Traditional plant-based burgers are designed for vegetarians, while plant-based meats target meat eaters. They aim to provide the taste, texture, and experience of animal-based meat, but claim to be a healthier alternative.
An Environmental or Human Health Concern?
If your concern is environmental health, then plant-based meat might be the way to go.
In fact, the mind behind the “Impossible Burger” available at 5,000 restaurants across the U.S., Pat Brown, told The New Yorker, “The use of animals in food production is by far the most destructive technology on earth. We see our mission as the last chance to save the planet from environmental catastrophe.”
Brown is a 65-year-old emeritus professor of biochemistry at Stanford University, and believes cows bred for food are the biggest contributing factor to global climate change.
Getting rid of the cows, he feels, can save the planet, because of their massive cost on land, fresh water, and methane production. It’s estimated that nearly 15% of global greenhouse emissions are a result of feeding livestock.
But when it comes human health, do these plant-based alternatives have any benefits?
Beyond Meat, arguably the most popular plant-based meat producer, claims its burgers are better for you than meat burgers. But they aren’t. Stacked up next to beef burgers, they are similar in almost every nutritional category, with one glaring exception: plant-based meats are ultra-processed foods.
Plant-Based Meat Ingredients
Plant-based meats use a variety of highly processed ingredients to get as close to the real thing as possible—and that is the goal. Some of the ingredients include:
- Pea protein isolate
- Potato protein
- Soy protein concentrate
- Soy leghemoglobin
- Beet juice extract
- Apple juice extract
Once again, these products are designed to give people who like the taste and texture of meat a plant-based alternative.
The bean-, quinoa-, lentil-, rice-, and whole grain-based burgers designed for vegetarians are a completely different thing (they are not supposed to mimic meat).
Sold in restaurants across the country, Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger products are often topped with mayonnaise, bacon, and cheese. Clearly, they are not aimed at vegans.
Does Plant-Based Mean Healthy?
Where the whole “healthy alternative” concept comes in is that these burgers feature plant-based ingredients. But they are extracts—processed pieces of a puzzle that are pulled apart, reorganized, and bound together with other ingredients.
Ultimately, the nutritional value of the tofu, peas, beans, etc. in the burger is gone, much like whole grains and nutrients are stripped down to make processed white bread.
To illustrate, these plant-based burgers have no fiber, yet many of the ingredients, in their natural state, would be considered fiber-rich. Moreover, much of the vitamin and mineral content in the ingredients is essentially stripped during processing and reintroduced through enrichment or fortification, and not naturally occurring.
- Plant-based does not mean healthy—potato chips, sugar, and refined grains are plant-based foods.
- Refined plants do not have the same nutritional profile as they did in their whole form.
Beyond Meat and Impossible Burgers feature long lists of ingredients and are fortified with vitamins because most of the natural nutrition is lost during processing.
The main difference between the two is that Impossible uses soy protein (which is normally very nutritious, but not in this processed state) and Beyond Meat uses pea protein. Another difference is that Impossible Burgers use soy leghemoglobin to “bleed,” and Beyond Meat uses beet extract.
In an animal-based burger, you’re only getting one nutrient-dense ingredient: beef, chicken, turkey, etc.
Are Plant-Based Meats Healthier?
There is no evidence to suggest plant-based meats are healthier than natural meats. The simple argument Beyond Meat makes—that not being meat is what makes it healthier—doesn’t really stand up.
It is true that there is data suggesting a diet high in processed meat can significantly increase the risk for heart disease; however, the data on red meat is less convincing.
A growing number of studies are showing that unprocessed meats might not pose the same risk as once believed. The determining factor seemingly is whether or not the meats are processed.
Although it is likely healthier to incorporate plant-based proteins into your diet to reduce your reliance on meat, there is no evidence to suggest that these plant-based burgers and meats are the answer.
They are ultra-processed foods, and there have not been any studies to indicate whether they offer any benefit or reduce health risks. Eating a plant-based meat burger, for instance, is not the same as eating whole-grain rice and peas.
Beef Burgers vs. Plant-Based Meat Burgers: Nutrition Facts
From a caloric and macronutrient standpoint, ground beef burgers and plant-based meat burgers are virtually identical.
Compare the nutrient breakdown of a similarly sized patty from each group.
|Nutrients||Beyond Meat||Impossible Burger||80% Lean Ground Beef|
|Saturated Fat||6 grams (g)||8 g||9 g|
|Sodium||380 (mg)||380 mg||None|
The lean ground beef burger is also great natural source of numerous vitamins and minerals.
A typical grain-based veggie burger, on the other hand, would contain about 150 calories and 1 g of saturated fat.
Depending on the brand, it may also include real veggies like mushrooms, onions, carrots, zucchini, eggplant, quinoa, rice, beans, or bell peppers.
Beef and “fake meat” burgers are close in terms of protein, total fat, and saturated fat content. It’s arguable that the beef burger is more nutritious because its nutrients are naturally occurring.
Neither option should be a dietary staple, however. Beef and plant-based burgers are an occasional treat to enjoy.
Plant-Based Meat Burgers Probably Aren’t Healthier for You
A plant-based burger that is made to taste and feel like meat likely isn’t better for you than the real thing, but it is infinitely better for the environment.
At the end of the day, burgers aren’t a regular part of a healthy diet, whether they’re made of beef or processed plants. Each has their place.
If you’re looking to swap out a beef burger for a plant-based meal alternative, go right ahead. But for the best choice, making your own plant-based burger at home is probably the best option.
Consider a Traditional Veggie Burger
If you want something that tastes like a beef burger, you should probably just go for the real thing. But instead of buying a boxed burger or heading to a restaurant, just grab some ground beef from the butcher or grocery store to make your own. That way you ensure that it’s fresh and you have total control over all the ingredients.
When it comes to the healthiest option, though, the choice is probably a freshly made veggie burger. No one is going to argue that eating more whole plant foods is bad for your health. A homemade plant-based burger won’t taste like a hamburger, but it’s probably the best for you.
You can also bet it will be high in fiber and nutrition, without leaving you wondering how it was made.
A few plant-based items that have a meatier consistency include:
- Mushrooms (shitake)
- Black beans
- Beans and legumes
Veggie Burger Recipe
Here is a slightly different veggie burger recipe. Remember, it won’t taste like meat—it isn’t supposed to. It will, however, be extremely nutritious and a healthy substitute for beef burgers.
Black Bean Veggie Burgers
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 35 minutes
Yields: 4 servings
- 1 (16 oz) can black beans, drained and rinsed
- 3 cloves garlic, peeled
- 1/2 green pepper
- 1/2 onion
- 1 egg
- 1 tsp Thai chili sauce or hot sauce
- 1 tbsp cumin
- 1 tbsp chili powder
- 1/2 cup breadcrumbs
- Preheat oven to 375F and grease a baking sheet with oil.
- Grab a medium-sized bowl and, using a fork, mash black beans to a thick, paste-like consistency.
- Add garlic, green pepper, and onion into a food processor. Finely chop, and mix into mashed beans.
- Place egg, chili sauce, cumin, and chili powder in a small bowl, and stir.
- Blend the egg mixture into the mashed beans. Stir in breadcrumbs and mix until the blend is sticky and holds together. Shape into four patties.
- Bake for about 20 minutes, turning over halfway through.
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