, an inclusive plant-based RDN. “I love the texture of jackfruit, for example, but I would pair a jackfruit product with another protein source, because on its own it doesn’t supply quite enough protein for a full meal.”
Vegan chef and food allergy specialist Leslie Dursosaid, as a culinary ambassador for Food Allergy Research Education, she’s “always looking for products that are allergen-friendly.”
“There are not many brands that are free from all of the top nine allergens, but there are still some good options,” she added. “I try to avoid methyl cellulose, sugar, maltodextrin and gums. I try to eat as close to a whole food diet as possible.”
“The real beauty of a plant-based diet is eating a diet filled with minimally processed whole plant foods — pulses, soy foods, whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds,” Palmer said. “If your plant-based diet just swaps out meat for meat alternatives, you are not going to have the same positive effect. I encourage people to look for plant-based meat alternatives that are based on real whole plant foods.”
Palmer notes that many alternative meat products are processed. “They often use manufacturing techniques to extrude proteins, so that’s something to keep in mind,” she said. “It’s always going to be healthier to eat a serving of simmered lentils and brown rice. However, these alternatives can fit into your plant-based diet occasionally, just not for every single meal.”
Some of these products have similar levels of calories, saturated fat and sodium as meat products. “But they still can serve a role in a plant-based diet by reducing red meat consumption, which is linked to health risks for many reasons beyond saturated fat and cholesterol,” Palmer said. “These meat alternatives also have far lower impacts on the environment and reduce the suffering of farm animals.”
“I’m that food nerd who loves to go to the grocery store just for fun,” Gorin said. “One of my favorite things to do is scout out new products and try them. Trader Joe’s is especially good for this, since they’re always coming out with new plant-based protein options.”
Hoffmann noted that she often has opportunities to try new brands, given her career as a vegan chef and author. “I’ll try almost anything out of curiosity at least once,” she said. “But I also keep my eyes open when I go shopping, and I have the luxury of having an all-vegan supermarket, Veganz, in my neighborhood.”
“I love to try new products, just to see how they rate,” Palmer said. “I recommend that when you find something you really like, you can stick with it and just toss it in your shopping cart. I like to keep a few of these products on hand for those times when I’m pressed for time, or want to use one of them for a particular recipe, like grounds in lasagna or sausages for grilling.”
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