One of the most nostalgia-inducing and essential autumn smells is the waft of sweet potatoes, roasted Brussels, buttery pumpkin pie laced with cinnamon and cardamom, and turkey in the oven on Thanksgiving. But as more people adopt a plant-based or vegan lifestyle, that roasted-turkey-in-the-oven-smell is getting replaced by vegan-friendly options (bless).
If there’s one turkey-substitute that reigns supreme on Turkey Day it’s tofurkey. Usually spelled “tofurky,” which is the same name of the OG brand responsible for the product’s existence, tofurky is defined by Urban Dictionary as, “A wondrous creation. It is a vaguely meat-like soy product…and some damn fine eating.” If you’ve ever tried tofurky, you know that definition is pretty spot on.
But is this melon-shaped, surprisingly bird-textured vegan classic actually healthy? What exactly is in it anyway? (Besides, you know, the obvious.)
“There are many different brands that sell tofurky as well as recipes available online for making your own, each with its own specific add-ins. The only real consistent ingredient is tofu,” says Remedy Review advisor Jillian Kubala, MS, RD. That means that the exact ingredient breakdown of the “loaf” varies.
Basically, tofurky can be divided into two categories: homemade and store bought.
Homemade versus store-bought tofurky
Homemade is almost always better than store-bought when it comes to nutritional density—tofurky included. “Many homemade loafs are either made with rice, lentils, and seasonings, which gives you a nice dose of fiber, or simple ingredients ingredients like tofu and herbs,” says Rachel Berman, RD author of Boosting Your Metabolism for Dummies and general manager at Very Well Health. For example, the recipe for homemade vegetarian tofurky from The Spruce Eats, which Berman recommends, is made up of tofu, sage, thyme, rosemary, vegetable broth powder, poultry seasoning, balsamic vinegar, red win, dijon mustard, and soy sauce.
But the store-bought versions, Kubala says, “are usually loaded with universally looked-down-on ingredients like sugar, salt, artificial fillers, and preservatives.”
Even though she’s a vegan, Ali Miller, RD author of The Anti-Anxiety Diet, is not a fan of store-bought tofurky. Why? Inflammation. “When store-bought, it’s high in vital wheat gluten which contains the inflammatory component of wheat, called gliadin. It also can contain soy, corn byproducts, and canola oil, three ingredients that are inflammatory and can drive gut damage and hormone imbalance,” she says.
Obviously many people can’t or choose not to consume turkey and other animal-based products due to dietary restrictions or lifestyle choices. That’s why Berman and Kubala suggest that vegetarians and vegans planning to serve fake meat this year either make it at home or inspect the ingredients list. “The shorter the better,” Berman says.
The nutritional low-down on tofurky
If you’re hugging your tofurky tight to your chest in defense, don’t worry. It isn’t entirely without health perks. “Tofurky is made from tofu, which is an excellent source of several vitamins and minerals such as calcium, folate, magnesium, and selenium,” says Kubala. Plus, as Jim White Fitness and Nutrition Studios owner Jim White, RDN, ACSM, points out, it has just as much protein as the the real bird; both have 26 grams in a three ounce serving.
But here’s where meat comes out ahead, according to White: “While tofurky is dominant in protein, it also has 10 grams of carbohydrates per serving, which turkey does not have.” Miller points out something else in favor of meat, saying that “the fat in tofurky is comparable to that in a turkey with the skin, but tofurky doesn’t provide nutritional benefits of glycine and proline, two of the amino acids involved in collagen production, that’s in the skin of a turkey bird.”
So, is tofurky healthy?
Ultimately, tofurky can absolutely be part of a healthy Thanksgiving Day dinner—especially if it’s homemade. “While the store-bought product comes with a few nutritional downsides and aren’t the healthiest option, if you like the way it tastes, it can enjoyed in moderation as part of a healthy diet,” says Berman. And let’s be honest, who eats tofurky not on Thanksgiving, anyway?
White’s recommendation: “If you are buying your tofurky roast pre-made at the store, look for the brands “Quorn Turk’y Roasts” and “Tofurky Vegetarian Roast.” And Berman says Gardein is an okay option, too, because it contains all-natural ingredients.
Tofurky or not, I think we can all agree on one thing: it’s the side dishes we go back for seconds for, anyway.
Whether you’re eating fake or real turkey, pair it with one of these yummy side-dishes. And if you’re hosting, read our definitive day-by-day guide to Thanksgiving Day prep.