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Fiftysomething Diet: 8 Great New Meat Alternatives

New 'sausages,' 'meatballs, 'chicken' nuggets and more that will please your taste buds and improve your health

By Maureen Callahan | February 7, 2013
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Maureen Callahan is a registered dietitian, recipe developer and lead author of the Health.com diet book review series.

If you’ve read the latest of many reports linking red meat consumption to an increased risk of heart disease and prostate cancer, you might be starting to seriously consider going meatless, at least on occasion, to keep your fiftysomething body healthy.

Happily, it's never been easier — or more delicious. Food companies are rolling out new meatless products that can stand in for everything from meatballs to chorizo and Italian sausage, with healthful plant proteins (soy, wheat, vegetables) that are far lower in fat, saturated fat and cholesterol.

If you haven't tried meat alternatives for a while, you may be shocked to discover that they're so tasty they've fooled meat lovers and food professionals with their satisfying flavors and textures. Here’s a look at the best of the new bunch:

Best “Chicken” Nuggets: Gardein Seven Grain Crispy Tenders

What's in them: Water, plant flours (soy, wheat), veggies and grains like quinoa and millet are blended to make a “dough” that is baked in special ovens to give it the fibrous look of meat. Since the mix of plant proteins used contains all the building blocks (amino acids) found in complete proteins like meat and eggs, it’s a great meat substitute for vegans and vegetarians.

(MORE: Milk Alternatives: Are They Really Better for You, or Is It Hype?)

Why we like them: The insides taste chicken-like enough, but the crispy, crunchy coating is totally addictive, even though the tenders aren't fried. Use the shortcut method of heating them in the microwave first and they'll take just 10 minutes to crisp in the oven.
 
Best Italian Sausage”: Lightlife Smart Sausages Italian Style

What's in them: Non-GM (genetically modified) soybeans, dried vegetables, spices and flavorings are crafted into "sausage" links that can be put on the grill or sautéed in a pan. A nice plus: Five percent of the company's profits go to environmental or human rights causes.
 
Why we like it: The Italian spices and flavors are spot on, and the sturdy links are versatile enough for grilling or slicing into lasagna or marinara sauce.
 
Best “Meatballs”: Nate's Savory Mushroom Meatless Meatballs

What's in them: Soy protein (textured soy concentrate, textured vegetable protein) is blended with bread crumbs, seasonings and dehydrated mushrooms to make a "meatball" that’s high in protein but free of artery-clogging saturated fat and cholesterol. Six "meatballs" (200 calories) will net you 16 grams of high-quality protein, roughly the equivalent of two ounces of meat. The "meatballs," however, are not gluten-free.
 
Why we like them: The mushrooms add a rich “meaty” flavor missing from most knockoffs, and the seasonings create an authentic grandma's-kitchen aroma. As an added bonus, the plant protein also provides four grams of appetite-quenching fiber per serving.
 
Best “Chicken” Pieces: Beyond Meat Chicken Shreds
 
What's in them: Creator Ethan Brown recently told NPR how these shreds are crafted from soy protein, pea protein, amaranth and other seasonings. This product has fooled food professionals into thinking it is really chicken, and now it's flying off supermarket shelves. Right now it's available only in the prepared-food sections of Whole Foods Markets and select other outlets, but the company plans to go mainstream soon and add faux pork and beef to its line.

Why we like it: They taste like the real thing. And Beyond Meat has pledged to make the shreds cheaper than chicken when it goes mass-market. This has been the Holy Grail for such products, which, while more affordable than they once were, still tend to be costlier than the real thing.
 
Best “Chorizo Sausage”: El Burrito Soyrizo

What's in them: Textured soy protein, soy protein concentrate, and all the spices that normally go into chorizo, rolled into big, authentic-looking links. Soyrizo is also vegan and gluten-free.
 
Why we like it: Soyrizo looks remarkably like chorizo, and tastes and cooks like the real thing, but with 60 percent less fat. And since the sausages come fully cooked, they're an easy last-minute addition that can turn favorite Mexican recipes into vegetarian fare. Try them in tamale fillings, tacos or breakfast burritos.
 
Best Breakfast “Sausage”: MorningStar Farms Breakfast Patties
 
What's in them: With organic textured soy protein, organic wheat gluten, egg whites and other flavorings, each patty delivers eight grams of protein, but they're neither vegan nor gluten-free.
 
(MORE: The Fiftysomething Diet: 5 Ways to Make a More Healthful Breakfast)

Why we like them: They're tasty enough to eat on their own or to crumble into breakfast casseroles. I've served the patties to meat lovers with full disclosure that they’re not meat, and guests keep coming back for more.

Best Bean Burger: Sunshine Burgers Black Bean Southwest Veggie Burger

What's in them: Sunshine Burgers' six varieties use a mix of raw sunflower seeds, brown rice, vegetables and spices to make a tasty bean patty for the grill or skillet, with no soy, wheat or additives.
 
Why we like them: These are great burgers to grill for friends who are gluten-free or just looking for a filling, fiber-packed meat substitute. If you like a little spice, the Black Bean and the Falafel Burger offers a satisfying but mild kick, and the Hemp & Sage Burgers are reminiscent of turkey and stuffing. Dress them up with your favorite burger fixings or eat them solo. It’s all good.
 
Best “Ground Beef”: Quorn Meatless and Soy-Free Grounds

What's in them: Quorn, long popular in some European countries, is made using a fermentation process similar to that of brewing beer. The end result is a purified, very low-fat mycoprotein (actually a protein-rich fungus) that’s mixed with egg whites and flavorings and then shaped into ground-beef-like crumbles, "chicken" patties, and burgers. There has been concern about the product causing allergies in some people, but the FDA has so far seen no cause for action or a warning label, and Dr. Andrew Weil has reported that “allergies appear to be rare and the reactions not very serious.” Quorn products are neither vegan nor gluten-free.
 
Why we like them: The soy-free crumbles brown nicely in the skillet and take well to all kinds of seasonings and flavors, making them versatile additions to your taco, stuffed pepper or spaghetti recipes.
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