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Meat substitutes or meat alternatives are the buzzwords of late, cooking up quite a storm in the food space. Tofu, tempeh, and seitan, to name a few, are making their presence felt in restaurant menus and in home-cooked meals across the world. However, these plant-based meat alternatives or mock meat have been around for centuries, dating as far back as 200 BCE.

In this blog, we highlight on the origins of this special innovation, of how it all came to be.

We were so intrigued in learning about this topic ourselves and very eager to now share it with you all.

Let’s get cracking now and venture back in time!

Did you know that tofu originated in China? Not many know that this food, made from soybean curd, is more than 1,000 years old.

A document written by Tao Gu (903-970) refers to it as ‘small mutton’ and states that it was consumed as a meat substitute.

The Chinese often used tofu (made from soya) because of its availability and physical properties. In this part of the world, meat substitutes were used largely by Mahayana Buddhist monks who were strict vegetarians. The schools would generally recommend a vegetarian diet, because Gautama Buddha set forth in his teachings that his followers must not eat the flesh of any sentient being.

By the 1620s, the process was so advanced that Buddhist monks at a banquet had to be reassured: “This is vegetarian food made to look like meat.”

Yuba (tofu skin) was first found mentioned in a Chinese text in 1587. So almost 600 hundred years later, we can see vegetables being engineered to have meat mimicking aspects – such as skin.

Japan’s mock meat solution slightly diverges from the Chinese recipe, adding other grains to the preparation and thereby slightly altering the texture. It is widely known that the diet the Japanese follow is very rich in nutrients, making them to be one of the healthiest populations on Earth.

Tempeh, on the other hand, is produced by fermenting soy beans and is believed to originate from the Indonesian island of Java. Some claim that it is a by-product of the tofu industry that was introduced by Chinese immigrants in the 17″ century.

Seitan, as most know, is a product made from wheat gluten and dates back to ancient China, almost 1,500 years ago. This name “Seitan”, however, is of Japanese origin and was coined in later in 1961.

Once seitan demonstrated that there is a market for mock meats, there has been a great deal of research and development to create meat substitutes in the modern era.

“Mock meat” was popularized by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, a health activist, nutritionist and founder of the same company that makes the breakfast cereal. Kellogg launched something called “nuttose”, the first known commercially-produced vegetarian “meat” that was made of peanuts.

Over 2,000 years of experimenting, trials and errors, food trends, religious movements, and happy accidents have led us to where we are today. One thing is for certain: with a culinary history going back millennia, meat alternatives can’t be said to be “not as natural as meat.”

While diet is certainly a major part of the trend, the global population identifying as vegan or vegetarian has only seen an incremental increase over the past few years.

What’s really fueling this 21st century protein shake-up is a growing concern that animal agriculture is negatively impacting our climate and adverse health effects from ingesting red meat. This ingredient has proven to be champion in this generation, and a great one to cut down the risk of heart-related diseases, blood pressure, cancer, and diabetes.

Meat alternatives are a great vehicle for flexitarians/vegans to continue enjoying the foods they once loved without the cruelty, while obtaining the essential nutrients.

According to multiple studies funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, it is found that the meat alternatives are a good source of fiber, folate and iron while containing less saturated fat than traditional meat.

While the concept of this ingredient isn’t new, this particular market is certainly witnessing a new rise in demand due to health concerns, climate change, ethical reasons, etc.

It was during the COVID-19 pandemic where the demand for plant-based meats grew significantly. Amidst the health crisis over the last three years and the interest of minimizing on animal products, consumers started incorporating plant-based meat into their foods.

Whatever occurs in the development of mock meat, one thing is clear: there’s ample amount of options for us to choose from, relish in our favorite dishes, and add on to lead a healthier lifestyle!

The plant-based meat industry has plenty of room for growth. Companies continue to improve formulations and technologies that add to the health benefits, taste and environmental impact of these foods and could, therefore, help to get more people on board the plant-based meat movement.

Stay tuned for our next blog as we touch upon the present and the future of plant-based meat alternatives.

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