Tofu dogsWho let these veggie dogs out?Photo: Lou Bendricks

Q: What’s better on a hot sticky evening than firing up the ol’ grill, grabbing a cold beer and throwing on some dogs?

A: Firing up the ol’ grill, grabbing a cold beer, and throwing on something more environmentally friendly and way less gross than hot dogs.

Sorry to turn the heat up when it’s already hot out there, but cheap, conventional wieners are the poster pups for factory farming and its associated environmental and moral ills.

Though soy and processed, faux-meat products have their own sets of problems (soy is a heavily sprayed, often genetically modified mono-crop, and eating too much of it may cause some serious side effects), they really can’t compete with the nastiness of hot dogs.1

Need persuading? “Hot dogs contain every imaginable part of an abused pig,” Lindsay Rajt told me. Rajt, a campaign manager for PETA listed some of those parts for me: lips, anus, intestines, spleen, and snout. “And they’re chock full of fat and cholesterol,” she added.

OK, enough. Well, almost. Full disclosure: This cranky columnist recently became a vegetarian. Long story short: I saw the movie Peaceable Kingdom, which was followed by a period of teary soul-searching. The result is that little Miss Grass-Fed-Is-Best is now pretty much eating the grass itself.

But faced with a supermarket fridge full o’ veggie dogs, I wondered about taste, the driving force behind so many of our food choices. Do vegetarians have to trade that smoky, juicy hot-dog flavor from our childhood ballgames for rubbery ersatz wieners?

To find out, I convened a panel to conduct a blind taste of five popular meatless dogs fresh off the grill. Our results follow.

 

Veggie dogs on the grillSizzling notPhoto courtesy yelahneb via FlickrTofu Pups

Price: $3.99 for 12 oz

Ingredients: Water, soy protein isolate, soy oil, organic spray dried tofu (organic de-hulled soybeans, calcium sulfate), contains 2 percent or less natural flavors (from vegetable sources), beet powder, yeast extract2, sunflower oil, natural smoke flavor, salt, paprika, oleoresin. vegetable gums, tomato pulp.

Disclaimers: Package states that “We do not use soybeans that were produced using biotechnology.” Also certified vegan.

Tasting notes: Tasters said that these “orange-yellow putty”- colored “carrot dogs” smelled “plasticky” and like “burned chemicals.” Texture-wise, they were soft “squishy.” In terms of flavor, tasters were left wanting: “Truly horrid” and “bland/flavorless.” Defining comment: “If that’s not tofu, I don’t know what is.”

Rank: 5

 

Yves The Good Dog

Price: $3.39 for 12 oz

Ingredients: Water, isolated soy protein3, vital wheat gluten, canola oil, spices, hydrolyzed corn protein, salt, natural flavors (contains autolyzed yeast2, modified vegetable gum, dextrose, dehydrated onion & garlic, vitamins & minerals (thiamin hydrochloride, cyanocobalamin, calcium panthothenate, ferric orthophosphate, iron oxide, zinc oxide, dimagnesium phosphate, dipotassium phosphate), carrageenan.

Disclaimers: Package copy says these are “Great for Grilling, Add your own veggies.” (Which, when you think about it, is sort of a confusing directive.) Yves also makes meatless hot dogs, tofu hot dogs, and jumbo hot dogs; these “Good” dog versions are new and improved and, according to the website, “taste more like a real meat hot dog.”

Tasting notes: These clearly lost the beauty contest. Tasters described them as “shriveled,” “longitudinally wrinkled,” and as having formed “ridges.” On the aroma front, they smelled “mild” and “like some sort of broth.” As for texture, tasters noted the thick and chewy “skin” while one found it “a bit rubbery — as if poured into a mold.” As for taste, results were middling: “Not great, but not bad,” said one eater and “vaguely hot doggy,” said another. Summarizing comment: “Cover this with enough mustard and ketchup and you might be able to eat one.”

Rank: 3

 

Smart Dogs

Price: $3.99 for 12 oz

Ingredients: Water, soy protein isolate, wheat gluten, evaporated cane juice, less than 2 percent of natural flavor (from vegetable sources), natural smoke flavor, garlic powder, paprika oleoresin (color and flavor), yeast extract2, xanthan gum, guar gum, carrageenan, fermented rice flour, salt, potassium chloride.

Disclaimers: These are made by the same folks who make the Tofu Pups. Hence, package also notes: “We do not use soybeans that were produced using biotechnology.” Certified vegan.

Tasting notes: On looks alone, tasters found this wiener to be like a not-so-hot blind date. “Not bad,” said one taster, while another got downright weird in describing the “off-puttingly smooth interior.” One taster described its color in not-so-politically correct terms: “Crayola flesh-toned.” Smell-wise, the panel said these dogs ranged from “normal” to “chemical” to smelling vaguely like “wood smoke.” After a few bites, the panel agreed that these were soft and chewy dogs with a “slightly slippery” interior. On the flavor front, comments were diverse, ranging from “actually unpleasant” to “bland” to “like fake charcoal.”

