With Thanksgiving and Christmas around the corner, it’s that time of year to start thinking about what to serve the vegans and vegetarians at your dinner party.
Since more than one of us at Superfoodly falls into that category, we are the perfect people to ask.
And you may be surprised to hear that we actually hate most of the vegan turkey and faux chicken concoctions you can buy in the frozen food aisle at Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and even many mainstream grocery stores.
Does Tofurky taste like turkey? Most meat eaters say it doesn’t, and that’s actually a good thing because contrary to popular belief, most vegans don’t want fake stuff trying to imitate what real meat tastes like.
But most do want food that is healthy for you.
Unfortunately, Tofurky sausage and roasts don’t always fall under that category. Sure, they’re healthier than the real thing, but still contain bad stuff. Likewise for many other vegan meats on the market.
Though when you’re on a plant-based diet, you’re happy to have anything to eat – even cardboard on your dinner plate – at the holiday family festivities. So just the ability to eat something, regardless of its nutrition, is considered a big win.
But if you want to serve the tastiest and healthiest vegetarian options…
Consider these tips when choosing
1. Most are not gluten free
To be clear, if you don’t have a bona fide allergy, the science suggests that GF is not healthier.
Though we mention this first because given their interest in nutrition, those on specialized diets are naturally more inclined to have undergone food allergy testing – and hence – more likely to be aware if they have a gluten sensitivity. If they do, then this gets real tricky.
If you’re trying to accommodate both vegan and gluten free diets, none of meatless imitators of turkey will work.
What is vegan meat made of? Vital wheat gluten, tofu, and/or textured vegetable protein are typically the main ingredients in many of these products.
When it comes to the roasts sold during the holidays, all of them use vital wheat gluten.
For example in a Tofurky roast, the 1st ingredient listed after water is “vital wheat gluten.” Yes that’s right, there’s more of that then there is organic tofu.
They should call it Wheaturky instead.
The “Celebration Roast” by Field Roast is the leading competing product. Its primary ingredient is also vital wheat gluten, plus it contains other sources like barley malt and whole wheat flour.
Sorry, our review of the Gardein Stuffed Savory Veggie Turkey and Quorn Turk’y Roast aren’t good news either. The former contains wheat and the latter is gluten free and meatless, but it contains eggs and milk. Quorn will only work for vegetarians who eat those things.
If you want a turkey substitute that works for everyone, you will have to make a homemade roast.
Though if you’re lazy like us, we do have a simple recipe involving store-bought gluten free veggie burgers. You can do that instead of the highly processed fake meats, which we will discuss below.
2. Unlike you, we don’t like eating cancer
Some vegans are total hypocrites who eat unhealthy fried sodium bombs 24/7 and then lie to themselves, pretending it’s nutritious because it’s vegan.
Or bimbos like Kourtney Kardashian who eat vegan (and gluten free!) but clearly seem to change their diet back and forth at the drop of a hat.
However many – like us – are vegan for health reasons. We actually respect an individual’s right to eat slabs of steaks if they want, we just don’t think it’s a healthy choice.
That means it’s not just about being plant-based, but also preparing it in a healthy manner. If you’re making the roast/veggie patty for someone who really cares about nutrition, it may be wise to:
- not broil it
- not cook it at high temperatures
- and definitely not grill it
In summary, cook it rare at low temperatures. This is because certain high heat cooking methods can lead to the creation of an end product known as acrylamide, which is created when the carbohydrates in plant-based foods undergo a molecular change. Think the charred, burnt, and browned areas.
While acrylamide’s danger in food is debated by some, in work place settings (meaning outside of food) it is agreed to be dangerous and categorized as a Group 2A carcinogen according to the World Health Organization’s IARC (1).
But guess what? Research shows that as a meat eater (meaning, the real kind) you’re much worse off.
Animal cells create Advanced Glycation End Products (AGEs) known as heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) when they are cooked.
Unlike acrylamide which is a Group 2A carcinogen, one example is the PAH benzo(a)pyrene, which is classified as a Group 1 carcinogen by the IARC (2). That’s the same group as asbestos and radium.
