Well Being

The Truth About Tofurky: Is It Really A Healthy Turkey Alternative For Vegetarian Thanksgiving?

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Tofurky is one of the most popular vegetarian turkey alternatives for a meat-free or vegan Thanksgiving, but is it necessarily the healthiest option? Does anyone actually know what's in tofurkey? To find out, we talked with nutritionist, Kaayla Daniel, PhD, CCN and otherwise known as the Naughty Nutritionist because of her ability to debunk traditional nutritional myths.

What exactly is in Tofurky, the “vegetarian turkey”?

It’s vegan, made primarily from tofu and wheat gluten, and smells strange, looks like a beige football, and is said to taste like turkey, at least by vegans who’ve either never eaten real turkey or have very distant and feeble memories of having eaten turkey.

According to Turtle Island Foods, Tofurky is a gourmet vegan “roast and gravy” product made from “a revolutionary tofu-wheat protein blend.”

Here are the ingredients as provided on the Turtle Island website:

ROAST: Water, vital wheat gluten, organic tofu (water, organic soybeans, magnesium chloride, calcium chloride) , shoyu soy sauce (water, non-genetically engineered soybeans, wheat, salt, culture), expeller pressed non-genetically engineered canola oil, natural vegetarian flavors, non-genetically engineered corn starch, garbanzo bean flour, white bean flour, lemon juice from concentrate, onion, carrot, celery, sugar, calcium lactate from beets, sea salt.

There seems to be a lot of soy in Tofurky. Isn't soy considered bad for you, or at least not exactly healthy for some women?

More than 70 years of studies link soy to malnutrition, thyroid disorders, immune system breakdown, ADD/ADHD, infertility, reproductive problems, loss of libido, and even heart disease and cancer, esp breast cancer. Although soy is heavily marketed to mid life women as the ticket to an easy menopause, the evidence is inconsistent and contradictory at best. Worse, the soy that might possibly help ease menopausal symptoms has been proven to put the woman at increased risk for thyroid disease and breast cancer. The European Food Safety Authority has denied health claims for soy lowering cholesterol, soy easing menopause and soy preventing osteoporosis based on inconsistent evidence provided by shoddy research studies. The Israeli Health Ministry, French Food Agency and German Institute of Risk Assessment have all warned that soy infant formula should not be given to babies except as a last resort, and women should “exercise caution” re their soy consumption if they have been diagnosed with breast cancer or have a family history of breast cancer or other risk factors for breast cancer.

Doesn't Tofurky also contain a lot of additives and chemicals?

My biggest concern about Tofurky is the “vital wheat gluten” as it is a poor ingredient for anyone and contraindicated for those suffering from gluten sensitivities or celiac disease. The organic tofu would not be a problem for most people, if consumed only occasionally, but should certainly be avoided by the increasing numbers of people with soy allergies.

So basically, people may think they're eating healthy with tofurky, but they may not be?

Right. I would say it’s a stretch to call tofu a health food, but it should not pose health risks if eaten only occasionally, such as at a vegetarian potluck or vegan Thanksgiving. The soy protein ingredients commonly used in “health food” store products are almost always manufactured using high temperature, high pressure, acid and alkaline baths, and solvents such as hexane. In the case of Tofurky, the least healthy ingredient is not the soy or the additives but the wheat gluten, a fractionated protein from wheat.

What is healthier then: Tofurky or turkey?

Any form of poultry or meat would be healthier than Tofurky if it is free range, grass fed, and sourced from an animal or bird that spends its days out in the sun and gets to hunt and peck. Factory-farmed meats put personal and planetary health at risk. Factory farming is devastating to the environment, but so is the monocropping of corn, wheat and soybeans.

How about comparing the two in terms of calories, fat and protein?

Far as I’m concerned, calories don’t matter. And, in any case, that would depend on how much people ate, with gravy and stuffing or not, and with the real turkey, the choice of white or dark meat. My concern with Thanksgiving dinners would not be the calories from meat but lots of potatoes, pies, rolls and starchy carbs.

With fat, the issue is the quality not the quantity of the fat. The fat in Tofurkey comes not only from the soy oil in the soybeans but from added canola oil. With so much soy and canola oil in the product itself and then the recommended olive oil baste to keep the “roast” moist, Tofurky is hardly a low-fat product. Contrary to popular belief, it also contains some saturated fat (the stearic acid component), which is a natural part of all vegetable oils and is actually a good thing because it helps keep them from going rancid.

How about the fat content in turkey then?

The fatty acid profile of turkey meat depends on the source, and it varies greatly depending upon the diet fed the turkey. People are always surprised that poultry contains so much monounsaturated fat. True organic and free range turkeys would have a much more favorable fatty acid profile. Best of all would be a free-range “heritage” turkey, which even has a much-needed advanced form of omega 3 fatty acid known as EPA.

Non GMO-feeds used for so-called “organic turkeys” represent a huge improvement, but it is important to know that grains like soy and corn are unnatural foods for turkeys. Many of the supposedly free-range, organic turkeys sold in the big chain health food stores are “pseudo-organic” turkeys raised in factory farms with little or no opportunity to go outdoors. Better to get free range turkeys that hunt and peck and attain much improved fatty acid profile by eating bugs and worms in the wild.

In addition, many supermarket turkeys are injected with water and/or soy or other inferior quality, refined and rancid vegetable oils so the turkey will cook up moist and not dry out.

And how does the protein content differ between tofurky and real turkey?

As for protein, some of the protein in Tofurky comes from “vital wheat gluten.” I cannot recommend fractionated protein products like wheat gluten to anyone, and it is contraindicated for anyone with gluten sensitivity or celiac disease.

Most people who recommend Tofurky instead of a real turkey think it’s healthier because of low saturated fat and no cholesterol. Truth is Mother Nature gave us saturated fat and cholesterol for healthy bodies, brains and hormones. As Gary Taubes has shown in his stunning book Good Calories/Bad Calories, the evidence that saturated fat and cholesterol cause heart disease was never good and has been thoroughly discredited.

Kaayla T. Daniel, PhD, CCN, is the Naughty Nutritionist because of her ability to outrageously and humorously debunk nutritional myths. A popular guest on radio and television, she has been on The Dr Oz Show, ABC’s View from the Bay, NPR’s People’s Pharmacy and PBS Healing Quest. Dr Daniel is the author of The Whole Soy Story: The Dark Side of America’s Favorite Health Food, a popular speaker at Wise Traditions and other conferences, Vice President of the Weston A. Price Foundation and recipient of its 2005 Integrity in Science Award. Her websites are www.naughtynutritionist.com and www.wholesoystory.com.

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