As the plant-based lifestyle continues to gain more popularity thanks to its outstanding health benefits, new plant food products are constantly coming onto the market. Many people in fact are under the impression that if a food is plant or vegetarian based, then it automatically makes it healthy (or healthier). The same goes for people thinking that if it is organic, then it is healthy. Both those ideas are not always true. What is the common catch? The food being a processed food.
Whether it is an organic vegetable soup, or imitation meat, we cannot allow ourselves to be fooled by processed food. If we consider all the attributes of an optimally healthy diet such as being natural, organic, plant-based, raw, acid-alkaline balanced, and if you could only apply one of those in your life, the most important one and the one which would make the most impact on your health is the idea of natural. Therefore if something is a processed food, it doesn’t matter if it is organic or what health claims it may have, the point is it is not going to create a healthy environment within your body.
This brings us to the topic of this article—textured vegetable protein. This item isn’t necessarily new, but with the global population growing and the vegetarian, vegan or plant-based lifestyles becoming more popular, so is this item. From a nutritional and functional perspective, it sounds terrific. But there is something about this food product that you need to know before you consider, or continue consuming it.
What is Textured Vegetable Protein?
I first heard of TVP or textured vegetable protein in passing here and there in some vegetarian discussions a few years ago. I never bothered to learn more about it at the time, or bothered to buy and eat it. It sounded like a processed food and I had no idea what use it would be to me. If it was to increase my protein or as a source of protein, then I wasn’t interested. Then, over a year ago a friend asked me for some advice about TVP. She said a nutritionist recommended it to her to get more protein eating a 100% plant diet and she has been loving it ever since. Swayed by her praise for this product, I decided to learn more about it, buy it and try it myself. And so I did, unfortunately not quite in that order.
I remembered seeing it in passing at some grocery stores from Bob’s Red Mill (my favorite natural, pure whole grain company) and seeing as I trust that company, while out on my next grocery store trip I decided to purchase a bag. I read the details on the package, which stated:
Textured Vegetable Protein is a highly nutritious soy product. It is incredibly wealthy in complete protein and contains no fat, so it is an excellent alternative to meat. It is also a good source of dietary fiber, iron, magnesium and phosphorus.
So based on reading that, what do you think? It sounds really good!
The ingredients stated “Defatted soy flour”. Not thinking too much about it at the time, I bought the package.
In terms of its physical appearance, the product looks like small, rough, odd-shaped yellow granules. It is dry and hard, but if you squish a bigger piece it almost powders itself. To eat it, you constitute it with boiling water, and then it can be eaten as is or added to various recipes. Many people call it “mock ground meat” and make chili, or other ground beef or turkey recipes using it.
TVP tempts many new vegetarians, as its versatility is pretty incredible. You can make numerous meat (including fish) dishes in vegetarian formats. From resembling ground beef and turkey, to making fish sticks or burgers, TVP is able to fit the bill in all of these cases. But we have to consider this too, and I always ask people to reflect on it themselves. If we really want a product to resemble or mimic some “meat”, we have to realize that in 9 out of 10 cases it is healthier to eat the real meat, than a processed “meat wanna-be”. I personally cannot see the fascination in vegetarian foods that are made to resemble sausages, fish sticks or burgers. As someone who eats a 100% plant diet not just for my health, but for the animals as well, the last thing I would want is any of my food to resemble any animal product (or be named after it).
Thus came the evening when I decided to use it for a particular dinner I was making. I didn’t get fancy, just wanted to try the product as is, to see what it’s flavor and texture was all about. Immediately upon mixing it with some boiling water, the product began to absorb the water and grow in size. Within a few minutes all the water was absorbed and I had a soft and somewhat rubbery, crumbly mixture. Texture wise, it definitely resembled ground meat. (Thank goodness it didn’t in taste, smell or color.)
Now notice at no time yet did I take the time to research this product—an elementary nutritional mistake. So here comes the best part. We were having an informal dinner with my husband and since I began eating first and was done before he was ready to start eating, I decided to research and read about it as he was eating at the table on my laptop. Well, as I started to read about it, the story’s ending is that my husband was not able to finish his dinner. Our optimal eating philosophy is identical and he was not open to putting this substance into his body any further. Too bad for me, I already ate my portion.
So what was the problem? That, I will cover in the section below, but first I will share a little more with you about its taste and texture. TVP doesn’t really have a taste, so you can make it taste like whatever you want – typical with soy products. I tried it on its own without anything, and it was pleasant tasting, with a soft, mild chewy texture.
How is TVP Made?
