The best meat alternatives of 2023

Got beef with animal proteins? These meat alternatives can help flesh out a plant-based diet.

Best vegan taco meat

vegan taco substitute

Gardein Gluten-Free Ultimate Plant-Based Beefless Ground Crumbles

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Best McNuggets stand-in

nuggs chicken nugget alternative

SIMULATE chicken NUGGS

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Best vegetarian meat

vegetarian bacon

MorningStar Farms Veggie Breakfast Meatless Bacon Strips

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Whether you’re working hard to stick with your first Veganuary or decades into a conscious, conscientious lifestyle journey, varying up the menu is equally important. Eating a diet higher in fruits, vegetables, and other meat alternatives is healthier for your body and can also be healthier for the planet. However, adapting your diet and exciting the palate can be challenging if you just dump some tofu or tempeh out of the package and into an otherwise familiar dish thinking it will be anything but bland. So, whether you are trying out Meatless Mondays, replacing several meals a week, or prepping to make a total shift to vegetarianism or veganism, plant-based “meats” will help ease the transition. You can often follow the same recipes you enjoy; just swap out the beef, pork, or chicken for better-than-you-would-think fake meats and/or better-for-you protein sources. Our picks for the best meat alternatives will help you navigate and appreciate the options, allowing you to replicate comfort foods quickly and easily.

How we chose the best meat alternatives

To get to the meat of this matter, we relied primarily on personal experience. There are multiple vegetarians on the PopSci staff, but also grillmasters, so we gathered opinions from those who both do and do not eat meat regularly to learn what they considered most satisfying as a 1:1 swap and what stood out as its own thing. After polling peers, we looked at real-world impressions and considered critical takes to narrow our list of the most satisfying, least challenging meat alternatives.

The best meat alternatives: Reviews & Recommendations

Meat alternatives use advances in nutritional science to offer great taste and texture that takes familiar forms. While different brands use various ingredients, common ways to make fake meat are wheat protein, soy protein, wheat gluten, pea proteins, grains, potato starch, and beans reformed to resemble and taste “similar” to meat. You can buy a bag of texturized vegetable protein chunks, which are meant to be used in recipes in place of diced chicken breast. Very popular fake meat items include chicken tenders, chicken nuggets, chicken patties, as well as vegan taco meats, burgers, and breakfast patties/links. These alternatives are delicious and ensure you don’t miss the meat when made well.

When you go meatless, however, you will run across two types of non-meat proteins: vegan or vegetarian. Vegans omit all animal products, including eggs and dairy (as well as enzymes and additives from animal sources, think gelatin or insect-derived dyes, for example). Vegetarians, on the other hand, typically only omit the meat (though, based on personal preference, they may adopt stricter but not quite vegan rules). Keep this in mind when looking at non-meat proteins because vegetarian meats may still contain ingredients unsuited for vegans. Whether you are trying to improve your cholesterol and general well-being by eating a plant-based diet or trying to help reduce the reliance on factory farms and that industry’s stress on the planet, there are plenty of reasons to skip meat these days. Here is a list of the best meat alternatives for you to chew on:  

Best McNuggets stand-in: SIMULATE chicken NUGGS

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Americans like chicken. Lots of chicken. A favorite of children and adults alike, breaded chicken nuggets, tenders, and patties are a satisfying food for even the most finicky eater. Luckily, the pleasingly chewy texture of that ground-up, blended, seasoned, and breaded chunk of comfort is not hard to replicate with meat alternatives. You’ll find a huge variety of brands to choose from, with both vegan and vegetarian options. These have become so popular because they are tasty and a way to feel better about your eating. 

The SIMULATE company has created a vegan chicken nugget and vegan chicken patty using wheat and soy proteins. Like a software company, SIMULATE listens to feedback and tweaks its product to perfect the yummy, chewy chicken goodness. Available in regular, spicy (our favorite), or dino (a close second favorite)—and particularly great when made in one of the best air fryers—NUGGS let you experience the joy of a McDonald’s 10-piece with a modicum less guilt.

Best “chicken” sandwich: VFC Chick*n Fillets

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If you’re a Year One vegetarian, you’ll come upon The Craving eventually. Whether it’s for BBQ or a burger or bacon, most former meat-eaters pass through this gauntlet of temptation, this inability to recapture a specific umami that threatens your resolve. For some, including this guy, it was a chicken sandwich that almost fueled the backslide. While delicious, no amount of southern-fried mushrooms truly hit the spot, and the freezer-aisle selections continuously fell short. I’ve been a vegetarian for years, but would still reminisce sometimes about the sensation of those fast-food fillets … until I tried VFC (Vegan Fried Chicken), a British brand that managed to capture more of the crisp-and-juicy, properly seasoned nature of sandwiches from below the Mason-Dixon (looking at you, Chick-fil-A). Maybe it comes as little surprise that the company’s co-founder, Matthew Glover, also co-founded the Veganuary movement.

