Thursday, October 1, 2009

Meating Expectations

Environmental friendliness. A healthy, energy-rich diet. A rejection of startlingly inhumane slaughterhouse practices. And a step closer to becoming a true West Philadelphia hipster. When considering these and the many other benefits of becoming vegetarian , I realized that along with my perceived advantages, my impending lifestyle switch was sure to bring its fair share of drawbacks. Would I be able to retain a varied diet, or would I be stuck with the same frozen vegetarian dinners day after day? Would I go hungry without the rich servings of protein to which I had become accustom? And, most importantly, how exactly could I survive without enjoying the rich, smoky tastes of the meats I had come to love and reluctantly, abruptly rejected?

Fortunately, others had these concerns long before I first considered them. The concerns of my vegetarian and vegan predecessors led to the creation of the wide array of imitation meat products that masquerade among the real deal on grocery shelves. Think of a meat and you're sure to find its meatless analogue, cleverly named as to ensure that the product conforms to a flesh-free vegetarian diet. What could be a better way to maintain health-conscious diet, while still enjoying the characteristic tastes of your favorite meats that your omnivorous friends continue to relish? Of course, a pressing issue is immediately raised: how exactly can something that is not meat taste like, well, meat? Could I really incorporate these faux foods into my diet and never crave the real thing again?

To answer my question, I decided to compare different brands of imitation meat to see how they stacked up in flavor and texture to the bona fida counterpart. Such a question is broad in scope, so I decided to split up my experiments by type of meat, choosing to sample a different variety each week. This week's subject is the processed, casing-encompassed delicacy known as sausage. I made a trip to Fresh Grocer to pick out everyone's traditional favorite along with a triumvirate of imitators, all claiming to retain the flavors of the original, but without the health disadvantages...or the meat.

To test the limits of these impostors' meatiness even further, I employed the help of my carnivorous housemate to determine if the flavor lived up to the advertised standards of being a true meat replacement. If he liked the overall taste, feel, and texture, of the products, it would stand to reason that they could be a viable meat alternative; but if he couldn't even tell the difference between real and fake, then perhaps my loss stemming from my newfound vegetarianism was grossly overstated. Meat without the meat? Maybe it just was that easy. So how did these fake meats fare?

From my first bite of Lightlife's Italian Style Veggie Protein Sausages,the full flavor that I would expect from a product calling itself a sausage immediately assured me that these veggie-catering companies seem to have it figured out. I could tell that their food engineers took great care to devise a product that approached the taste and moistness of a real, meat-filled sausage, and my taste buds were almost duped. This edition lacked the spice and bite I would expect from a sausage. While not perfect, this product lived up to its meat-imitating expectations, emulating the taste and texture surprisingly well while still maintaining an air vegetable lightness. And regardless of its ability to live up to a real meat taste, the product is delicious overall, assuring me that there are tasty, healthy, and meat-reminiscent alternatives to my favorite foods that still fit within my new diet. My taste-tester correctly guessed that the product was in fact an imitation, claiming that it did not, as its makers advertised, taste like meat. Although he appreciated the overall taste and texture, it looked like my quest for a perfect meatless replacement would have to continue.

Once we moved on to Morningstar Farms Veggie Breakfast Sausage Links our prospects were looking even better. Almost prematurely, and to the delight of both myself and even more longterm vegetarian housemate and onlooker, my taste-tester declared the product to be "a meat one." Experiencing a more satisfying tinging in his taste buds, he claimed this product to be "definitely spicier," with a peppery, more characteristic bite to it and a sharp aftertaste to go along. I agreed with him in his judging of the meat-like qualities of these links, surprised that it surpassed the already impressive authenticity aspirations of the Lightlife sausages. Smaller in both length and circumference, these sausages are the perfect side complement in a vegetarian or vegan breakfast, definitely deserving as a replacement for more traditional, meat-oriented sides. As with all other soy-based faux meat foods I've tried, they still maintain that quality of legume-like taste, however masked by added spices and flavors they may be. Overall though, thanks to the soft yet non-crumbly texture that provides for this sausage's satisfying succulence, we found Morningstar Farms' take on the meat to be a genuine replacement for the traditional pork-filled breakfast sizzlers.

Expecting to be even more impressed by Veggie Patch's Sun Dried Tomato and Artichoke Meatless Sausages, I was disappointed immediately when my teeth encountered a jarring feeling of chewiness and rubberiness, not what I would expect from a product attempting to replace a normally tender meat. The slightly juicier nature of these sausages did little to offset the unnerving synthetic feel that their unsatisfactory textures provided which added an additional layer of fakeness. My taste-tester seemed to have a more positive outlook, commenting on the pleasing, if slightly subdued, overall taste, even though it was really meaty in nature. Out of all the variants, though, we both agreed that Veggie Patch's rendition was by far the most glaring of impostors, doing little to approach the taste of a real pork sausage regardless of independent taste. I appreciate this imitator's respect for a juicy, flavorful product, but the limited spiciness contribution left my taste buds feeling flat and unfulfilled, something that might just not cut it for your average ex-carnivore.

While none of the products could be completely equated with the real thing, both critics in this experiment were pleasingly impressed with the overall quality of these promising meat analogs. None was completely indistinguishable from the original product, as is the ideal, and after tasting the traditional smoked pork sausage my taste-tester could easily tell that the competitors were just imitations. However, if you're considering becoming a vegetarian, but are reluctant to abandon the spicy, juicy taste of meats like sausage, your fears might just be assuaged thanks to these tasty and healthful products like the ones we tried. Stay tuned for the next rendition of this series, which will hopefully put even more of your meat-withdrawal anxieties to rest.


  1. Very well written and insightful. I thought about being a vegetarian and now may be willing to take the plunge. Look forward to your future articles.

  2. Very well written and insightful. I thought about being a vegetarian and now may be willing to take the plunge. Look forward to your future articles.

  3. Nancy Miller
    Marietta, GA

    Jordan, Congrats on your new dietary decision...when you find a veggie hamburger that competes with Five Guys, please let me know!



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