TVP is promoted as being healthy and nutritious, not to mention cheap, misleading many people into thinking this is a good food product when nothing could be further from the truth. It isn’t until one takes some interest into what this product really is and how it is made, that a different side of TVP is exposed.
According to the Bob’s Red Mill package, it states:
Textured Vegetable Protein is made from defatted soy flour that has been cooked under pressure and then dried.
Now how does that sound to you? Depending on your level of nutritional awareness, it can sound anywhere from “fantastic”, through “nothing wrong with that”, to “horrible”.
But wait, it gets more interesting. You have to imagine that there needs to be some serious chemical process involved to “de-fat” soy flour. Making soy into flour is already a processing step, and now this product has to be de-fatted making it a heavily processed food. Let us pause here for a moment and consider how far this product needs to come from the fresh, whole soybean.
According to soy proponent Henk W. Hoogenkamp, in his book Soy Protein and Formulated Meat Products (Cabi) it states that:
TVP is produced by thermoplastic extrusion of defatted soy protein flour with a protein content of 50%.
Thermoplastic extrusion? It just keeps getting better.
Definition of thermoplastic: a large molecule that turns to a liquid when heated and freezes to a very glassy state when cooled sufficiently.
Definition of extrusion: an industrial processing technique used to to create objects of a fixed cross-sectional profile.
To explain this process further, the defatted thermoplastic proteins are heated to a temperature of 150-200°C, which denatures them into a fibrous, insoluble, porous units. Going into a simple biology lesson here, the term denature means pretty much what it sounds like – to lose one’s nature. It is a term we use in biology when explaining the nature of proteins. Proteins are very temperature sensitive and even a slight change in temperature can denature them, making them lose their structure and function. (This is one of the reasons why high, prolonged fevers are dangerous for us, seeing as our body relies on a lot of different proteins for proper functioning.)
To put it into plain English, what this means is that when proteins in our foods are subjected to high temperatures, whether it be through simple cooking or industrial heating, they are prone to losing the original shape and function they had. (One main reason why raw food diets are generally more nutritionally superior.) Now remember, your body knows how to deal with food molecules that exist naturally, and it knows best how to work with them in whole food form. This is one big reason why processed foods are plainly put “bad” for us as they are often composed of foreign molecules that trigger the body in various harmful ways from allergic reactions to cellular DNA damage. So by eating TVP, you are eating a substance made of foreign molecules that have been industrially/chemically altered. Now how’s that for healthy and nutritious?
And if you are thinking past TVP to other high protein foods like eggs, then yes, technically this is why raw eggs are a much healthier food option than cooked eggs. The proteins in cooked eggs are coming into your body in a completely different form, the same goes for meat. Most doctors would tell you this is no big deal and to look how well we are doing having eaten like this for decades, but optimal health experts today know otherwise. First of all we are not doing well at all, and secondly various reactions are noted, especially inflammatory reactions within the body that cause it to attack its own tissues on high animal food, specifically cooked, diets. (See the work of Dr. C. Campbell, Dr. Neal Barnard, Dr. C. Esselstyn and others for more information about this.)
Now one final processing step, which normally precedes the above mentioned, is that soybeans are routinely processed with hexane (a petroleum chemical), in order to convert them into TVP. Various amounts of hexane are regularly found in processed soy food products. To elaborate further, according to a report from the Cornucopia Institute:
Hexane is a byproduct of gasoline refining. Soybean processors use it as a solvent—a cheap and efficient way of extracting oil from soybeans, a necessary step to making most conventional soy oil and protein ingredients. Whole soybeans are literally bathed in hexane to separate the soybeans’ oil from protein.
Hopefully you can by now appreciate why my husband was unable to finish his dinner. He was not about to put a chemically processed and artificially fabricated product into his body. Of course needless to say, that bag of TVP never got used again or finished.
Other Health Problems With TVP
Besides the chemical and physical processing however, here are other problems with TVP and why it does not belong in an optimally healthy body:
Made from soy
Without any further explanation, this can be a problem on its own without going into further details. While I do not think that all soy is bad and we should not be eating any of it, I do know that when it comes to soy it is about knowing how to eat it. For starters, not processed. The healthiest soy products are fermented soy foods like tempeh or miso, or fresh, natural soy foods like edamame.
The second problem for soy is that unless it is organic, it is most certainly derived from GMO sources. According to GMO Compass, over 85% of US soy is genetically modified. When we eat GMO foods, we need to realize 2 things. First, we are agreeing to be lab mice and experiment with our health. Well, in truth we are agreeing to a high risk of possible negative health consequences as today GMO foods have been linked to numerous health problems from immune suppression to infertility. (Read more on this topic for yourself if this is new to you.) The second thing is that we are supporting companies like Monsanto who are responsible for seed destruction, control and monopolization in our world today. We therefore cannot be naive that consumers cannot make a difference. We can every single time we buy groceries, and then some.