Wheat, soy, and pea proteins wrapped in a light cornflake coating with a pop of garlic, mustard seed, and black pepper, the VFC Chick*n Fillets are “meaty” without being offputting. A lot of striated plant-based meats are chewy in an unpleasant way, but not VFC. (Of course, part of the secret is dialing down the air fryer temperature by 25 degrees and always sticking to the bottom of the time range, or even a minute under.) Looking to eat less bread? You can also get VFC Chick*n Tenders (the sauce-friendly bar-menu classic), Chick*n Bites (chonkier nuggets), or Popcorn Chick*n (particularly good to throw on greens). All three provided a similar sense of satisfaction, replacing the last lingerings of The Craving with a new desire.

Best vegan taco meat: Gardein Beefless Ground Crumbles

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Taco night is a crowd-pleaser. Ground beef sauteed and loaded into warm tortillas with heaps of flavorful toppings … we’re getting hungry just writing this. So much of what goes into creating a great taco is the combination of spices and hot-cold soft-crunchy sensations that one could argue that the meat is not the star, but it’s undoubtedly important to create the overall balance.

The best vegan taco meat replicates the flavor and texture of beef, and because you will be simmering it in your favorite spices or sauce, it is an easy substitution. Like other plant-based meat alternatives, most vegan taco meat is made using a blend of ingredients with texturized soy protein. Unlike beef, however, many of these beefless crumbles are already seasoned and salted, so you may need to adjust your recipe to accommodate for this.

While the texture won’t allow you to ball up and turn this into meatballs or meatloaf like some ground beef alternatives, these crumbles can also easily be added to your Sloppy Joe, lasagna, or bolognese sauces. 

A seasoned bag of frozen crumbles ready to add to all your favorite ground beef recipes, this plant-based protein offers 18 grams per serving, with no dairy or gluten. Tailor your seasoning and salt, however, as these are already seasoned.

Best for stir-fry and salads: Hodo Tofu

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Don’t get us wrong, when it comes to “meat” alternatives, plenty of thrillers come from fillers. You can get a great-tasting slab from a lab. But one of the best plant-based proteins remains arguably the first: toothsome ole tofu. Water, soybeans, natural coagulant. You can cook with it fresh or frozen; the texture can be jiggly as jello or chewy as shredded chicken—minus the gelatin or muscle tissue, of course. Zero collagens, etc. Toss some cold onto greens for something silken and satiating or dump it into an air fryer if you prefer warm, plump, pillowy. And it takes to every manner of flavor just as readily as skinless breast meat—the blank canvas of cooking.

Launched from a San Francisco Bay Area farmers market over 20 years ago, Hodo pre-marinated cubes and crumbles can be found at Whole Foods, Target, etc., as well as in dishes from Chipotle and more. Gluten-free, egg-free, tree nut-free, Kosher … these good beans pack in protein, calcium, and fiber. Infused with spice blends such as Thai curry, Harissa, Moroccan Chermoula, Chinese 5 Spice, and more, these ready-to-eat nuggets let you skip the pressing and other prep and get right to putting the finishing touches on your stir-fry or salad.

hodo tofu Mexican Crumbles box on top of pans on the stove

Fantasizing about another flavor profile? The hodo Mexican Crumbles (shown above) form the foundation of your customized version of Chipotle’s sofritas bowl. Or grab some hodo traditional extra-firm tofu and a bowl, then keep reading because we’ve got a recommendation for condiments that will swiftly add savoriness.

