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These days, there are a million substitutes for specific foods. You might also call them “imposter” foods. You can bite into a veggie burger that “bleeds,” chomp on chips made of fish skin and whip up a tuna salad with nary a swimmer in sight. Thanks to modern food technology, human ingenuity and the popularity of trendy and/or restrictive diets, every type of food now suffers from impostor syndrome, and the uprising of counterfeit fare shows no signs of slowing down.
But do any of these imitation edibles actually taste good? More important, are they at all nutritionally valuable, or are they simply as mega-processed as they are mega-marketed?
Here is how some of the trendiest contenders stack up to the real deal.
1. The Trickster: No-Meat Jerky
It’s enough to make long-haul truckers skid off the road — jerky made with everything from shiitake mushrooms to sun-dried tomatoes to seaweed and more. Plant-based jerky is a convenient — and surprisingly tasty — snacking option if you’re looking to trim some processed meat from your diet. But some versions made with jackfruit, kelp or mushrooms lack the protein needed to slay between-meal hunger or to build and maintain lean muscle tissue. And while no-meat products contain less saturated fat and often fewer calories than the original, those elements are replaced with sodium, sugar and fillers.
The Verdict: So are you getting jerked around? It depends on how you look at it. While a plant-based product can certainly scratch your itch when you’re craving this classic snack, the nutritional trade-off might not be worth the while.
2. The Trickster: No-Grain Bread
If you’re on board with a Paleo, keto or Whole30 diet, then grain-free bread likely holds a special place in your sandwich- hungry heart. This bread substitutes wheat flour with an alternative made from almonds, coconut or arrowroot, which is actually good news for your ticker: A study published in The BMJ found that adults who consumed a diet high in refined grains and bread had a higher risk of incurring a major heart-disease event and tempting early mortality. What’s more, a no-grain loaf boasts about twice as much protein and half the carbs as standard bread, which could improve metabolic health and insulin sensitivity over time. Some brands even add psyllium husk to boost fiber content, and rarely do these products contain preservatives, which is why they should be refrigerated.
The Verdict: No-grain bread can be a nutritional upgrade to standard commercial breads, but the quality and texture varies greatly between brands, so read the reviews before committing to a loaf. Still not in the no-grain camp? Then layer that turkey and cheese on authentic sourdough or a quality whole-grain option.
3. The Trickster: Eggless Eggs
These days, people aren’t chicken to make an omelet out of plants, and some brands are very carefully engineered to resemble the real thing, using ingredients like mung bean protein and turmeric to create remarkably egg-like texture, color and flavor. Nutritionally, real and eggless eggs are similar: Both have 70 calories and 5 grams of fat per serving, and a real egg has 6 grams of protein versus 5 in the sub. Plant-based omelets don’t have any cholesterol or saturated fat, but you’ll miss out on the vitamin D, choline and vitamin B12 you get with real eggs. What’s more, faux eggs are made with a curious list of ingredients, including things like gellan gum, transglutaminase (aka “meat glue”) and canola oil, which sort of defeats the purpose if you’re trying to eat more whole foods and fewer processed ones. You’ll also take a hit in your wallet: A single container of eggless eggs is more expensive than a dozen real organic eggs. And while manufacturers insist their product is easier on Mother Nature, once you’ve accounted for all the processing, packaging and transport, you’re probably better off buying free-range eggs from a local farmer.
The Verdict: There’s no harm in frying up a faux scramble, but there’s also no compelling reason to fly the coop completely on the real thing because making the switch won’t do your nutrition or budget any favors.
4. The Trickster: Pistachio Milk
First there was soy, then almond and oat and now … pistachio. Is anyone drinking real milk anymore? Pistachios in their whole form are a nutritional powerhouse, with plenty of protein, fiber and micronutrients. But when they’re made into milk? Not so much: A 1-cup, 50-calorie serving contains only 2 grams of protein — a third of what you’d get from the same amount of regular milk — and the sweetened versions contain a boatload of sugar. Pistachio milk has fewer carbs and lacks the belly-bloating lactose of real milk, but if it’s not fortified, it delivers a fraction of the bone-building calcium found in cow’s milk and none of its vitamin D.
The Verdict: While pricey, pistachio milk doesn’t raise any nutritional red flags — so long as you opt for the unsweetened, sugarless kind. It has a slightly sweet, nutty flavor, and as a bonus, it gives a luxuriously velvety texture to smoothies, cappuccinos and oatmeal.
5. The Trickster: Meat-Based Energy Bars
These newfangled snacks combine beef, bison, pork and chicken with other ingredients such as dried fruit, nuts and spices to form a meat bar, and they have been gaining popularity with Paleo and keto dieters and protein proponents. When you’re hungry and want substitutes for a sweet snack, these hit the right meat mark, and thankfully, the texture and flavors have improved over time from the nascent iterations. Most products contain no added sugars or industrial fats and boast about 10 grams of protein per bar. But even though they’re grain-free, they’re not necessarily carb-free, and a single bar can contain varying amounts of carbs and sodium, depending on the brand.