Finally the last problem with it being a soy product, and a processed one, is that numerous people today are discovering they are allergic to soy. Processed, especially GMO soy has a link to increased allergies as well.
Highly heat treated
This discounts it from being a raw and nutritionally superior product. Aside from the possible changes in its functional integrity, it is subjected to various nutritional loss and devoid of enzymes. This is taxing for our body, and over the years diets based largely on heavily heat treated foods affect our health in various negative ways.
If you have gluten intolerance, make sure that if for some reason you are considering this food item you read the ingredients carefully. Some TVP can include or be made from wheat, or other gluten components thereby causing an allergic or digestive reaction.
A lot of TVP is flavored and processed with MSG in many prepared foods. As you may be aware of by now MSG is a processed sodium by-product that should be avoided at all costs as it is harmful to your health. It is linked to anything from weight gain to migraines, not to mention it can set off various allergic reactions as well.
Healthy Sources of Protein
This brings us to the final part of our discussion. If you are not hung up on the texture and versatility, and are only interested in this product as a protein alternative, then I have good news. While I cannot think of a healthy product that can imitate meat (and again I think it somewhat defeats being a “vegetarian” or “vegan” if that is our aim), I can suggest lots of alternatives when it comes to high protein plant foods.
As for protein amounts in our diets, although we are definitely starting to see a societal shift where our perceptions go on this topic, too many people are still stuck on the “protein amount” in their diet. They are either worried where they will get their protein from, or if they will get enough if they reduce or cut out animal products completely. So here are a few key facts that are becoming common knowledge today:
- The average person today eating an omnivore lifestyle is getting more than enough or excessive protein in their diet
- High protein diets are harmful to our health (they throw off the body’s acid-alkaline balance, they cause stress to the liver and kidneys, and depending on the source of the protein can hurt digestive and cardiovascular health)
- Every food, unless it is 100% sugar or 100% fat, has some protein in it
- Research shows that whole plant foods, including fruits and vegetables are excellent at contributing to and meeting our daily protein needs
- Eating a varied diet of whole, natural plant foods is adequate at providing enough, or more than enough protein in one’s diet
In the end, normally the idea of not getting enough protein is just that, an idea or limiting belief with no factual truth to it. Due to our society’s brainwashing and fear tactics that animal products equal protein, and if we aren’t eating animal products then we risk not getting enough protein, this was enough to plague most in our society for decades, and to this day, with a fear of not getting enough protein. The good news is that slowly we are coming around to freeing ourselves from this limiting belief.
Alternative high protein foods:
- Beans (all, preferably raw sprouted or cooked, not canned)
- Lentils (all, preferably raw sprouted or cooked, not canned)
- Hummus and Bean Spreads
- Organic tempeh
- Organic tofu
- Hemp seeds
- Hemp powder
- Chia seeds
- All nuts and seeds to different degrees
TVP is being promoted today more heavily as vegetarianism becomes more popular, and as a solution to the growing world population as a cheap, nutritional salvation. We cannot allow ourselves to be fooled though. This product is too far removed from its source and nothing close to being a healthy, natural food. It is nothing more than a chemically processed (and highly processed at that), fabricated food product.
There are numerous sources of healthy plant proteins, as mentioned above, and we just do not need to rely on products like these. Aside from plain TVP, be aware of any processed vegetarian foods you may be exposed to like “mock” or analogue meats available in most grocery stores today, or those served in many Asian restaurant dishes.
Remember, optimal health, which produces a body that can heal and protect itself from disease, must be based on a foundation of whole, natural foods. There is no fooling your body when it comes to providing it with what it really needs.
Questions and Answers
Is it okay or safe to consume TVP in moderation?
You first have to ask yourself, what does moderation mean. You should then figure out what your personal definition of health is, personal standards and priorities. For some people eating this food will be a step up and improvement perhaps from diets high in fast, processed food. For example, there is no doubt that TVP is healthier than most commercial ground beef products. However, for most people this will mean including into their diet a highly refined product that is far removed from its original form and nutritional structure.
If you are okay with ingesting TVP after you understand how it is made, then that is your choice. But I cannot recommend for anyone to ingest a substance that is so far removed from its original nutritional integrity in any amount. This site and my work is about optimal health, not about average or subpar health. We always have choices and simply need to minimize excuses, while we maximize personal priorities.
