Wednesday 14 October 2009

Not-so Fake Fake Meat?

2014 Update / Summary

The Inconvenient Truth about Fake Meat

1. The majority of fake meat contains dairy products, because most Taiwanese vegetarians eat them, and it gives the fake meat more of a meat-like texture.

2. Much of it contains egg (because I-Kuan-Tao followers and many Buddhists eat eggs). Virtually all eggs here are from battery hens, as those who oppose battery farming simply don't eat eggs. I've heard that some I Kuan Tao followers actually prefer battery hen eggs because they are less likely to be fertilised, but don't know if this is true; certainly no effort is made to avoid them. A lot of fake meat also contains real meat (or used to) though we have no idea how much (see below).

3. Virtually all Buddhist and I Kuan Tao followers will swear black and blue that their fake meat is Quan Su (全素 / vegan) . But it virtually never is. Some genuinely believe it, but unfortunately I have to say that most are just lying to sell their food (a problem of course not limited to Taiwan). Sometimes I ask to see the packet, and get an interesting range of reactions, from genuine surprise to guilty red "I thought you wouldn't be able to read it" faces, when I point out the 'lacto-veg' label.

The myth that fake meat is vegan is promulgated by many "reputable" guidebooks, most significantly the Lonely Planet. This, and their total lack of effort to help vegetarians, was one reason I decided to write my own travel guide to Taiwan. Unfortunately many other guides, including ones written by vegetarians and vegans, online and in print, also make this claim, probably after their authors trusted books like the Lonely Planet or other online sources.

Only eat fake meat at strictly vegan restaurants, which (in Taipei) include the Loving Huts, Sophie's Garden, Veggie Creek, @Peace Cafe, About Animals, SoulR Cafe, O Cha Cha, Joy Bar, Mianto and a few others. If they serve dairy or egg, or are labelled on Happycow as 'vegetarian' never trust their fake meat, no matter what the staff tell you. At buffets avoid any fake meat, and any mayonnaise or other milky-looking products, again despite what the staff insist. Beware of small pieces of fake meat in other products, like the white radish cake. It's really not very difficult at all, but you are on your own to figure out what's vegan and what's not. You know better than the staff member at the restaurant, even if you can't speak Chinese or read any ingredients.

Old Article Below

In 2009 the Taiwanese government performed spot checks on several fake-meat "vendors" (whatever that means) and found that over half contained real animal products. Follow-up tests and investigations were promised, but have not been released or reported on so far.

While it made the briefly section in Taiwan's largest English (and in my opinion best) newspaper, the Taipei Times, and the Taiwan News (another good paper), it created somewhat of a stir in vegan circles around the world, as much if not most of the world's fake meat is made here in Taiwan. Anyone who ate fake meats at Chinese vegetarian restaurants (most of which are in fact Taiwanese, no Chinese), had to wonder whether the too-good-to-be-true fake meat actually was.

If it really was over 50%, we could expect the Buddhist population in Taiwan to be up in (peaceful) arms about it, however, no such reaction has been noticed. Then again, most of Taiwanese vegetarian dining population are not actually vegetarian, but simply eat at vegetarian restaurants at certain times, as dictated by their local customs and religions. It may be that these "vendors" were all non-vegetarian suppliers, and that food at Buddhist restaurants, if made by Buddhist companies, is safe. There is really not enough information to draw any conclusions, but certainly enough for concern.

Though I have been unable to get to the bottom of it, I have paid much more attention to the ingredients of fake meat in grocery stores. The majority contains milk (in fitting with the fact that Buddhists eat dairy products) and some contains egg (because the I Kuan Tao religion also eat egg products, as do many lay Buddhists). It also often contains many less than healthy ingredients. It should not really be surprising that dairy, usually whey (or whey protein) is added to soy products meant to have the taste and texture of animal flesh. I highly doubt that many, if any, Chinese/Taiwanese vegetarian resaurants which promise "we use no dairy or egg" check the ingredients of their fake meat for whey. Buddhist-run restaurants probably will check the ingredients for egg, however.

One highly trustworthy exception to this rule is again, the followers of Supreme Master Ching Hai, in particular their Loving Huts (see my article on why I trust their fake meat here). Her disciples and restaurants are strictly vegan and owners of Loving Hutts are meticulous about checking that their ingredients are vegan.

So, in the absence of any real conclusion, but given that business in Taiwan is less than honest, most people eating vegetarian at any given time are not vegetarian themselves (all the time) and very few are vegan, I do not recommend eating fake meat from unknown sources in Taiwan (or eating anything from China at all). In Taiwan, I usually only eat fake meat at restaurants run by Ching Hai followers. For vegans abroad, inconvenient though this may be, I would not recommend eating any imported fake meats from Asia at all, and instead sticking to ones made by local veg'n companies, unless it is at a restaurant run by Ching Hai followers. Sadly, that sweet-and-sour Chicken you've been eating at your local Chinese vegetarian restaurant probably contains whey, and might just contain a little chicken, too.Vegetarian shark fin soup anyone?


  1. The fake meat here in Thailand is made here in Thailand and not Taiwan. I will check for the ingredients to see if they use whey or animal products.

  2. Ni Hao! I just discovered your blog. Great work. (I'm vegandietitian.blogspot's husband.)

    I guess I always sort of suspected some of the stuff you said in this post. My wife and I are both happy, healthy vegan foodies here at home but when I'm in Taiwan I give myself a little "wiggle room."

    I'll always try my best to eat a vegan diet, and I could never eat any meat, but I can ignore a little dairy or egg used as an ingredient.

    I look forward to following your blog!

  3. Hi Brett

    Sorry I just found this now - I'm not very good at checking comments. I have seen your blog recently and should have made the link to your wife's one. Thanks for the reply.

    Anyway I hope you're having a great time in Taiwan!



  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. why still crave for fake meat when religiously convert to vegetarian. Fake meat is synthetic . More harm to body than real meat. Eat fish if meat isnt suitable. Eat real food. Not plastic food

    1. Thanks for the comment Hannah. I'm not a big fan of fake meat, but eat it here in Taiwan because it's everywhere. Please understand that most vegans are vegan for ethical reasons, so many still like the taste of meat but choose not to eat it because they don't want to kill animals, or to further environmental damage and starvation in the third world.
      Some fake meat is better than others, and a lot is just made from tofu and other plant products - far more healthy than real meat, with its fat, cholesterol, hormones, antibiotics etc. And it's not plastic, but far more natural than most real meat, especially factory farmed meat, which makes up the majority of meat eaten nowadays.