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Healthy Eating

Are Plant-Based Burgers Good for You?

Realistic, plant-based meats are a multibillion-dollar business —but are they good for you?

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Of all the great food debates of the 21st century, nothing arouses more intense exchange than the topic of meat—and for good reason. In addition to ethical issues regarding how the animals are treated, the livestock industry has a vast environmental footprint, contributing to land and water degradation, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, and acid rain. Conventional livestock farming is responsible for almost 15 percent of human-generated greenhouse gas emissions—more than cars, trucks, ships, and planes combined (yep, it’s true).

Raising animals for food also requires staggering quantities of land, feed, and water: 26 percent of the earth’s ice-free land is used for livestock grazing and 33 percent of croplands are used to produce livestock feed. And of the less than 1 percent of freshwater available for human use, 70 percent goes toward livestock production—a pound of beef requires almost 1,800 gallons of water to produce, compared to about 200 gallons for the equivalent amount of soy.

Health Studies Related to Eating Meat

Studies have linked increased consumption of meat, especially red meat, with an increased risk of heart disease, cancer, neurodegenerative disease, and all-cause mortality. (Note: Most of these studies have been done on conventional meats—i.e., not grassfed, organic, and/or sustainably farmed varieties.)

Let’s face it: Many Americans aren’t likely to give up their beloved burgers—and the standard bland-and-crumbly veggie burger won’t cut the mustard for committed carnivores.

Nutritional Value of Meat Substitutes

The solution? A new era of meat substitutes designed not only for vegans and vegetarians but also for dedicated carnivores. The main contenders—Impossible Burgers (Impossible Foods), Beyond Burgers (Beyond Meat), and Uncut Burgers (Before the Butcher)—are a far cry from traditional meat substitutes. Using high-tech processes that coax plant-based ingredients into mimicking the attributes of meat, these fleshy, textured alternatives brown, sizzle, and even “bleed.” All three sidestep the environmental and ethical concerns of raising animals for food and, by more closely mimicking the real thing, are more universally appealing than their traditional veggie burger cousins.

But are they actually good for you? Here’s a point-by-point exploration of the three new-generation burgers mentioned above.

  • Protein and Calories. When it comes to protein and calories, faux meats are similar to beef. A quarter-pound beef patty has 20–24 grams of protein; these three plant-based burgers have 18–20 grams, with fewer calories. They also have more iron: 20–25 percent of the daily value (DV), compared with 17 percent in a beef burger. And all of them have more fiber—Uncut has a respectable 5 grams per serving, beef has none.
  • Total and Saturated Fat. Fat gives meat its flavor, marbled texture, and juicy mouthfeel, so meat-free alternatives have plenty of added fat to replicate that experience. A 4-oz. beef patty has 18–20 grams total fat and 8 grams saturated fat. By comparison, plant-based burgers have 14–19 grams total fat and 6–8 grams of saturated fat. But here’s the difference: the saturated fat in faux burgers comes mostly from coconut, and some studies suggest that coconut doesn’t increase harmful LDL cholesterol levels and may also increase beneficial HDL cholesterol levels. And all three plant burgers are cholesterol-free.
  • Sodium. Both the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger have considerably more sodium than an uncooked 4-oz. beef patty. This seems shocking, until you consider that when you cook a beef burger, you’re most likely seasoning it with salt, which raises the sodium content. By comparison, a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder weighs in at 730 mg of sodium. So unless you’re at risk for high blood pressure, the sodium content may not be an issue. If it is, Uncut Burger is a better choice, with a modest 150 mg sodium per serving.
  • Soy. It’s the main ingredient of the Impossible and Uncut burgers—not necessarily a problem, except that Impossible Burger unapologetically uses GM soy. The company says that it supports the responsible, constructive use of genetic engineering to solve environmental, health, safety, and food security problems, and maintains that it wouldn’t be able to make a “product that rivals or surpasses beef for flavor, texture, nutrition, sustainability, versatility, and accessibility without it.” Uncut Burgers, on the other hand, use only soy that’s free of GMOs. “We chose soy because it has a neutral flavor and adds a more realistic bite and texture,” says Danny O’Malley, founder of Before the Butcher. “And we didn’t want to use wheat gluten, because it’s important to us that our products are gluten-free.” If you’re sensitive to soy, Beyond Burger is a better choice: it’s soy-free, non-GMO, and uses pea, rice, and mung bean protein.
  • Heme. The Impossible Burger’s taste is achieved primarily through the addition of heme, a genetically engineered ingredient made by inserting DNA of soy leghemoglobin (a protein found in the roots of soybean plants) into yeast, then fermenting the yeast. The company says this practice avoids harvesting soy plants for heme, “which would promote erosion and release carbon stored in the soil.” Heme is what gives the Impossible Burger its meat-like flavor, aroma, and reddish-pink color. If the whole idea of genetically modified soy leghemoglobin creeps you out, Uncut Burger and Beyond Burger use beet juice to achieve the same bloody look.
  • Methylcellulose. All three burgers contain more than a dozen ingredients, including methylcellulose, a chemical compound derived from cellulose, the main constituent of plant cell walls. In foods, it’s used as a binder and helps mimic the texture of meat in faux burgers. It’s a unique ingredient that helps create the firm bite and varied texture that mimics beef, says O’Malley—and it’s the reason these burgers don’t fall apart the minute you bite into them. While cellulose can be derived from corn cobs, soybean hulls, sugar cane stalks, and other plant ingredients, in reality, it usually comes from highly purified wood pulp (Uncut Burgers uses non-GMO cellulose) that’s treated to create a binding effect in the absence of gluten. Before you freak out, you should know cellulose and methylcellulose are found in many foods that you may already eat, including Boca Burgers and 365 Meatless Burgers, as well as a variety of packaged breads, pastries, and packaged grated cheeses. It’s also the primary ingredient in many over-the-counter laxatives. So while it’s definitely not what a purist would consider a clean label read, it does not appear to be harmful.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to you—your personal goals, needs, and ethics. Are these new-generation plant-based burgers super-clean superfoods that will make you impervious to disease? Probably not. But are they a more ethical and sustainable choice than conventional meat? Undoubtedly—and maybe that’s enough.