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When vegetarian and health foods were first introduced to the mainstream supermarket aisles in the late 1960s and early 1970s, many consumers were not very happy with the meatless alternatives. Although the information concerning the health and dietary benefits of such products was prominently displayed and discussed, consumers were, for the most part, not buying many health foods. Much of the problem had to do with the quality of the food itself. Meatless hamburgers were clearly not the same as the regular ground round that consumers were accustomed to buying. Other substitutes were made of such "exotic" ingredients (at that time) as tofu, tempeh, and soybean protein.

Now, some twenty-five years and a world away from those early health food efforts comes a new breed of alternative products. Meatless hamburgers now have the same texture and nutrition as their bovine cousins, and such exotica as tofu, tempeh, soybeans, and TVP (textured vegetable protein) are readily available on store shelves. Alternatives to dairy now have the same taste and texture as cow's milk with no lactose or milk sugars. Here are five vegetarian/health food alternatives that even a non-vegetarian may find surprisingly good.

1. Veggie burgers

With the successful introduction of the garden burger, vegetarian burger technology has come a long way. Earlier, near-burgers may have been mushy and flavorless to the average consumer, but the newest generation could probably fool quite a few meat eaters. Made primarily from textured vegetable protein, today's meatless hamburgers are held together with cheeses, giving them some much needed texture and chew. These new burgers can be grilled or pan-fried, which also contributes to the visual aspect of a "real" hamburger. Flavorings such as garlic or onion powder make the patty taste very similar to a seasoned hamburger. Throw some seasoned salt on them for a real taste treat. If you haven't tried a veggie burger before, you may want to start with the "hamburger-style" variety instead of the softer oatmeal-based variety.

2. Portobello mushrooms

These gourmet mushrooms are quickly gaining popularity in restaurants, where they are marinated in a lime juice mixture and grilled to perfection. Monterey Jack cheese will add even more flavor. Served on a grilled bun, a portobello sandwich successfully duplicates a hamburger without the fat or calories. These sandwiches can also be prepared on a grill, or chopped and sauteed for use as a meat substitutes in spaghetti sauce.

3. Rice, almond, and soy milks

For those who are lactose-intolerant, alternatives such as rice or almond milks may be the answer. Until recently, the only alternative milk widely available was soy milk, which can be a little rough to drink at first. Now, rice- and almond-based milks are available in the health food section of most grocery stores. They are clearly not the same beverage as cow's milk but will stay preserved for a long time if not opened and will also stay fresh for 7 to 10 days once the seal is broken. If you are looking for an alternative to lactose, then try the rice or almond milks. Make sure they are very cold, and well shaken. The first taste will be a shock, but once you become accustomed to the more watery texture (similar to skim milk), then these beverages are actually tasty. Try vanilla-flavored rice or almond milk on cereal, and chocolate soy milk as a healthy alternative.

4. Carob

Nature's alternative to calorie-laden chocolate, carob is the substance of choice for many health-food snacks. Carob is clearly not chocolate, so you will notice a difference the first time you try a carob product. Carob-covered raisins are especially tasty because the natural sugars found in the raisins interact well with the carob flavor. Another interesting treat is the carob-covered toasted soybean. As an alternative to chocolate-covered peanuts, these low-fat snacks can get addictive.

5. Tofu

Tofu has all the benefits of yogurt, without the lactose, along with the versatility of eggs or flour. Tofu, a solid form of bean curd, is tasteless and a bit formless by itself, but it is the chameleon of the health food world. It can be grilled into a serviceable hamburger alternative or whipped into a natural cream substitute. Tofu absorbs the taste of whatever food is introduced to it, so the possibilities are endless. If you want to experience tofu as painlessly as possible, go to a good Chinese restaurant and ask which dishes on the buffet are made with tofu. When stir-fried with other foods and seasoned well, you'll probably confuse tofu with a good fried egg in texture and taste.