The Meatless Monday movement continues to grow stronger. In fact, for many – those folks who consider themselves flexitarians – it has become a multi-day habit. This is something that has caught the attention of food processors, many of whom are aggressively developing products that mimic animal meat while delivering the benefits of vegetarian meat, which include being lower in fat and void of saturated fat and cholesterol, as well as improving animal welfare and reducing the carbon footprint.

Flexible vegetarians

The term flexitarian comes from a combination of the words “flexible” and “vegetarian.” Following a flexitarian diet simply means eating more plant-based meals and less meat.

In The Flexitarian Diet, author Dawn Jackson Blatner, a registered dietitian, says being a flexitarian provides the benefits of a vegetarian diet without having to forgo meat entirely. In her book she explains that there is plenty of scientific evidence to support the healthfulness of a diet made up mostly of plant foods. Some studies show that vegetarians live 3.6 years longer and, on average, weigh 15 percent less than non-vegetarians. Blatner estimates the average person could shed up to 30 lbs. by sticking to the flexitarian diet for six to 12 months.

“Vegetarianism is one of the healthiest and smartest ways to eat,” she says. “And it is perfectly acceptable to pepper in meat and still be able to gain all the health benefits.”

According to The Humane Research Council, Olympia, Wash., only 1 percent to 3 percent of the US population is vegetarian or vegan. The primary reason people choose a vegetarian or vegan diet is to reduce the suffering of animals on farms. The second reason is for health. Most meat reduction is coming from flexitarians, with about 13 percent of US adults eating meat with less than half of their meals.

The meat-analog category

Health and the vitality of people and the ecosystem were the motivating factors behind Seth Tibbott, founder and president of Turtle Island Foods, Hood River, Ore., manufacturers of the Tofurky family of vegan products, to put his meat-and-potato childhood behind him. “Most vegetarians do not avoid meat because they don’t like its flavor or texture,” he says.

Tibbott’s motivation for creating Tofurky was simple. “For many years, my vegetarian friends and I struggled with what to eat at Thanksgiving,” he says. “People who choose not to eat meat have been pretty much left out of the celebration with only side dishes to consume. Tofurky has brought peace to thousands of tables. Now, everyone has something special to eat during celebrations of all kinds that were formally only the province of the carnivores.

“For almost 30 years, we have worked to create delicious, nutritious, convenient and affordable vegetarian foods that make a difference in people’s lives and have a minimal impact on our environment,” Tibbott says. For the first 15 years of business, Tibbott manufactured tempeh, a fermented soy product that originated in Indonesia where it is usually wrapped in banana leaves and sold at street markets. In 1995, he introduced Tofurky Roast, a tofu-based product responsible for creating the category of meat analogs. The original product was a complete holiday meal and consisted of a stuffed tofu roast, eight tempeh drummettes – apparently a Tofurky had eight legs – and a pint of nutritional yeast gravy.

Tofu, also known as soybean curd, is made by coagulating soymilk, followed by pressing the curd into soft white blocks. Other soy protein ingredients are also available: soy flours, soy grits, textured soy flour, soy concentrates and isolated soy proteins. Soy-protein ingredients vary in protein quality and functionality. The latter includes emulsification, water retention, mouthfeel, texture and appearance. Soy ingredients are very versatile and have the ability to be manipulated into textures that mimic meats, which is why they have long been used in the development of meat analogs.

In order to assist with creating a meat-like texture, the Tofurky formulation includes vital wheat gluten, which is a concentrated wheat protein ingredient extracted from wheat flour. Extraction is carefully regulated and controlled in order to preserve the protein’s original unique characteristics, such as elasticity and extensibility, both of which are critical to the production of meat analogs. Vital wheat gluten also has a neutral flavor and taste and a very high water-binding capacity.

Recently, Tofurky has made its way into a variety of vegan prepared foods and meals, including pot pie, eggless quiche and pocket-style sandwiches.

Because not every carnivore likes turkey, why would every vegan want a turkey analog? Hence, the creation of the Celebration Roast from The Field Roast Grain Meat Co., Seattle, Wash. “This is the ultimate in vegetarian sophistication,” says David Lee, president and chef. “We start with a rich and savory sausage-style stuffing made from our proprietary grain meat, fresh-cut butternut squash, mushrooms and Granny Smith apples seasoned with a blend of rosemary, thyme and sage. We surround the stuffing with grain meat seasoned with sage, garlic and lemon juice.”

The proprietary grain meat Lee refers to is based on the marriage of two ancient Asian grain-processing techniques – Mien Ching and Seitan – and the European charcuterie tradition of sausage-making. Buddhist monks developed the chewy, protein-rich substance known as Mien Ching, which is the end product after kneading, rinsing and cooking a simple ball of wheat dough. Years later, the Japanese created Seitan, which was basically Mien Ching simmered in soy sauce, vegetables and other seasonings. Today, vital wheat gluten is often used to produce these grain meats.

