Xueci Cheng

Editor at Kitchen Stories

This article is part of our campaign “Food for Future” in which we want to explore the impact of our daily eating habits on the future of our personal lives and the whole planet. Because if everything we eat is a problem, what can we eat anymore? We want to learn how small changes can already go a long way. Informative and entertaining articles, specific tips for everyday life, and recipes to start with will guide the way to inspire you to take first (and maybe even second) steps towards a more sustainable way to eat. Check out this link to find an overview of all weekly topics, articles, and more.

In 2019, we witnessed a boom of alternative meats. You’ve probably heard the buzz around some big names like Beyond Meat, which was explored in our article last week. The hype surrounding alternative meats is a direct reflection of the booming market: Research forecasts show that the market value of plant-based meats can be expected to reach $30 billion in 2026.

A little closer to home, last summer here in Berlin, Kitchen Stories organized a vegan burger lunch party. While stacking pickled cucumber slices on the patty, comments could be heard from some of my colleagues and I that it “really tastes like beef”—possibly the highest compliment to be paid to a plant-based patty.

In fact, plant-based meat substitutes and the pursuit for replicating meat’s texture and flavor are nothing new. Thinking of tofu and seitan, the history of meat alternatives goes back long ago, before the emergence of modern vegan foods and cultures.

Old traditions, new trends

Consuming meat substitutes dates back to the banquets of Medieval Asia. In China, vegetarianism used to be associated with Buddhism, where monks and nuns replaced meat with soy products and gluten. However, these vegetarian ingredients have found a broader audience. Growing up in the 1990s and early 2000s in China, I used to have snacks called “vegan chicken”, which were actually processed soy “meat” soaked in strongly flavored condiments.

Less of an environmentally conscious food choice, people eat tofu or gluten for economic reasons—a few decades ago, and still today, many households can’t afford meat or fish. Today, you can still find numerous “mock meat” products on the shelves of Asian supermarkets.

Among beans and legumes, soybeans stand out as one of the best plant-based protein sources by bringing tofu, tempeh, and textured vegetable protein into the game. While tofu and tempeh have a longer history, textured vegetable protein, also known as TVP, was invented in the 1960s and constitutes processed soy meat substitutes. TVP is made from at least 50% concentrated soy protein, flour, or concentrate. Soy provides complete proteins, and even contains other nutrients like calcium and amino acids.

Source: USDA

However, people tend to be less than enthusiastic about things like TVP in comparison to new meat substitutes. Part of the reason could be the myths surrounding soybeans themselves, further explained in our article here. On the other hand, it could be that people tend to fall for fake burger patties much more willingly than weird textured tofu blocks, which has been met with criticism since it was introduced to the west.

Is soy sustainable?

Soy is essential in the food industry not only because of ready-to-consume, soy products, but also for oil and meal, which becomes vegetable oil, biodiesel, and, primarily, animal feed.

It remains debatable as to whether consuming soy is better for the environment than consuming meat. According to the World Wildlife Fund or WWF, global soy production has grown 15 times its size since the 70 years, which has made soybean the second largest agricultural cause of deforestation. This being said, the majority of soybeans produced go into animal feed–more than two thirds globally. Only about 6% of soybeans are used directly as human food, mostly consumed throughout Asia. In the EU for example, an average European consumes 61 kg soy yearly–93% indirectly from animal feed and production processes which include meat, dairy, fish, and eggs.

Source: WWF

Consuming soy products is therefore not directly responsible for deforestation. The driving force behind the large scale of soy production lies in growing demand for meat and fuel. A report shows that tofu is listed as one of the products that has low greenhouse gas emissions, nearly the same as broccoli or dried beans. However, others argue that tofu might not be better than meat, considering its production. To get the same amount of protein, one has to eat more tofu than meat, as the protein in tofu is not as digestible. So, as you can see, it can often be a toss up–a this or that situation.

Make smarter choices

However, if you would like to cut some, or all, meat from your diet, it’s worth thinking about two essential questions: What do you value about meat the most–the texture, flavor, or nutritional value? How do you prioritize personal health impacts, environmental impacts, and ethics or morals? With these questions in mind, it can become easier to navigate the world of meat and meat alternatives on a personal level, and make the right decisions for yourself, and/or your family. If you do choose to cut meat out, keep these four things in mind as you navigate your new, or improved, diet.

1. Natural ingredients first

A simple rule that I found helpful is from the book In Defense of Food by acclaimed writer and journalist Michael Pollan, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Educate yourself about nutrition and ingredients, and try your best to maintain a balanced diet including quality fats from nuts and seeds; proteins from soybeans and other beans and legumes; vitamins from fresh fruit and vegetables.

2. Choose soy products wisely

This tip also depends on where you live. In general, look for soybeans labeled organic or “non-GMO” (check this guide of GMO foods from WHO if you have concerns). Check where the soybeans come from and give preference to locally-grown soybeans if possible, or try to avoid soybeans that might be from regions or countries where deforestation for soy agriculture has been an issue. In general, and if possible, opt for less processed, whole-soybean products like tofu, edamame, or soy milk.

3. Diversify your diet

Here is also culturally implied. Seek inspiration from other cultures, both mediterranean and asian cuisines have excellent recipes for cooking vegetarian.

4. Keep motivated by trying new things

As a meat-eater myself, I have still had my fair share of experiences eating meat substitutes, and am still open to trying more. Wander around and see what the market has to offer, and don’t close yourself off to trying something new! Trying new products, or even different brands, and new recipes will keep us motivated to eat better today, and in the future.

Switching to a soy-only diet is certainly not the catch-all, perfect solution. The key here is to learn more about your food and its environmental impact. While we all want a clear answer to show us how we can “do the right thing”, the path is not straightforward. We have to continuously educate ourselves and learn to weigh different factors when we make choices about the food we want to eat.

One thing I truly enjoy in cooking is experimenting with ingredients. In fact, until I moved and lived abroad, I never tried to cook with “staple” ingredients like chickpeas or lentils. But with the environment taken into consideration, it expanded my horizon about food and–and can certainly do the same for you. Who knows, you might surprise yourself with a newfound love for tofu.

Five recipes to get you started

Simple tempeh salad

Simple tempeh salad

→ Go to recipe

Homemade soy milk

Homemade soy milk

→ Go to recipe

5-ingredient sweet potato lentil curry soup

5-ingredient sweet potato lentil curry soup

→ Go to recipe

Soba noodles with miso-marinated tofu and vegetables

Soba noodles with miso-marinated tofu and vegetables

→ Go to recipe

Spicy chickpea burger

Spicy chickpea burger

→ Go to recipe

More delicious ideas for you