Even if you’re not ready to fully commit to a vegan or plant-based diet, cutting back on meat consumption by even a small amount has been linked to a slew of benefits. (Good news for true carnivores or anyone looking to practice a Flexitarian diet!). Not only do diets high in vegetarian protein benefit the environment, but they also are linked to decreased levels of heart disease and stroke, according to the American Heart Association. One Harvard article reports that a plant-based diet can lower your risk of type 2 diabetes. Furthermore, reduced beef consumption results in lower methane and carbon dioxide production, two main causes of a warming planet (which leads to climate change anxiety, as well). But sometimes you just want a hamburger. If you’re hankering for meat, these meat substitutes will satisfy your craving.
Now, cutting back on animal protein is easier than ever thanks to the ever-expanding list of meat alternatives available at grocery stores. There are so many vegetarian meat substitutes on the market now, many made from pea protein and other vegetarian sources, and it can be hard to know what to buy. So, experts in the Prevention Test Kitchen tasted over 150 products to find the best meat substitutes to stock up on.
Incorporate our favorite products into your top vegan recipes rotation for an extra hit of protein or to add a meat-like texture and flavor. Bonus: many meat substitutes on the market mimic the nutritional content of their animal-based counterparts, meaning you still get plenty of vitamins and minerals from these plant-based picks.
How we chose our best meat substitutes
The Prevention Test Kitchen gathered over 150 products, taking into consideration sodium and fat content as well as other nutrients. We capped sodium levels at 450 mg per serving and only considered products that are nationally available and shoppable in grocery stores in more than 35 states or products that ship nationally. We prepared products per package directions and our panel of tasters tasted each meat alternative by category. The results: the eight best meat substitutes on the market for you to stock up on, whether you’re a life-long vegetarian or just starting to eat a plant-based diet.
Our top picks
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Best Chicken Alternative
Original Plant Chicken Pieces
- Contains 5 g fiber per serving
- Higher in sodium than chicken breast
These pieces taste, well, just like chicken with a similar texture, too. One serving boasts 20% of your daily dose of iron—a key mineral to maintaining healthy blood and keeping up energy levels. And they’re ultra-versatile, perfect to crisp up in a pan and top salads or saute and serve in a stew. Stash a few bags in the freezer for a protein-packed alternative to chicken.
Best Ground Beef Alternative
Burger Made From Plants
- Grounds are super versatile, great for forming into patties or meatballs
- Matches saturated fat levels of beef
This vegan ground beef substitute has vitamins and minerals that aren’t found as prominently in animal proteins. One serving is loaded with thiamin, important for metabolism regulation, and it also serves as a great meat-free source of vitamin B12, a vitamin necessary for muscle contraction and nerve function.
Best Sausage Alternative
Beyond Breakfast Sausage Plant-Based Links
- Lower in calories, sodium and fat than traditional breakfast sausage
- Vegan casings snap just like a pork-based sausage
- Casings mean they can’t be crumbled easily
Sausages tend to be high in fat and sodium, but these links cut back on both, without sacrificing flavor, thanks to the addition of heaps of herbs and spices. Serve alongside a veggie-packed omelet for an extra hit of protein (8 grams per serving!).
Best Jerky Alternative
Vegan Korean BBQ Plant-Based Jerky
- Takes no prep to enjoy
Extra Firm Silken Tofu
- Tasters love the creamy texture and mild flavor
- A great canvas for spices and marinades
- It takes a bit of prep work if you want crispy pieces
Tofu has been a staple in East Asian cooking for centuries, and its various forms make it reliable for all kinds of preparations. One to keep in your pantry: extra firm silken tofu, a shelf-stable type with a creamy texture. The protein powerhouse is also high in iron, magnesium, and calcium, necessary for energy production and maintaining strong bones.
- Only one ingredient
- Source of fiber, calcium and potassium
- Packed in water, so can be tough to get crispy
Jackfruit is a tropical fruit that boasts a texture similar to pulled pork or chicken when shredded. The flavor is mild (like a cross between a banana and a mango) so you can pair it with bolder sauces—try it in a sandwich topped with homemade guava barbecue sauce! And bonus, it’s easy to prep. Packages like these are packed in water and all it takes is a quick reheat and it’s ready to add to any meal.
Best Egg Alternative
- Very versatile, great for baking or breakfast scrambles
- Pricier than a carton of chicken eggs
This egg replacement is made with mung beans, a legume that mimics the protein content of chicken eggs, and it works well in scrambles, fried rice, and baked goods. It’s also cholesterol-free, lower in calories, and free of saturated fat, all lowering the risk for heart attack and stroke. Tasters loved the mild flavor and fluffy texture of the mixture when scrambled with vegetables, making it the perfect breakfast on top of whole-grain toast.
Best Bacon Alternative
Veggie Bacon Strips
- 34% less fat than traditional pork bacon
- Contain egg whites, so they aren’t suitable for vegan diets
It’s hard to replace the crisp, crave-able texture and salty flavor that bacon adds to your morning meal, but these vegetarian strips do a good job. When heated in a pan, these pieces take on a decadent texture, one that tasters said almost melts in your mouth, thanks to egg whites, while sticking to a lower sodium count than bacon.
How to choose the best meat substitute
The most important thing to consider when choosing a plant-based meat substitute is your own personal preferences. Tasting a few brands to find one that meets the flavor profile and texture you are looking for is key, but these other tips can help too.
- Check the label. Just because a product is vegetarian doesn’t mean it’s inherently healthier. Be sure to check the vegetarian meat substitute for the sodium and saturated fat content, which, depending on the brand and ingredients, can be even higher than its meat counterpart. Additionally, if whole ingredients are important to you, be sure to check the ingredient list to make sure the brand uses what feels good to you. Some brands will pack in lab-created or additional ingredients to enhance flavor, which some people choose to avoid, or incorporate soy or nuts for flavor, which can be an allergen.
- Consider how you plan to use it. Swapping in plant-based meat for traditional meat starts with how you plan to enjoy the meal. If you’re looking to make a sandwich, wrap, or salad, a heartier protein that holds up like sliced tofu, mock chicken, or fake bacon may give you the texture and flavor you’re craving, but burger or meatball night may call for a ground meat substitute.
- Read the instructions. Not every plant-based meat product is ready to eat out of the bag. Be sure to read the preparation instructions and choose accordingly. A ground-meat product likely needs a lot more TLC than a plant-based jerky you can snack on right out of the bag.
- Determine your taste preference. Some mock meat products do their very best to mimic the look, taste, and texture of meat. For some, that’s exactly what they’re looking for, but for others, they may be looking for something that still feels a little bit lighter or vegetal. Products that promise to be just like chicken or ground beef are likely going to taste closer to the real thing, but others, like tofu, are just a great way to get more plant-based protein into your diet without trying to be something else.
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