Oh soy can you see?

Meat alternatives are a home run.

President Clinton may do something decidedly un-American this Fourth of July: Slap a soy burger on the barbecue. You see, there have been some drastic cuts in the presidential diet, and one of the first casualties was the cheeseburger.

The beef industry is sure to feel slighted, but other special interests, namely his personal physician and environmental groups, will be lighting Roman candles in celebration. None, however, will match the festive display put on by alternative meat makers.

For them, it must seem like the summer of love. According to Soyatech, the industry trade group, sales of soy burgers and other vegetable-based alternatives to meat have risen from $44 million in 1985 to $180 million in 1995. Packaged Facts, a research group, projects sales will hit $376 million by 1999.

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This nod from consumers has sent faux meat makers into expansion overdrive. Soy burgers and tofu dogs pale next to new meat clones like Philly steak, bacon, and--hold onto your gizzard--Tofurky, a vegetarian version of the holiday roast.

Alternameat fans include vegetarians who have an occasional Big Mac attack, animal rights activists, and parents weaning kids off corn dogs. "People like the idea of eating vegetarian foods, but they're not comfortable with the traditional forms," says Soyatech president Peter Golbitz. "They throw a meatlike substance on a roll, and it's very familiar to them."

Indeed, the rise in popularity of veggie meats correlates directly with advances in meat-mimicking technology. Yves Veggie Cuisine Deli Slices, for example, is a dead ringer for bologna. No easy feat when you consider the main ingredients: water, soy protein, wheat gluten, tofu, and soy fiber. And a serving of Deli Slices (52g) contains no fat. One slice of Oscar Meyer Bologna (28g), made from pork, chicken, and beef, has 8 grams of fat and 20mg of cholesterol.

So, what's the catch? Recent medical reports proclaim that regular consumption of soy protein can reduce cholesterol and risk of heart disease. Now, any product with the words soy, tofu, or tempeh on the label is a hot commodity. However, in many meat alternatives not only is soy protein a minor ingredient, but isoflavones, the part of the soybean said to lower the risk of heart disease, can be lost in processing.

Dr. Dean Ornish, the presidential physician who introduced the soy burger into the White House, also warns that "some of the veggie [products] are pretty high in fat."

And then there's the salt. Some products contain up to 800mg of sodium per serving. Add a squirt of ketchup and you might as well be sipping a Dead Sea smoothie.

"It is misleading. I actually view a lot of these soy products as healthier versions of junk food," notes Mark Messina, author of The Vegetarian Way. Nonetheless, they're still part of Messina's prescription for patients and the planet. "My primary concern is that people shift towards a more plant-based diet."

Those with culinary cachet may be harder to convince. For example, you won't find meat alternatives in Chef Jeremiah Tower's kitchen. The founder of San Francisco's Stars restaurant prefers the real thing. "I would sooner dine on nasturtium flowers for the rest of my life than eat a tofu burger simply for the false sensation of enjoying red meat."

Don't bother applying for any posts at the White House, J.T.