Even without singling out benzo(a)pyrene, if you look at the overall amount of end products in meats vs. vegetarian foods (3):
“In contrast, carbohydrate-rich foods such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and milk contain relatively few AGEs, even after cooking.”
That was based on a study which tested over 500 different foods of all different types.
“…based on standard serving sizes, the meat group contained the highest levels of AGEs”
While there are cooking methods (like boiling instead of grilling) which can reduce the production of heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, there’s no good solution for omnivores.
That’s because with the inherent dangers of things like salmonella in chicken and E. coli in beef, you need to thoroughly cook them with high heat in order to be safe. Low heat cooking would be extremely dangerous.
And before you say “but there can be e. coli in spinach too” it’s worth noting that those and similar outbreaks are caused by “surface runoff from grazing areas onto cultivated fields” according to the CDC (4). In other words, all that poop and pee from the factory farms of cows, pigs, chickens, etc. contaminates the groundwater where the fruits and vegetables are growing. So as vegans, we actually have you – the omnivores – to blame for a lot of our food poisoning!
3. Vegan meat vs. real meat, 10 brands compared
Is vegan healthier than eating meat equivalents? Almost always. But just because a Snickers bar is better for you than cotton candy, it doesn’t mean you can claim Snickers are good for you. While better than their “real” counterparts, the plant-based versions often have drawbacks.
Are vegan meat products healthy? Unlike both white and red meats, they will have zero cholesterol. That’s because cholesterol is only produced by animals, not plants.
Then there’s fiber. You will get absolutely zero of that from slabs of beef, steak, chicken, dairy, eggs or anything else coming from a creature with 2 or 4 legs. On the other hand, plants do have fiber. Hence, all of these meat alternatives have it.
When it comes to saturated fat, even the heavily processed vegan meatloaf type products still tend to have substantially less of it. That being said, turkey in particular is one bird which has low saturated fat when compared to most other animal sources.
So why is Tofurky bad for you? The main reason is it’s loaded with salt. Relative to your standard Thanksgiving turkey, it’s actually a typical amount and “good” in that regard. But if you follow a healthy diet then you are comparing it to the unprocessed and healthier homemade recipes which are not sodium bombs.
But hey, we don’t mean to rip on Tofurky more than other brands of vegan meats. The truth is that almost all of them fail the sodium test.
The USDA’s limit is 2,400 mg per day and they’re highly criticized by many doctors and healthcare professionals for that. Many say the reason it’s that high is because of lobbying from the food industry. Can you imagine how much scarier the nutrition facts labels would be if a given food had 70% of the DV versus 40%? If the denominator (2,400) was lowered, that’s what the result would be.
The American Heart Association says no more than 1,500 mg per day for optimal health (5). The latter is the number you should aim for.
It’s more than just high blood pressure. Too much sodium causes inflammation in the body (6) (7) (8). In almost every disease known to mankind, an inflammatory environment is a contributor or worsening factor.
Take a gander at the nutrition facts for these 10 popular meatless substitutes for turkeys and other roasts that you find in the freezer aisle during the holiday season.
For comparison, we have included real turkey and gravy, using data from the USDA National Nutrient Database, Release 28. For the vegan brands of meat, their nutrition facts labels were the source.