Rank: 4

 

Tofurky Franks

Price: $3.39 per 8 oz

Ingredients: Water, vital wheat gluten, organic tofu (water, organic soybeans, magnesium chloride, calcium chloride), expeller-pressed non-hexane-extracted isolated soy protein, expeller-pressed canola oil, spices, sea salt, onion powder, evaporated cane juice, pepper, natural vegetarian flavors, natural smoke flavor, granulated garlic, xanthan gum, konjac flour, carrageenan, wheat starch, natural caramel color, and annatto.

Disclaimers: Packages states that these are “outdoor grill approved.” (By whom? Is there some sort of Federal Consumer Grilling Approval Agency? Maybe it’s part of the sprawling national security state …) Vegan.

Tasting notes: While one taster described her dog as “phallic and bulging,” a male panelist merely chose to see this dog as “misshapen.” There was some excitement after the sniff test: “hot doggy!” enthused one taster, while another said kind of “sweet” and another smelled “burned barbeque sauce.” After nibbling, the comments were kind,
in their own way: Although deemed “not like a hot dog” by one taster, another said it “dared to be tasty in a veggie way.” Actual praise: “Much stronger flavor — distinctive, and I like it!”

Rank: 2

 

Worthington Veggie Links

Price $6.24 (not including shipping) per 1 pound, 3 oz can of 10 smallish links. (I bought these on Amazon.com, which is wrong in so many ways, but I couldn’t find them in my metro area.)

Ingredients: Water, egg whites, textured vegetable protein (soy protein isolate, wheat gluten, water for hydration), soybean oil, corn syrup solids, salt. Contains 2 percent or less of oat flour, corn starch, guar gum, yeast extract2, sodium alginate, spices, disodium inosinate, natural smoke flavor, paprika, caramel color, sugar, dextrose, garlic powder, natural flavors from non-meat sources, carrageenan, disodium guanylate, hydrolyzed soy protein, spice extractives, vitamins and minerals (niacinamide, iron [ferrous sulfate], vitamin  B1 [thiamin mononitrate], vitamin B6 [pyridoxine hydrochloride], vitamin B2 [riboflavin], vitamin B12 [cyanocobalamin], wheat fiber, red #3 for color, nonfat dry milk. Broth: Water, salt, hydrolyzed soy protein, natural smoke flavor, caramel color, red #3 for color.

Disclaimers: Non-vegan. Also, Worthington is owned by Kellogg. (I’m just saying.) Worth noting that these dogs, like some conventional dogs, contain corn syrup.

Tasting notes: These “most natural” and “meaty” looking dogs did look like real hot dogs. “Truly meant to fool,” said one lady. The panelists all agreed that these links smelled like actual hot dogs as well. In terms of texture they were benign: “Non-offensive” and “soft but not squishy” and “most meat-like.” Flavor-wise, one taster said they were like “Slim Jims” and another found them to be vaguely sweet (see corn syrup solids, above). Summary: “No offensive plastic-chemical taste, but also takes no risks.”

Rank: 1

 

Bottom Line

With enough ketchup, kraut, relish, and veggie chili, any of these dogs could probably be choked down if judged on taste alone. In our naked taste, the Worthington Veja-Links won, mainly because they failed to offend, followed very closely by the Tofurky Franks, which were garnered more passionate comments, both pro and con. My advice is to experiment with other brands.

According to Rajt, “A lot of the meat analogs have come a long way.” She likes Tofurky Brats; I plan to try their meatless Kielbasa.

Lastly, if you want to avoid lots of processed ingredients, packaging, and long-haul shipping, you can make your own veggie dogs. While you’re at it, why not use organic tofu? Or maybe portobello mushrooms, which are surprisingly meaty when grilled. Is it just me who’s always been irritated by the crap constructed to mimic meat, when vegetarians could just eat vegetables? Is Michael Pollan turning over in his grave right now? Oh wait. He’s alive! Probably because he doesn’t eat hot dogs — conventional or analog.

 

1I’m also aware that there are other heath issues associated with conventional hot dogs such as the carcinogenic burned meat problem, the nitrate cancer link, the Listeria threat to pregnant women, and the theory that eating too many hot dogs may effect your mental health, but for the sake of word-count and the I’m-not-a-doctor liability thing, I can’t go there. Consult your doctor; eat at your own risk.

2“Yeast extract” and “autolyzed yeast” are flavor enhancers that contain the same glutamic acid found in MSG, and so may be problematic for people with MSG sensitivities.

3The folks from the parent company of this dog, Hain Celestial Group did not return my phone calls/emails about certain confusing ingredients. According the ever-reliable Wikipedia, this is a highly refined soy protein that tastes like nothing and is less likely to make you fart.