I am interested in having some sort of meat-substitute for the recipes I use and don't want to buy processed store versions, can I still work with soy products in some way?
Yes, you can, you just have to make sure they are additive free and organic. For example organic tempeh is an excellent choice, organic tofu, especially sprouted bean tofu, although more in the processed ballpark, is a second possible choice. Tempeh can be crumbled or prepared in fillet like pieces, while tofu can be dehydrated for dry textures.
What about seitan, can that be used instead of TVP in meals?
Seitan is simply wheat gluten, and due to the fact that so many people today have such poor intestinal health, and so many gluten intolerances and allergies, it does not appear like it would be a smart or healthy choice for most. In fact, anything extracted isn’t a great idea, as our body does best with whole foods in their natural form.
Is it better than TVP? Perhaps, but it is still a heavily processed food item, that has the potential to be damaging for a lot of people. One of the common theories of why there is such a high prevalence of gluten intolerance in the world today is due to how the wheat has been modified to be higher in its gluten composition. Whenever we "mess around" with nature's genetic code and proportions, we usually pay the price for it sooner or later.
I don't agree with the information you presented, and think MSG, or TVP, or similar products have enough data to show that they are safe and fine for us to consume. How can I share my opinion or information?
I completely understand that this article may not be of help or appeal to everyone, nor should it. However, this is not a forum, nor is it a blog. It is a living reference and information site that is put together based on my personal standards, experience and research. It may at times also include community input that expands on the topic(s) further and is in alignment with the foundation of Evolving Wellness.
Each person's viewpoint is valued by someone out there and if you have an opinion on this topic (positive or negative) I encourage you to share yours with your personally collected facts and opinions on any of the following outlets:
- your own site or blog
- a forum that deals with similar topics
- your social network (online or offline)
As for myself, I have no interest in justifying my stance or defending processed (especially heavily processed) foods, or participating in debates on this or any other topic. I am very clear about my personal standards, and would only hope each person put the energy they do in trying to argue topics instead into figuring out their own standards for their personal growth and evolution. Everything I share is done based on a combination of research, experience, personal reflection and good faith. I am not interested in recommending something to others that I would not see fit to enter my own body, or something I know that can harm them in some way, especially when it does not have sufficient benefits to justify its use.
January 22, 2013
I am not a vegetarian nor vegan and do not intend to be. I was doing some research before buying tvp, which I will not do. I am only slightly aware of the risks of soy concerning estrogen, breast cancer, etc….but it goes without saying that we cannot rely on one miracle food to sustain us for the sake of convenience. I am a tightwad and tvp fits the bill, but it doesn’t fit the standard I attempt to adhere to. Thank you kindly for your research and for sharing. This is just what I was looking for. Blessings!
January 20, 2013
This is one of the most thorough articles I have ever found - thank you. Several years ago I was not eating meat or dairy so I was substituting all kinds of products that had TVP in them. One day I decided it was better to eat small portions of real meat than eat TVP. I cannot believe how many products have TVP in them. I won’t buy any so called “health” food with TVP in it. Also I cannot believe how many foods at Earthfare, Whole Foods, etc have isolated soy protein in them.
January 16, 2013
Many so-called vegetarians seem to be more caught up on claiming the label “vegetarian” than focusing on the INTEGRITY of their vegetarian diets. there are LOTS of vegetarians who think that simply consuming things that are not of a meat source makes them vegetarian … WRONG! If your staples are faux soy meat products, rice, pasta, bread, nachos and other “veggie-sourced” junk food, alcoholic beverages, sugary fruit smoothies, and a modest lettuce-based salad a few times a week, you are NOT a vegetarian. And i’m certain that MOST of you know a few “vegetarians” who eat just like that. Eating clean meat is healthier than eating chemically processed vegetables. I also agree that the idea of a vegetarian wanting to consume vegetable-based foods that are processed to look, taste, and satisfy like meat is strange.
January 9, 2013
I am a recent convert (~1.5 yrs) from traditional western diet to vegetarian to vegan and trying to go more raw all due to health indicators of extremely elevated blood pressure and cholesterol at age 44 while performing ironman triathlons (meaning on avg a 2hr cardio workout). Just wanted to say I appreciate the information and what opened my eyes was Dr. Esselstyn’s Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease. As for why I’m trying to go raw, my reason is due to an experience (and it truly was) while up in Oklahoma City, OK for the Redman Triathlon. I went out with my fiancée to Matthew Kenney’s Organic, Vegetarian and Raw Restaurant. I have never felt more energized and enjoyed the flavor of a meal than what we ate there. It was so good we went there for 2 dinners and lunch over our weekend trip.