With a sausage-stuffed bird at the center of the table, Thanksgiving dinner is like the Super Bowl of meat-eating holidays. Thankfully, that doesn’t mean vegetarians and vegans are limited to side dishes. To replace the star of the feast, there’s tofurkey, a meat-free option that ends up on many turkey day menus.
But what exactly is in this weirdly named poultry substitute, and is it healthy? We posed the question to nutritionists.
What is tofurkey?
Tofurkey is a faux meat product shaped like a beige football that comes pre-filled with stuffing. Since the 1980s, it's been sold in stores by many brands. The best-known is Tofurky, which launched the product and where the generic name comes from.
The ingredients list for each brand varies, but the tofurkey loaf itself is basically made from wheat gluten and tofu (hence the name), says Kailey Proctor, RD, a nutritionist at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, California. Rounding out the ingredients are vegetables like celery and onion for the stuffing, salt and veggie-based flavor enhancers, and preservatives. A quick check of the packaging can tell you if the brand uses only organic ingredients, if that's a concern.
How tofurkey compares to turkey
Even the most passionate vegan wouldn't mistake a loaf of tofurkey for the real thing. But its nutritional profile isn't a crazy stretch from that of a real bird.
From a protein standpoint, they're remarkably similar. A five ounce serving of tofurkey has about 34 grams of protein, while turkey itself (specifically turkey breast) has 42 protein grams. “Tofurkey has slightly less protein than turkey, but tofurkey protein comes from tofu, which is considered a complete protein source—meaning it contains all the essential amino acids our body needs," says Proctor.
Both also have similar calorie counts. A five ounce serving of tofurkey clocks in at about 290 calories, while a 5 ounce portion of turkey has 209 calories.
Carbs are a different story. Turkey has no carbs, while a serving of tofurkey has 17 carb grams. But don't forget, tofurkey comes with stuffing, a major source of those carbs. "Turkey’s zero grams of carbs and lower levels of fat don’t include the serving of stuffing most people eat, which is carb-heavy,” says culinary scientist Jessica Gavin. Tofurkey also has 10 grams of fat compared to turkey's 3 grams.
One bonus of tofurkey's high carbs: extra fiber. Tofurkey has 5 grams of fiber, while turkey has none. Says Proctor: “This means that you may be less likely to overeat because fiber helps you feel full faster.”
So is tofurkey healthy?
The nutritionists we spoke to didn't think tofurkey was a firm no-no—but ultimately, there are better things you could put on your Thanksgiving dinner plate. “At the end of the day, tofurkey is a seasonal dish, so if you eat this for one weekend in November and don’t eat it for the rest of the year, then that’s fine. Moderation is health,” says Jonathan Valdez, RD, owner of Genki Nutrition in New York City. “But I wouldn’t call tofurkey healthy.”
"The added processed ingredients in a store-bought tofurkey make it a less healthy option than a real turkey bird,” says Maggie Michalczyk, RD, founder of Once Upon a Pumpkin nutritional consulting.
Health contributing nutrition editor Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, says that other protein-packed veggie options are way healthier and just as Thanksgiving-friendly. “I’m not a fan of fake meat products," she explains. "My recommendation would be to serve a hearty but healthy beans, lentils, peas, or chickpeas dish—all of which are plant-based, gluten-free, and not a common trigger of allergies instead of serving tofurkey.”
One way to make it better for you is to make your own tofurkey. That way, you can control the ingredients and also experiment with taste and flavor. (Unfortunately, tofurkey taste tests have described it as bland, flavorless, and rubbery…not the kind kind of mouth feel you might expect during your holiday dinner.)
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