The Verdict: Unless you stand firmly in the plant-based camp, meat-based energy bars are a viable, protein-rich snacking option. Look for a product made with grass-fed meats or those raised without hormones and antibiotics.
6. The Trickster: Chickpea Puffs
With up to 3 grams of fiber and 5 grams of protein per 1-ounce serving — and no apparent ingredient no-nos — this light, crunchy snack provides a solid base of nutrition and keeps you satisfied for longer than five minutes. Many brands are free of grains, gluten and animal products, making them the perfect party snack for super-picky guests. They are, however, cooked with sunflower oil, so their calorie count is on par with other cheesy poofs, and you should limit your consumption as you would with any other snack food.
The Verdict: Chickpea puffs are undeniably processed, but when you’re jonesing for crunchy-cheesy goodness, indulging in this substitutes treat is better than mowing a bag of greasy chips.
Fake ‘N’ Bake
Real sourdough only contains four ingredients: whole-grain flour, water, maybe some salt and a “starter” — the culture that leavens the bread and causes it to rise. Authentic sourdough should never contain yeast (which does not allow for the natural fermentation of the grains), sweetener (which is often used to activate the yeast), milk, oil, corn, dough “conditioner,” sourdough “flavoring” or any sort of preservatives.
7. The Trickster: Dairy-Free Cheese
While real cheese comes from cow’s, goat’s or sheep’s milk, alter- native “cheese” is made with things like tapioca starch, cashew milk and coconut oil, which are then blended with various thickeners, flavors and coloring agents. If you’re looking to minimize your ingredient lists and limit your intake of processed foods, the nutrition facts on a dairy-free cheese label can make your eyes cross. Faux cheese has no cholesterol, but it is not necessarily lower in saturated fat than regular cheese and contains little — if any — protein or calcium. It’s also highly processed and tends to be sky high in sodium, and don’t expect it to react in a cheesy way in recipes: A no-dairy-cheese pizza won’t deliver the ooey-gooeyness you know and love with the real thing.
The Verdict: Unless you can’t stomach dairy, there is no true reason to make a grilled cheese with these less nutritious and not-so-delicious fakes — and research concurs: A study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that real cheese (in moderation, of course) is less troublesome to your health than you’d think.
8. The Trickster: Monk-Fruit Extract
This FDA-approved sugar alternative has been popping up in products everywhere, from cereal to protein powders to drinks and more, safely sweetening food and drinks without spiking blood sugar. Like stevia, monk-fruit extract is popular among carb-conscious eaters, and thanks to chemical compounds called mogrosides, it can taste up to 250 times sweeter than standard sugar — with zero calories. Sounds great, but monk-fruit extract is rarely used on its own, and it is typically added to various packaged and highly processed foods. What’s more, eating too many foods made with non-nutritive sweeteners like monk-fruit extract may actually lead to sugar cravings and could mess with your appetite, according to research published in the International Journal of Obesity. Also, the aftertaste …
The Verdict: Monk-fruit extract appears to be safe and is a good way to trim sugary calories from your daily diet, but its usage doesn’t automatically make heavily processed and packaged foods healthy. Instead, buy stand-alone monk-fruit extract in liquid or crystal form and add it to oatmeal, yogurt and homemade baked goods.
Buy and Try
Here are some next-level product substitutes to consider sampling on your next supermarket jaunt.
1. Epic Beef Barbacoa-Inspired Bar
These energy bars are made with beef raised using regenerative agricultural practices, encouraging better soil health and plant biodiversity.
$30 (box of 12) epicprovisions.com
2. Modern Table Penne
Made with lentils and peas, this product ensures pasta night is replete with protein and fiber.
$22 (6 boxes) moderntable.com
3. Elmhurst Milked Almonds
A unique production method means the taste and nutritional value of this alternative milk is not watered down.
$14 (2-pack) elmhurst1925.com
4. Wilde Himalayan Pink Salt & Chicken Chips
Made with lean chicken breast, a serving of these crunchy chips delivers
10 grams of protein and just the right amount of saltiness.
$30 (6 bags) wildebrands.com
5. Base Culture 7 Nut & Seed Bread
Why slather almond butter on your toast when the almonds are already in your bread? Bonus: Each slice contains 4 grams of fiber and 4 grams of protein.
$20 (2 loaves) baseculture.com
6. Bob’s Red Mill Paleo-Style Muesli
With this breakfast, it’s out with the oats and in with nutrient-dense nuts, seeds and dried fruit.
$12 (14-oz bag) bobsredmill.com
7. Cali’flour Sun-Dried Tomato Flatbread
These no-flour flatbreads reaffirm that cauliflower is the chameleon of the vegetable world.
$40 (4-pack) califlourfoods.com
8. Krave Smoked Chipotle Plant-based Jerky
With great texture and smoky heat, this will be your new go-to protein-packed snack for workdays and road trips.