- Posted by Phytomaniac
- On September 18, 2017
The quest for inventive and interesting protein sources can lead the adventurous vegan down twisting roads, one of which may just arrive at a curious food product. The jumbo shrimp of the plant world, vegan chicken allows bodybuilders on a strictly plant-based diet to recreate the dishes they left behind when they chose their plant-based lifestyle. It adds a nutritious and substantial protein element to any dish.
To explain why bodybuilders might consider adding vegan chicken to their diets, we should first address the peculiar nutritional requirements of fitness athletes in general. Always in search of mass, bodybuilders practically live in a state of caloric surplus. Consuming mountains of clean foods is tiresome, though, so many bodybuilders use supplements to help them reach their goals. Of the three macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates and fats), protein consumption is the one that keeps bodybuilders up at night — literally.
Bodybuilding and Protein
Protein sources like vegan chicken play many roles in normal bodily functions. They are necessary for fingernail and hair growth, red blood cell production and hormone regulation. Of course, they are also the building blocks of muscle and are a necessity for anyone looking to pack on lean pounds. The search for a theoretical ideal intake level and the criteria for protein sources like vegan chicken is age-old in bodybuilding.
The recommended daily allowance of protein varies by depending on age, sex and weight. The National Research Council Subcommittee followed World Health Organization guidelines to determine the minimum intake of protein that 97 percent of the population would need to maintain health. It studied only the protein intake necessary for sedentary people to replace the amino acids they lose through normal body processes. The subcommittee took no account of the protein stores athletes spend when taxing their bodies to their maximum ability.
For most adults older than 18, the RDA of protein is .36 grams per pound of body weight. So, a 170-pound man would need just 62 grams of protein to continue being alive. An athlete of the same weight who continues to consume that amount of protein throughout hard training would soon wither, though. Athletes and bodybuilders require more protein than the general population to support the building of muscle and the transportation of oxygen to working muscles, among the myriad other functions that protein fuels.
In formulating its current nutritional recommendations, the National Research Council Subcommittee recognized that some segments of the population — i.e. bodybuilders — regularly consume much larger quantities than the RDA suggests. Citing no evidence other than prudence, the subcommittee suggests taking in no more than double its RDA of protein. Many bodybuilding trainers suggest taking in clean proteins like vegan chicken at rates as high as 1.5 grams per pound. This exceeds the RDA, and may not be necessary, but most healthy athletes can probably tolerate this type of diet for short amounts of time. However, most of the excess protein will be excreted through the kidneys (and potentially tax the liver).
Recognizing Protein Overload
The body will use its protein stores to drive its physical processes for just as long as it requires them. In doing so, it breaks apart protein and uses the constituent amino acids to build other proteins. Athletes train their bodies to perform this function efficiently, like a furnace burning through fuel. However, the body can only utilize so much protein at any one time.
Protein unused for normal functions moves to the liver, where it is stripped of nitrogen. The body can then reconfigure this unneeded protein into glucose (sugar) to be used as an energy source. If we don’t spend it, our bodies store any excess of glucose as fat. The leftover nitrogen from this process leaves the body in either urine or sweat, which will then often have a telltale ammonia odor. Protein intakes this high are both unhealthy and counterproductive. It would take a lot of vegan chicken to reach these levels of protein overload, though.
Is Vegetable Protein Enough?
Vegan chicken, like many foods from the plant kingdom, provides every amino acid that the human body requires, including the essential amino acids that our bodies cannot make on their own. The amino acid scoring system that the National Research Council uses to evaluate the “completeness” of a protein source is, by its own admission, flawed. For example, any amino acid a vegan chicken product might lack can be supplemented for with either larger quantities of vegan chicken or other plant-based proteins with different profiles.
The same process that strips proteins of nitrogen in the liver allows us to synthesize most amino acids from the free proteins in our bodies. Nine of these amino acids — the building blocks of protein — are not synthesized in the body, though. We must account for these amino acids in our diets, but the quantity of protein in the food is as important as the quality.
While all plants contain protein, most plants don’t contain very much of it. Vegan bodybuilders are therefore forced to consume heaps of rice and beans, spoonful after spoonful of nut butters, and hard-to-source hemp to get their daily protein requirement. Packing a diet with enough high-protein plants is tough and, honestly, monotonous. Products like vegan chicken can help alleviate these doldrums.
Textured Vegetable Protein
One source of quality, plant-based protein that too many vegans and vegetarians overlook is an unassuming product called textured vegetable protein (TVP). This soy-flour product is actually a byproduct of the soybean oil manufacturing process. Once defatted, manufacturers cook the leftover soy powder under pressure before drying it.
Textured Vegetable Protein is available in powdered and granulated form, but both forms require preparation including reconstitution with water or broth. The product will form chunks that absorb flavors like a sponge. This reconstituted soy protein is what manufacturers often make into vegan chicken.
You should not confuse TVP for soy protein isolate, though either product may be used to manufacture vegan chicken. Textured vegetable protein contains no fat and is low in carbs, but it is a protein powerhouse. Up to 50 percent of the product is protein, putting it in the same category as vegan protein powders and making it more protein dense than a chicken breast. That protein is loaded with the branched chain amino acids — leucine, isoleucine and valine. Of course, a true vegan wouldn’t consume chicken, regardless of its protein content.
