Linda Crampton is a former teacher with an honors degree in biology. She enjoys writing about nutrition and the culture and history of food.
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 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 generally made from soy flour. This is produced from soybeans (also known as soya beans) that have been dehulled, ground into a meal, and had their oil extracted. It contains protein and isn't as rich in carbohydrates as flours made from most grains are.
The steps in making TVP 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 that 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 with a lower pressure.
- The TVP pieces are then dried or baked.
Using Textured Vegetable Protein
Buying and Rehydrating TVP
TVP is sold in natural food markets, health food stores, and sometimes in supermarkets, where it's available in packaged or bulk form. It may be 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.
According to the package label, 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.
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The hydrated soy product can be used instead of meat in foods such as tacos, chili, stew, spaghetti sauce, lasagna, pizza toppings, and vegetarian burgers, "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, meatballs, 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 can be very useful, but they may contain more salt than needed 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 causes damage to 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 of the "essential" amino acids—that is, the ones that our bodies can't make. It's often said to be a "complete protein" as a result. Soy is low in methionine compared to food from animals, however.
Eating a food that is a complete protein is useful but not essential for vegans, provided diet choices are considered carefully. All of the essential amino acids can be obtained by eating a suitable combination of different plant foods.
Controversies Related to the Product
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 it 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.
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 plant chemical that acts as a weak form of estrogen (a human hormone) in our body. Soy isoflavones may have a number of health benefits. Because they act as a hormone, however, it has sometimes been suggested that they may have harmful effects in certain people, such as women who have had breast cancer.
Health experts seem to agree that eating soy products in moderation is fine and even beneficial 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. Other types of non-dairy milks exist 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 and oat-based yogurt are 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.
- Facts about isolated soy bean protein from FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations)
- Nutrients in soy protein isolate from SELFNutritionData (The nutrient level in a particular brand of TVP may not be identical to the values in this reference due to the way in which it's prepared.)
- Soy uses and side effects from WebMD
- Information about soy isoflavones from the Linus Pauling Institute, Oregon State University
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2012 Linda Crampton