Best “steak” and “cutlets”: Meati

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Whereas many plant-based “meats” occupy themselves primarily with replicating taste, Eat Meati’s products aim for the texture territory. Harvesting whole mushroom root, then pressing it to remove the water, Meati achieves a fibrous, nutrient-rich protein that can sit in for steak or chicken breast to grill, sauté, or air fry—just season as desired and add mashed potatoes, creamed spinach, an iceberg lettuce wedge in bleu cheese dressing, or whatever other classic sides or salads you crave. Maybe assemble a hot “chicken” sandwich with the crispy cutlet, a bahn meati with savory slices of fish sauce/soy sauce/rice vinegar/garlic-marinated “steak,” or carne asada tacos. I grilled a simple salt-and-pepper steak and found it offered a familiar but also distinctive umami—it might actually be too, well, meaty for some hardcore vegans. A crispy cutlet on quinoa and roast broccoli (shown above) wasn’t as striated as the steak but also wasn’t the uniformly ground filling of a chicken patty, etc. They’re juicy and toothsome enough to have been adopted in the upgraded Chik’N sandwich for the PLNT Burger chain. With a clear ingredients list compared to many highly processed meat alternatives, Meati can satisfy vegetarians wanting clean eating but also offers a great transition for flexitarians.

Best meatless meat burger: Beyond Burger

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One of the things standing in the way of people (especially burger lovers) cutting down on meat has been the lack of a satisfying alternative to ground beef-based foods. Veggie burgers had a bad rep for a long time for being dry or crumbly and never quite the right texture to feel like more than a chunky disc. But advances have been made, so much so that major restaurants and even fast-food chains have adopted the Impossible and Beyond Meat brands—which recreate the feel and taste of actual beef burgers. With an eye for the details down to the “blood” and an iron-rich flavor, they offer the best way yet for fans to make the transition to fake meat without feeling like they are missing out on the joy of a juicy burger.

These burgers from Beyond Meat—a brand that also makes a killer spicy sausage patty, add biscuit for the perfect Southern breakfast—are so “real” it’s like magic, but it’s just science. This is a real burger experience, so you can feel good about eating a plant-based diet that is better for the Earth. Just don’t overdo it, as the sodium content is high.

Best for wraps and grain bowls: Afia Falafel

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Oh chickpeas, did it hurt when you falafel from heaven? When it comes to legumes, the mighty chickpea might be, no is the best. And there’s no better way to enjoy this high-protein, high-fiber “pea” than as part of a meal that’s well-rounded in more than one way. Deep-fried balls of chickpea flour, particularly delicious with tahini (such as the Haven’s Kitchen sauce a couple of entries below), falafel is a perfect street food that can be just as poppin’ from your kitchen. (Plus, it’s gluten-free.)

Afia Falafel offers you access to these small tasty things from the convenience of your freezer. Good from the oven, toaster, or air fryer—crisp on the outside, fluffy and moist on the inside—this versatile blend of garbanzo beans, onion, parsley, cumin, coriander, and other Mediterranean spices can fill a perfect pita or top a compelling grain bowl. Add hummus (more chickpeas!) and harissa for a harmonious medley. You don’t have to search externally for more flavor, however, as Afia offers varieties including garlic & herb, turmeric, za’atar, and sun-dried tomato.

Best vegetarian meat: MorningStar Farms Veggie Bacon Strips

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What’s a big American-style breakfast without some bacon or sausages? These rich, fatty, salty indulgences are hardly healthy, but sure do taste good with eggs, pancakes, or just by themselves. Non-meat protein options offer a great-tasting solution, as manufacturers have mastered the seasoning so well that you’ll hardly notice or miss the real thing. 

Unlike vegan meats, vegetarian meat will include some animal products. For example, vegetarian bacon uses egg whites for texture and protein. Other vegetarian meats might also use milk. With some animal products, vegetarian meats won’t always be cholesterol-free, but they will have a lot less than real bacon and real sausages. A reduced fat and cholesterol content is a health advantage, but these products are often highly processed and can contain a lot of sodium. Eating these non-meat proteins sparingly is important, however, as they are healthier but far from health food. 

Packed with flavor, this faux bacon uses egg whites, wheat gluten, and vegetable protein to provide a tasty alternative for your vegetarian breakfast, breakfast for dinner, brunch, midnight snack, even afternoon tea, and elevenses … you get it. This brand is very popular and widely available—and the flavor is so good you’ll want to pig out, minus the pig—but note they use food coloring and artificial flavors.

Best vegan meat substitutes: Upton’s Naturals Jackfruit  

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Here’s a fruitful idea for vegan meat substitutes. One additional step beyond “meatless meat” is jackfruit, long popular in Southeast Asia and gaining popularity as more people switch to plant-based diets. It is now possible to buy fresh jackfruit in many domestic supermarkets, and a wide variety of preseasoned jackfruit foods and canned jackfruit are also available for purchase. Jackfruit can be made into burgers or thrown into recipes where you’d add chicken strips, though it is best known as one of the vegan meat substitutes with a texture perfect for a well-sauced pulled pork sandwich. Filled with nutrition, jackfruit is a great source of fiber, plus it offers magnesium, vitamin B6, and antioxidants. Unlike many vegan types of meat, jackfruit products are minimally processed, and the fruit can be eaten raw or cooked. However, because jackfruit is, well, a fruit, it is low in protein, so nutrition experts suggest mixing jackfruit with beans or nuts to create a balanced meal. 