|Nutrition Facts: Real Turkey vs. 10 Vegan Alternatives|
|Serving Size||Calories||Fat (g)||Saturated Fat (g)||Sodium (mg)||Fiber (% of DV)||Protein (g)|
|Whole roasted turkey without stuffing or gravy (real turkey) (9)||85g (3 oz)||150||7||2||190||0%||22|
|Bread stuffing, prepared (10)||100g (3.5 oz)||195||12||2||479||1%||3|
|Real turkey + stuffing, no gravy||185g (6.5 oz)||345||19||4||669||1%||25|
|1.||Tofurky roast, includes stuffing||147g (5.2 oz)||300||8||1||650||24%||40|
|2.||Gardein Savory Stuffed Turk’y||150g (5.3 oz)||290||10||1||510||12%||23|
|3.||Field Roast Celebration Roast||114g (4 oz)||280||10||<1||710||24%||31|
|4.||Field Roast Cranberry Hazelnut En Croute||113g (4 oz)||350||19||5||620||32%||22|
|5.||Field Roast Smokey Forager’s Roast with Pineapple Mustard Glaze||112g (4oz)||220||7||1||840||12%||19|
|6.||Vegetarian Plus Vegan Whole Turkey||71g (2.5 oz)||140||7||1||310||8%||11|
|7.||Vegetarian Plus Vegan Ham Roll with Apricot Plum Glaze||131g (4.6 oz)||175||9||2||360||6%||10|
|8.||Trader Joe’s Breaded Turkey-less Stuffed Roast with gravy (if they ever bring it back)||189g (6.7 oz)||220||4||0||720||10%||20|
|9.||Worthington Vegetarian Smoked Turkey||55g (1.9 oz)||130||8||1||440||0%||10|
|10.||Quorn Turk’y Roast (Vegetarian)||90g (3.2 oz)||100||5||1||540||17%||13|
You can’t really compare all these on an apples to apples basis, since not all are trying to imitate turkey (most are a vegetarian meatloaf) and some don’t contain stuffing. Then there are the differences in serving sizes. Though if you really wanted to, using the above data you could calculate the nutrition facts on a standardized per calorie basis.
Plus the gravy for the real turkey was excluded, since only some of the vegan versions on the list include gravy or sauce.
If you did want to factor in gravy and how much calories, sodium, and fat it adds to the real thing, here’s some data from Campbell’s turkey gravy which may be a far cry from your homemade recipe, but it is a good average to use:
- 60g (2.1 oz) serving, which is 1/4 cup
- 25 calories
- 1 gram fat, none saturated
- 290 mg of sodium
- 0 fiber
- 1g protein
If you add that to the real bird and stuffing, you get 959 mg of sodium and 370 calories per serving.
Is vegan meat healthy?
A standard serving size of roasted turkey and bread stuffing (the real kind) is 6.5 ounces. Only a serving of the Trader Joe’s vegan turkey (AKA Turkeyless Stuffed Roast) weighs more than that. The others weigh less.
Even when you increase the serving size of the vegan roasts so their weight matches the real bird and bread, they are still healthier:
- Most have at least 50% lower fat content.
- 8 out of 10 have at least 50% less saturated fat. The Field Roast Cranberry Hazelnut is the naughty outlier, which is no surprise given the saturated fat in nuts.
- Most have comparable calorie counts in the mid 300’s.
- 3 are substantially lower in calories. When adjusted for 6.5 ounce servings, Vegetarian Plus Vegan Ham Roll with Apricot Plum Glaze is 247 calories, Quorn Turk’y Roast (vegetarian) is 203 calories, and Trader Joe’s breaded vegan turkey is 213 calories. The real thing with stuffing before gravy was 345 calories.
- 9 out of 10 are providing at least 600% more fiber per serving. Most are providing significantly more than that.
But everyone – both omnivores and vegans – are sinning with the salt. The lesser of the evils appears to be a few of the plant-based meats. Some though are substantially worse than the real deal, when adjusted for the same 6.5 ounce serving size.
It’s worth mentioning that turkey is actually one of the healthiest meats. This comparison would look even worse if we used beef or pork. Contrary to public perception, not even chicken is great. Turkey has more protein, lower fat, lower calorie count, lower cholesterol, and less sodium than chicken does.
In other words, we put the best foot forward for meat and the worst forward for vegans (these unhealthy processed roasts) and the plant-based versions still won.
Best of the bad
If ignoring nutrition and basing a decision solely on taste…
Trader Joe’s roast was both yummy and healthy (relatively speaking) but during the last couple holiday seasons, they haven’t had it in-store. You know how TJ’s is… as soon as they carry a product everyone loves, they discontinue it!
As far as the original vegan turkey, Tofurky, it’s not a universally appealing taste. At least for those who are used to what the real bird actually tastes like and expect it to be the same.
This Hazelnut Cranberry Roast En Croute ($23.95) is better than booze and almost just as bad for you, given its high sodium and fat. But delicious nonetheless!