“We are a flavor-first company,” Lee says. “Our goal is to make a vegetarian meat that can stand next to an animal meat without compromising the diner’s sensory experience. To accomplish this, we rely upon the simple tenets of good cooking, including flavorful, wholesome ingredients.”

For example, Field Roast Sausages are made by grinding grain meat in a similar manner in which you would grind beef or poultry. Fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs and seasonings are added and then the comminuted mixture is encased into links. The Smoked Apple Sage variety includes a unique combination of sweet Granny Smith apples, savory Yukon gold potatoes, sage and ginger, while the Italian variety includes fresh eggplant, zesty red wine, garlic and fennel.

The sausages are very popular in foodservice, as are the deli slices, loaves, classic meatloaf and roast. “Field Roast products are very chef friendly,” Lee says. “They are firm and can be eaten both cold and hot, much like cooked chicken breast. Unlike many vegetarian products that are highly processed and designed to be served in a particular format, our products are flexible. Chefs can be creative with them, much the same way they would be with similar animal-meat products.”

For example, Field Roast Classic Meatloaf can be plated with mashed potatoes, gravy and corn. It is made with grain meat, fresh-cut carrots, celery, onions, tomatoes and garlic. It can be glazed with ketchup and baked in the oven.

The loaves can be sliced for sandwiches, chopped for salads, breaded into cutlets or cut into steaks for the grill. Made in small batches and cooked in cotton netting much like a roast, the loaves come in three varieties: Lentil Sage, Wild Mushroom and Smoked Tomato.

“In the 15 years that I’ve been making vegetarian meats, I’ve seen a fundamental shift away from animal proteins toward plant-based ones. It’s all becoming so mainstream,” Lee says. “Take the milk category, for example. Twenty years ago, there was only cow’s milk. Now, there are half-gallons of plant-based milks made from almonds, hemp, soy and rice. What I find exciting is that these plant-based milks are enjoyed by all types of consumers and are found right next to the cow’s milk and not marginalized in some other section of the store.”

The same is not usually the case for vegetarian meats – these meats are typically merchandised in separate areas of the store. Even Whole Foods Markets typically merchandises meat analogs with other refrigerated, vegetarian foods rather than with other meats. With the introduction of more sophisticated and upscale meat analogs, and the fact that a growing number of people are seeking out such foods, this will likely change.

“Our target audience is people who enjoy good food, as the vegetarian and vegan market simply is not big enough to build a business on,” Lee says. “We aren’t trying to imitate animal meat. I think that’s a losing proposition. Our audience enjoys real food. We sell more of our vegetarian meats to carnivores who are cutting back on animal-meat foods and are looking for a center-of-plate alternative.”

More choices wanted

Passionate about improving health, reducing ecological footprint and improving animal welfare, Ethan Brown, founder and CEO, Beyond Meat, El Segundo, Calif., also believes Americans are ready for more choices when it comes to protein. “We believe the future of protein is about a transition from animal to ultra-clean plant sources,” he says. “Our team has been working for more than a decade to align the proteins found in plants to mimic the fibrous structure of that found in animal muscle or meat. We use high-quality, non-GMO, pea and soy proteins and a simple, yet proprietary method to deliver protein-packed, satiating, vegetarian meat for the center of the plate.”

Pea protein is a newer ingredient and is valued for its emulsifying properties as well as its color, mouthfeel and neutral taste. These attributes allow for more highly concentrated use, which is useful for the manufacture of premium meat analogs.

“Our Chicken-Free Strips can be used in any recipe that calls for chicken,” Brown says. “If you pull the strips apart, you will see the fibers that look just like chicken. This product allows consumers to bring plant-based proteins into their diets without sacrificing the taste or the eating experience.”

Per 3-oz. serving, Beyond Meat’s Chicken-Free Strips have 20 grams of protein and only 120 calories and 290 milligrams of sodium. These oven-baked vegan strips are free of saturated and trans fat, as well as cholesterol and gluten. They are available in three flavors: Southwest, Lightly Seasoned and Grilled.

“We want Beyond Meat to be sold as a meat alternative in places where you would ordinarily find meat, whether that is in the meat case at your local grocery store or at your local fast-food restaurant chain,” Brown says. “This is very different from how meat alternatives are positioned today where you have to hunt them down in a separate refrigerated section far from areas where you would find meat.”

Part of his plan is already set in motion. Atlanta-based Tropical Smoothie Café has started offering its customers the option to replace chicken with chicken-free strips in any of the salad, flatbread or wrap menu items at its 388 café locations.

“Beyond Meat’s research shows that nearly 50 percent of the US population is at least open to the idea of eating less or no meat in their diet, and this aligns well with our healthier customer base,” says Mike Rotondo, CEO of Tropical Smoothie Café.

As Americans go meatless more often, the category of meat analogs will grow. Protein ingredient suppliers continue to expand their offerings to assist with this booming business.

Donna Berry is a contributing editor from Chicago and owner of Dairy & Food Communications, a company that specializes in writing, speaking and consulting projects in the dairy, beverage and food industries.