Through creative uses of soy protein isolate and other complementary ingredients, some manufacturers are producing vegan chicken products without TVP — which is a registered trademark of the Archer Daniels Midland company. These vegan chicken products are usually pre-formed into strips and are ready to consume after only light cooking. They lack the protein density of TVP, but they provide enough of it to constitute the protein source in a well-balanced meal.
It is a contradiction — an oxymoron. The very concept seems to spit in the face of common sense. Why on Earth would anyone dedicated to a plant-based diet want to consume pseudo chicken, and what is it? Vegan chicken is a pre-formed TVP or soy protein product. The nuggets that result from rehydrating these base products, resembling chicken chunks as they already do, are either seasoned or flavored to give them a poultry flavor when cooked.
Manufacturers make vegan chicken in prepared and still-dried forms. The prepared type is already reconstituted and is normally packed either in cans or frozen in bags. A vegan bodybuilder can use either one to make a soup or a stew that is both hearty and protein-packed. One hundred grams of vegan chicken added to a dish can provide as much as 50 grams of protein. The same 100 grams of cooked chicken breast supplies just 38 grams of protein.
To be clear, vegan chicken is not tofu, which contains only 8 grams of protein per 100 grams of product. Tofu is also high in fat, although much of it is healthy fat. People adjusting to a vegetarian or vegan diet often use tofu as a meat substitute, but vegan chicken is much closer to the real thing. Even for those who have long sworn off animal products, vegan chicken represents substance offers a substantial influx of protein to any diet.
Buying Vegan Chicken
Of the prepared vegan chicken products available, the bagged-and-frozen variety is by far the simplest to incorporate into a recipe. The companies that make these products go through all the pains of making it resemble actual chicken breast, though some, of course, succeed more than others. Here are a couple of popular vegan chicken products that hit the mark:
#2 Vegan Chicken: Gardein – Mandarin OrangeChick’n
Homemade mandarin orange chicken does not take very long to cook, but the preparation process can be pretty involved. That’s where vegan protein powerhouse Gardein comes in. Gardein Mandarin Orange Chick’n is vegan chicken that is packaged pre-fried. The batter contains both mandarin and tangerine juices, plus chopped orange peels for an authentically acidic flavor profile.
The true-to-form Chinese version of this dish translates literally as fresh orange peel chicken, owing to the traditional use of orange zest in the recipe. The Americanized version — the one commonly found in Chinese restaurants in the states — typically lacks the zest. It is a sweeter dish, composed of more orange juice and marmalade than peelings.
Each 72-gram serving of Gardein’s vegan chicken provides 10 grams of soy isolate protein. There are also 12 grams of carbs and 2.5 grams of fat in each portion, to go along with 280 milligrams of sodium. This vegan chicken also contains a considerable amount of wheat gluten. Like the meat it replicates, Mandarin Orange Chick’n is also not a significant source of micronutrients, save for iron (10 percent RDA). It does represent a solid contribution of macronutrients, though, and it can serve as the base for many more-nutritious dishes as well.
#1 Vegan Chicken: Beyond Meat – Chicken-Free Strips
Beyond Meat is a company with big goals. Its stated aim is to “provide mass-market solutions” that substitute a plant-based protein marketplace for animal proteins in the food supply. The company’s vegan chicken product, Beyond Chicken Strips, is visually nearly indiscernible from the real thing. It comes in 9-ounce packages, and there are about three servings in each one.
Whether you choose the Lightly Seasoned, Southwest or simply the Grilled Strips, Beyond Meat makes a vegan chicken product to suit most any recipe. At 20 grams of protein per 85-gram serving, this brand of vegan chicken provides a hearty dose of plant-based protein. The chief ingredient is soy protein isolate, followed by pea protein isolate and seasonings. Everything else in the ingredient list is pronounceable. Gluten, cholesterol and saturated fat are nowhere to be found, and Beyond Meat products are all non-GMO.
Customer responses to Beyond Meat’s vegan chicken run the gamut — from amazement at its similarity to chicken to complaints of an off-putting texture. The truth is, vegan chicken can be tender and delicious, or it can become a rubbery mess. It all depends on how it is cooked. Incorporated into a sauce or briefly grilled, chicken-free strips remain tender and take on the flavors of most any sauce or marinate. Overcook them, though, and the texture changes noticeably. Also, be sure the product ships with a cool pack to keep it from thawing.
Products like vegan chicken get a bad rap in non-vegan and non-vegetarian circles. After all, why would anyone interested in living a plant-based existence even consider a faux-meat product? The answers to that question are as varied as the people that dedicate themselves to a vegan lifestyle.
Some people make the change to plant-based proteins out of a sense of compassion. Animal husbandry has historically been rife with cruelty, and its modern iterations sometimes take the barbarity to surreal levels. Even free-range chicken, which is bereft of many of the cruelest methods of rearing poultry, must be slaughtered and packaged for consumption. Many vegans are taking a stand against these practices, and rightfully so.
Vegan chicken also appeals to those whose diet restrictions demand they cut out the saturated fat that is inherent in most meats. For these people, the clean, soy-based ingredients in vegan chicken afford the opportunity to continue eating a few favorite dishes. Meat substitutes can ease the transition to a healthier lifestyle.
It is this ability of products like vegan chicken — to closely emulate the meat products that most of us grew up eating — that explains its rise in popularity. For the vegan that eschews meat products because they cannot stand the texture, vegan chicken holds no appeal. But, for those vegans and vegetarians who choose a plant-based lifestyle on the grounds of principle, a product like vegan chicken lets them enjoy some of their favorite foods while making a stand.