The reason this one, the Celebration Roast ($14.99), and the Forager’s Roast work so well is because the brand Field Roast seems to be doing their own thing, rather than trying to imitate what real meat tastes like.
We wish more of the other brands would do the same. Don’t be a counterfeit, be original.
How to make Tofurky taste good – for everybody – may not be possible to do given its pseudo-turkey flavor and texture, which yes, is similar to tofu. Recommendations to improve its taste without adding calories or fat would be to add some high antioxidant herbs like rosemary, thyme, and sage. Check out the ORAC values chart for ideas to spice it up.
Healthier, less refined substitutes
Not all, but most health-oriented vegans just want to get filled up with something that is:
- Filling – Since vegetables have a lower amount of calories by volume, we need to eat a LOT more food than you so we don’t become too skinny. Think big portion sizes for us.
- Protein balanced – For that main dish at Thanksgiving or Christmas Eve dinner, a good protein source is preferred.
- Less oil – Sorry, dumping olive oil on everything is not healthy. Whether you’re talking refined plant-based oils or animal fats like butter, they all contribute to atherosclerosis (11). It’s why after his heart surgery, Bill Clinton’s doctors – Dr. Dean Ornish as well as the Cleveland Clinic’s Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn Jr. – put him on an oil free vegan diet. Of course since then, he’s known to cheat a lot on that. No surprise there.
Using that advice, along with the earlier cooking tips and being mindful of how much sodium there is, it’s not that hard to whip up something homemade for a Thanksgiving dinner entree.
Option 1: tofu steak
Glen Arbor, Michigan is one of the most beautiful summer destinations in America. The photo below is from a restaurant there, Good Harbor Grill. It is actually the only place for eating vegan in Glen Arbor (if you want more than a salad). This is a staple on their menu…
To be clear, we’re not suggesting you drown it in oil and cook to a crisp as seen above. But doing a light or no oil version would be a healthy vegan Thanksgiving meal.
A few slabs of firm tofu, seasoned with herbs, black pepper, and freshly squeezed lemon juice. Throw it all on a bed of brown rice or quinoa. A super simple recipe, yet satisfying.
Option 2: macrobiotic style
Not only is this recipe the healthiest, but it also may be the easiest to make. This is called Dear Patrick and it’s on the menu at The Spot in Hermosa Beach, California. Just down the road from Superfoodly’s HQ.
Sauteed tempeh (which is fermented soybeans), black beans, and collard greens. You now have a good gluten free Tofurky alternative for the plant people at your holiday gathering.
A lot of people who hate tofu actually like tempeh because the texture is different. It’s less processed too, another benefit.
Salt? Who needs that when you have cayenne pepper! So much better, both for your health and for taste (most vegans love spicy food).
Option 3: lazy man’s loaf or roast
If you’re only making vegan food for one person, it really would be unfair for you to spend a lot of time doing that, when you still have to cook for everyone else.
But if you still want something special for the vegans – though with cooking shortcuts – you can make your own roast using veggie burger patties.
The above recipe involves crumbled gluten free veggie burgers with a mushroom gravy drizzled atop.
The advantage of using premade frozen patties is that you get more options than what even the best vegetarian turkeys can provide. Those are not gluten free or low sodium, but many burger patties are. Or at least, lower sodium than what you get with a Field Roast or Gardein Turk’y.
Patties are also the best vegan meat substitutes without soy. Some use lentils, peas, sunflower seeds, and other soy free protein sources.
Need ideas? Check out these 5 high protein vegan burgers, most are GF. One tastes like real beef, which may or may not be desirable.
Do you need homemade gravy? Not necessarily. Almost any grocery store stocks at least some vegan gravy. At Kroger’s and the like, you might be stuck with something from the canned food aisle.
At Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, or just about any co-op or natural grocery, during the holidays they carry refrigerated versions. They’re rarely low sodium, but they are a time saver.
Some are trying to be fake meat, others are their own unique thing. We think the latter taste better.
Is Field Roast healthy? How about the Vegetarian Plus whole turkey?
You can’t honestly claim these and other frozen alternatives are good for you, but they still are better than your average prepared Thanksgiving bird, according to most metrics.