One of the quick and easy vegan meat substitutes, just heat and serve. Jackfruit is cooked and seasoned to replace the meat in your favorite pulled pork recipes, and it’s also great in a wrap or salad. There are also chili-lime carnitas and Thai curry varieties. Just remember to add other plant proteins for a complete meal.

Best plant-based sauce/dressing/marinade: Haven’s Kitchen

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A great sauce is the instant upgrade meat alternatives need—particularly tofu, if it’s not already zestily marinated like hodo’s options above. However, ample seasoning is also wonderful for protein-rich, rounded-nutrition greens and/or grains. But sauces, dressings, and what have you can actually take up the majority of your prep time with all the chopping, blending, reducing, adding pinches of this and punching things up, etc.

Founded in New York City in 2012, Haven’s Kitchen makes ready-to-eat palate-pleasers packaged in 100% recyclable squeeze pouches for a lighter impact on the Earth. Herby chimichurri, red pepper romesco, gingery miso—these are just some of the many vegan, vibrant concoctions that add tangy versatility to your meals. If you’re looking for a bright boost with minimal fuss, any of the Haven’s Kitchen pre-packaged international odes are an effortless elevator. Able to save you time without unidentifiable additives, these fresh dressings will quickly become a pantry—well, refrigerator—staple.

FAQs

Q: What is the healthiest meat substitute?

The healthiest meat substitute will be natural vegetarian foods, high in protein and minimally processed. Great, healthy meat substitutes include beans, tempeh, lentils, jackfruit, mushrooms, nuts, and seeds. An average 150-pound adult might require 54 grams of protein daily, easily attainable with meat substitutes. In addition to meat substitutes, many meat alternatives are available that are quick and easy to use in meals instead of meats. However, meat alternatives can be more processed and have excess sodium levels. It’s best to read labels and eat minimally processed options most frequently. 

Q: What is the best alternative to beef?

If you are looking for a similar taste and texture, the best alternative to beef is plant-based meat made by popular brands Impossible Foods and Beyond Burger. Compared to many grain- or bean-based burgers, these products are much closer to real beef in terms of the look, taste, and texture. These beef alternatives are made with soy or pea proteins and compare with real beef in terms of amounts of protein and calories, but with less saturated fat and no cholesterol, as well as fiber that is missing in real beef. However, it’s important to note that these products contain more sodium than beef. Similar to beef, beef alternatives are tasty treats in moderation, offering a meat-like experience without the meat. 

Q: What is the best-tasting meat substitute?

Meat substitutes include healthy natural minimal processed options, as well as more processed meat alternatives. Beans, nuts, and lentils are very tasty and healthy options that can be used in various meals and lend themselves to soups, stews, and other delicious seasoned dishes. Regarding meat substitutes, popular tasty options can be found from SIMULATE, Daring, Raised & Rooted, MorningStar Farms, Quorn, Gardein, Tofurky, Beyond Meat, and Impossible. These popular brands offer alternatives to sausage, burgers, chicken patties, ground meat, and more. (And we didn’t even get into seafood alternatives.) The best-tasting meat substitute will come down to personal preference, and finding the one that excites your taste buds can be a lot of fun. 

Final thoughts on the best meat alternatives

The best meat alternatives will taste great and be easy to add to all your favorite recipes. Meatless meats can be vegan or vegetarian and use various ingredients to offer a protein-packed alternative to meat. Created to imitate the flavor, look, and texture of your favorite meats, the delicious meat alternatives available on the market are increasing daily.

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Tony Ware

Editor, Commerce

Tony Ware is the Editor, Commerce & Gear for PopSci.com (and PopPhoto.com). He’s been writing about how to make and break music since the mid-'90s when his college newspaper said they already had a film critic, but maybe he wanted to look through the free promo CDs. Immediately hooked on outlining intangibles, he's covered everything audio for countless alt. weeklies, international magazines, websites, and heated bar trivia contests ever since. He lives in Northern Virginia with his wife and an 8-pound Aussie Shepherd-Japanese Chin mix who loves exploring national parks and impressing the thru-hikers.

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