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How to Bypass the Vegetarian Processed Foods Industry

Once Upon a Time, many years ago... if you went for dinner at a friend's or relative's house, and they knew you were Vegetarian - which was kind of weird, and even vaguely Communist in some circles - you would be served a dish of raw broccoli and baby carrots, because this was What Vegetarians Eat.

Thanks to the miracle of American Industry, those dark days are behind us.

Now, the odds are very good you will be served the new Poster Child and Icon of the flourishing processed vegetarian foods industry -

The Veggie Burger

I recently picked up a copy of a popular vegetarian cooking magazine. The ads, and the articles and recipes, were filled with highly processed products that were replacements for meat and dairy products. Along with Veggie Burgers, there were replacement breakfast sausage, soy chicken and other meat, soy cheese, soy milk, rice milk, low carb energy bars, diet drinks, and all sorts of ready-to-eat or easy-to-prepare processed and packaged convenience foods.

Almost all these products had a few things in common:

Phony Vegetarian Recipes

Looking at the recipes in that same vegetarian magazine, most of them were what I think of as Phony Vegetarian recipes - meaning, they were basically regular meat and animal product recipes, with replacement vegetarian products plugged in.

So, for instance, a Vegan sandwich, called for 'vegetarian pepperoni' and a 'creamy dairy-free dressing'. A vegetarian omelet called for 'soy sausage' and low-fat soy or cheddar cheese. And so on.

All of these examples illustrate a popular misconception about vegetarian cooking - namely, that you have to start out with traditional animal-food recipes, and figure out a way to replace the objectionable animal ingredients. This is standing vegetarian cooking on its head. It is inefficient and expensive, and usually doesn't taste very good, because it is trying very hard to taste like something else.

This illustrates another popular misconception - that 'plain' vegetarian food without all these miracle replacement foods, is bland, and boring. (Like, say, traditional Indian cooking? Or mexican beans and rice? Or tabouli salad and hummus? You get the idea.) It doesn't take much thought to dismiss that fallacy.

Basic Vegetarian Foods

It makes a lot more sense to start out with your basic, unprocessed vegetarian ingredients, and learn ways to prepare them that make the most of them. It also makes sense to follow cooking methods that have been around in cultures that have vegetarian foods as a significant part of their diet.

Your main ingredients, along with vegetables, are really very simple - grains, especially rice, and beans.

You will notice that these are the two main ingredients of most of the phony-meat products that I mentioned earlier.

If you build a vegetarian diet on substitute meat products,
you are basically eating beans and rice.

And, you are paying a lot for it.

It seems to me to make a lot more sense to just figure out how to make good dishes using rice and beans from scratch. It tastes better. And, it is a lot less expensive.

Trust me, there is a lot more to vegetarian cooking than finally finding The Ultimate Burger.

Beans Bad Reputation

Beans have a bad reputation in our culture. For one thing, they are the Poor Man's Meat, and they really do still carry the stigma of poverty. For our parents, or maybe grandparents, to serve beans and pea soup regularly meant that you could not afford to serve your family meat. They still have that association for a lot of people.

If you think I am exaggerating about bean's low-brow reputation - which would you rather serve to a guest - bean dip, or hummus? (Hummus is garbanzo bean dip.) Pea soup, or dal? (the word dal means, split peas.)

Rice and beans, especially beans, are low on the glamor chart. They are also some of the most varied, best tasting, nutritious and inexpensive foods you can find.

Beans also have a reputation for being difficult to digest, and for creating embarrassing 'side-effects'.

It is true that there are a few simple rules to follow in cooking beans to make them easy to digest. Most people in our culture, when they think of beans, think of only one or two dishes - baked beans, or green split pea soup. They are usually cooked with either salt pork, bacon, or a ham hock. One of the first rules of bean cooking is that adding salt too early to the cooking process interferes with their thorough cooking, and with digestion. My wife and I are long-time bean eaters, and we both get the bends from pea soup made with a ham hock.

Yes, it takes some care to cook beans correctly. From my experience, I think the problem is greatly exaggerated because of bad information and wrongly cooked beans.

For those of you who are nervous about eating beans - what about veggie burgers? Soy milk? Or is that different somehow? Beans, by any other name... are beans.

