What Is Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP)?
A Concentrated and Versatile Source of Protein
Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP) is a concentrated protein product that is generally made from soybeans. It's a versatile substance that can be used as a meat substitute when seasoning, spices or herbs are added. It's especially valuable for people who don't eat meat, since plant-based foods generally contain less protein than foods from animals. The product can also be used as a meat extender for people who do eat meat.
TVP is sometimes known as textured soy protein or TSP. It's high in protein and fiber and very low in fat. It's sold as dried chunks, slices, flakes, granules or powder and needs to be hydrated before being used. The product has a very mild taste on its own but readily absorbs flavor from the liquid in which it's soaked or cooked. It works well in many foods that traditionally contain ground beef or meat chunks, such as lasagna, chili, veggie burgers, tacos and meat pies.
TVP can be very useful for vegans and vegetarians. Vegans eat no food that comes from animals. Vegetarians eat dairy foods and eggs but no meat or fish.
How is TVP Made?
TVP is made from soy flour, which is produced from soybeans that have had their oil extracted. The steps vary slightly based on the manufacturer, but in general the process is as follows. The final product often has a porous or fibrous texture that is somewhat similar to the texture of meat.
- Soy flour is prepared and then mixed with water.
- The mixture is heated at high temperature and pressure inside a machine called an extruder.
- The opening of the extruder is a plate with holes, which come in various shapes and sizes. The heated soy mixture is pushed through the holes and cut into small pieces by blades.
- The pieces puff up as they leave the extruder and enter an environment that has a lower pressure than the pressure inside the extruder.
- The TVP pieces are then dried or baked.
Buying and Rehydrating TVP
TVP is sold in natural food markets or health food stores, where it's readily available in packaged or bulk form. It's sometimes produced from wheat instead of soy, but the soy form is more common. The product ranges from beige to golden brown in color.
It's easy to rehydrate textured vegetable protein. One cup of hot liquid is added to one cup of TVP granules or chunks. The solid pieces need about ten minutes to absorb the liquid. The mixture of granules and water can also be microwaved for about five minutes to rehydrate the protein.
Large pieces of TVP may require two cups of hot liquid per cup of TVP and may need to be simmered for twenty to thirty minutes in order to rehydrate. More TVP or water can be added to get the right consistency during hydration. Excess water should be drained before the product is used.
1/4 cup of the TVP shown at the start of this article contains 12 grams of protein, 4 grams of fiber, 3 grams of sugars and 0 grams of fat. It also contains 8% of our daily calcium requirement and 15% of our iron requirement.
Vegetarian Taco Filling Recipe
Uses of Textured Vegetable Protein
Since unflavored soy protein absorbs flavors from the soaking or cooking water, a broth, stock or soup makes a good hydrating liquid. Water containing seasonings, spices or a sauce also works well.
The hydrated soy product can be used instead of meat in foods such as tacos, chili, stew, spaghetti sauce, lasagna, pizza toppings, vegetarian burgers and "meat" balls, pies and loaves. It can also be added to scrambled tofu, which some vegans use as a substitute for scrambled eggs.
Prepared meat analogues made from soy and/or wheat proteins are sold in grocery stores. For example, I can buy vegan bacon, ham, bologna, meat balls, burgers, sausages, ground beef and chicken strips in my local supermarket. They're made from a combination of soy and wheat protein and are fortified with vitamins and minerals. Prepared products may contain more salt than needed, however, as well as added colors and flavors.
Products that contain wheat as well as soy aren't suitable for people with celiac disease because wheat protein contains gluten. In celiac disease, ingestion of gluten leads to the destruction of the villi on the lining of the small intestine. The function of the villi is to absorb the products of food digestion. Soybeans contain no gluten.
A Soy Protein Burger Recipe
Soy Protein Benefits
Textured vegetable protein is easy and convenient to use. With the right flavorings, it's tasty and enjoyable to eat. It also provides the bulk and texture to foods that ground meat often provides. Vegans and vegetarians can eat meat-like products while knowing that no animals suffered to provide their meal.