(If you are interested, please see my article, Making Beans Easy to Digest, for a thorough discussion of this issue.)

Price Comparison

Let's do a quick price comparison here, between a processed soy product (a veggie burger), canned beans, and dry beans. Just for fun I'll compare them to prices for rice.

These prices are as of July 2004 at a major supermarket. I will not give brand names here, since these prices are typical for these products. The servings are from the information on the food packaging.

Here are the products:

Comparing the per-serving cost, $4.29 will buy you approximately:

The difference is quite dramatic. Veggie burgers are more than 10 times as expensive per serving as rice and beans. Processed food is deceptively expensive, especially when you don't take the time to do the math.

The point I am making here, is that unprocessed rice and dry beans are, dollar for dollar, the best food buy on the market, hands down.

Make Friends with Rice and Beans

Consider making rice and beans your friends... that is kind of a flippant phrase, but I think you will find, as you cook with unprocessed and natural foods, that real foods are alive. You develop a relationship with them. Some foods make friends easily, like short grain white rice which is very forgiving. Other foods, like basmati rice, are fickle and tricky, and take some coaxing and wooing before you can cook it correctly every time.

Cooking unprocessed and truly natural foods really is a whole different experience from throwing a frozen burger in a skillet. The cooking itself is immensely rewarding.

'Natural' Cooking and Processed Foods

The word 'natural' is all over the place in ads for processed vegetarian foods. Natural veggie burgers, all-natural energy bars, natural yogurt drink, natural protein shake, and so on.

Legally the word 'natural' means... exactly nothing.

So what exactly does it mean in these ads? It seems to imply that these products don't use artificial chemicals or additives.

Read the ingredient labels, and you will see that there is quite a wide range of interpretation as to what exactly 'natural' means. Even veggie burgers vary wildly in terms of how close their ingredients are to the original foodstuffs they are made of.

One thing for sure is that, natural does not mean unprocessed. Also, natural does not mean organic.

So if 'natural' doesn't mean unprocessed, and it doesn't mean organic - what exactly does it mean?

A Place for Some Bean and Grain Products

There are some very useful processed bean and grain foods that I think are worth having around. Interestingly, the best of them are foods that have been traditionally made in Asian countries for hundreds of years, and have been picked up by the modern vegetarian food industry. They use natural processing techniques, like fermentation or molding.

Tofu is basically soy cheese. It is soft, very bland, and very easy to digest. There is a very good brand, Mori-Nu, with anaerobic packages, and they use only non-GMO soybeans.

Soy milk is another traditional soy food. You can also find recipes to make your own soy milk at home, and if you ever find an Asian restaurant that makes its own soymilk from scratch, be sure to try it. Freshly made it is a real treat.

Soy sauce and miso are condiments made with fermented soybeans and sometimes wheat, and they are essential to many forms of Asian cooking. Finally, tempeh is soybean with a special mold that partially breaks it down and forms cakes. It has a nice nutty taste and chewy texture, and is also very easy to digest.

All of these are good foods, and they are worth having around for an occasional change of pace (or, as a condiment, soy sauce and miso), or a quick convenience meal. I even enjoy an occasional veggie burger, and there are some good brands, where I feel good about the company. The magic word here is occasional - processed foods and substitute meats are just too expensive and inflexible to build a regular diet on.

I think you will also find, when you get used to real unprocessed food, that it feeds and sustains you in a way that processed food does not and cannot. Unprocessed and truly natural food is alive, and you can feel the difference, especially when you eat it regularly. An occasional veggie burger is kind of fun, but by now I think of it more as entertainment then as food.


My conclusions in this little tirade are simple.

First - the word 'Natural' in advertising means exactly nothing. Unfortunate, but true. Processed food is processed food, and it cannot compare in taste, nutrition or economy with unprocessed food.

Vegetarian cooking does not have to be expensive, or difficult, or boring. In fact, in can be the least expensive (by far!), most nutritious and most varied kind of diet.

A vegetarian diet works best using mainly unprocessed foods - rice and other grains, beans and vegetables.

So, to sum up, it is worth learning to cook rice, beans and vegetables as themselves, rather than trying to come up with ways they can substitute for meat.