Protein made from soy is much cheaper than meat. The dried product will stay fresh for a long time and is easier to transport if a person goes on a trip. Soy contains no cholesterol, is low in sodium and is a good source of calcium and iron.
Like protein from animals, soy protein contains all the "essential" amino acids - that is, the ones that our bodies can't make. (It's comparatively low in methionine, however.) This complete protein is useful but not essential, since all the essential amino acids can be obtained by eating a combination of different plants foods that contain different amino acids.
Vegetarian Tostada Recipe
Some people argue that although textured vegetable protein is made from soybeans, it's not a natural product. A number of chemicals may be involved in creating the protein-rich soy flour. In addition, the high pressure and heat inside the extruder changes the soy flour and water mixture into a thermoplastic substance (one which is moldable at a high temperature and returns to a fixed form at a lower temperature), which is a highly unnatural form for a food.
An additional problem is that nutritionists repeatedly tell us to emphasize whole, unprocessed foods in our diet for the best health benefits. Textured vegetable protein is not a whole food and is highly processed.
Food regulation agencies say that textured soy protein is safe, however, unless a person has a soy allergy (or a gluten intolerance if the textured protein is made from wheat). It's certainly a very useful food for vegans and vegetarians who want to use a meat substitute in their diet.
Excessive Soy Intake
There is another potential problem with adding TVP to the diet. The versatility of the product may cause vegans to become too reliant on soy, especially if they are already eating soy in other forms. Soy is present in textured vegetable protein, meat analogues, tofu, tempeh, spreads for bread and crackers and dairy replacements such as soy milk, creamer, cheese, yogurt and ice cream.
Soy may become a vegan's meat, dairy and egg substitute. They may include it in every meal and may even ingest it in multiple items during a single meal. It's not good to overload on any food, since it may contain potentially harmful substances as well as helpful nutrients. In addition, the food may crowd out a wider variety of beneficial foods in the diet.
Soy, Isoflavones and Phytoestrogens
Soybeans and soy products are known for their isoflavone content. The isoflavones act as phytoestrogens inside our body. A phytoestrogen is a weak form of estrogen, a human hormone. Soy isoflavones may have a number of health benefits. Because they act as a hormone in our body, however, there is some concern that they may have harmful effects in certain people, such as women who have recovered from some types of breast cancer.
Health experts seem to agree that eating soy products in moderation is fine for most people. It's probably not a good idea to overdo soy intake, however. People who have or had cancer or who have a high risk of developing the disease should check with their doctor before they eat soybeans or soy products.
The level of isoflavones in textured vegetable protein varies based on the steps used in its production. Although the isoflavone content of a purchased product may not be known, it's best to count the product as part of the daily soy intake.
Vegan Ground Sausage Recipe
How to Reduce Soy Intake
There are several ways for vegans and vegetarians to reduce their soy intake if they choose to do this. There are other types of non-dairy milks beside soy milk, for example. These milks are usually fortified with calcium, vitamin B12 and Vitamin D, just like soy milk. These are three very important nutrients for vegans. Some non-dairy milks are rice, almond, hemp, oat and coconut milk.
Nutritional yeast can provide a cheesy taste to replace soy cheese. Rice-based ice cream is available. Some vegan burgers sold in stores are made of oats instead of soy. Portobello mushrooms can be substituted for steak.
Soy protein can be used to make very useful dairy and meat substitutes in a vegan or vegetarian's diet. There are so many tasty vegan foods available today, however, that it's not necessary to over-emphasize one type of food in the diet.
References and Further Reading
Soy Uses and Side Effects from WebMD
Patisaul HB, Jefferson W. The pros and cons of phytoestrogens. Frontiers in neuroendocrinology. 2010;31(4):400-419. doi:10.1016/j.yfrne.2010.03.003.
© 2012 Linda Crampton