Are Meatless Burgers Really Healthier?
Get the full nutritional lowdown of the new plant-based burgers.
This article is based on reporting that features expert sources including Linda Shiue, MD
IN RESPONSE TO THE RISE in popularity of plant-based eating, food companies have been responding to the demand by creating meatless foods. This is a growing trend I saw at The Natural Food Expo West in Anaheim, California, this past March, where you could find plant-based versions of everything from tuna to chicken nuggets to burgers. The two most popular booths at the show were Impossible Foods and Beyond Foods, where they were showcasing meatless burgers. These aren’t your old-school veggie burgers, which are made primarily of soy or tempeh. These meatless burgers are made to taste and “bleed” like traditional beef burgers, targeting omnivores. Over the past few months, these meatless burgers have wildly grown in popularity.
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According to Reuters, Beyond Meat (creator of Beyond Burgers) has an expected revenue of $210 million for 2019. Sales of Beyond Meat have increased five-fold since 2016, when it began selling Beyond Burger. Part of the positive attention can be attributed to the environmental benefits of eating more plants, but little has been discussed about the nutritional content of meatless burgers. Here’s an in-depth look at the nutrition of these meatless burgers to help you decide whether they should be part of your diet.
What’s In a Meatless Burger?
It’s pretty cool that the new versions of plant-based burgers have the same flavor, sizzle and juiciness as a beef burger – but have you ever stepped back to ask what they’re actually made from? Here’s a look at the two most popular meatless burgers, Impossible and Beyond Burger.
According to the Impossible Foods website, “Heme is what makes meat taste like meat.” So their scientists made plant-based heme through the fermentation of genetically engineered yeast. The protein comes from soy and potato, the fat comes from coconut and sunflower oils and a culinary binder called methylcellulose (commonly used in sauces, ice cream and jams) is used to hold everything together.
The original recipe formulated in 2016 was recently updated in 2019, when a new Impossible Burger debuted. Below is the ingredient list:
“Water, Soy Protein Concentrate, Coconut Oil, Sunflower Oil, Natural Flavors, 2% or less of: Potato Protein, Methylcellulose, Yeast Extract, Cultured Dextrose, Food Starch Modified, Soy Leghemoglobin, Salt, Soy Protein Isolate, Mixed Tocopherols (Vitamin E), Zinc Gluconate, Thiamine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B1), Sodium Ascorbate (Vitamin C), Niacin, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B6), Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Vitamin B12.”
Beyond Burger looks and tastes like a beef burger and even “bleeds” like one. But it’s made without GMOs, soy or gluten. The protein comes from peas, rice and mung bean. The fat comes from canola oil, coconut oil and cocoa butter. Methylcellulose is used as the binder.
Below is the ingredient list:
“Water, Pea Protein Isolate, Expeller-Pressed Canola Oil, Refined Coconut Oil, Rice Protein, Natural Flavors, Cocoa Butter, Mung Bean Protein, Methylcellulose, Potato Starch, Apple Extract, Salt, Potassium Chloride, Vinegar, Lemon Juice Concentrate, Sunflower Lecithin, Pomegranate Fruit Powder, Beet Juice Extract (for color)”
The Nutrition Lowdown
When you take a look at the numbers, the macronutrients may be a reminiscent of a traditional beef burger. There’s a good amount of protein, some fat (including saturated fat), little fiber and carbs. Here’s a closer look at the nutrient breakdown of the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger.
Impossible Burger (per 4 ounce serving)
Calories: 240; Total Fat: 14g; Saturated Fat: 8g; Protein: 19g; Total Carbs: 9g; Fiber: 3g; Sodium: 370mg
The Impossible Burger is also an excellent source of the recommended daily amount of thiamine, iron, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B6, folate, vitamin B12 and zinc. It’s also a good source of calcium, potassium and phosphorus. As you can see from the ingredient list above, many of these micronutrients are fortified (or added) to the burger.
Beyond Burger (per 4 ounce serving)
Calories: 250; Total Fat: 18g; Saturated Fat: 6g; Protein: 20g; Total Carbs: 3g; Fiber: 2g; Sodium: 390mg
The macronutrient breakdown of Beyond Burger is quite similar to the Impossible Burger.
As far as micronutrients, Beyond Burger is an excellent source of iron, providing 25% of the daily recommended amount. No other micronutrient information is provided by the company. Because many of those vitamins and minerals aren’t added (like they are to the Impossible Burger), the amounts are most likely much less.
Are They Healthy?
After looking at the ingredient list and nutrient breakdown of both meatless burgers, it’s certainly clear that it takes many ingredients to create these meatless burgers. According to Dr. Linda Shiue, Director of Culinary Medicine at Kaiser Permanente in San Francisco, “Aside from the possibility that eating meatless burgers might help people reduce their consumption of red meat, I don’t consider meatless burgers to be a health food per se, as they are a highly processed food.”
Compared with burgers made with beef, Shiue says, “They are about equal in saturated fat and calories, and higher in sodium and carbohydrates. They do contain more fiber, but most of that is in the form of added fiber, like a fiber supplement, as opposed to fiber from legumes or grains in their whole form.” In addition, “while we can’t measure phytonutrients – the plant-based antioxidants, vitamins and minerals that are present in plants – it is likely that meatless burgers won’t contain these beneficial nutrients due to processing.” Shiue also points out that recent studies have shown the connection between eating processed food and negative health outcomes, including weight gain, cardiovascular disease, cancer and early death.
Homemade Veggie Burgers
Shiue recommends for both taste and nutrition, simple is best. There’s no reason why you can’t make your own plant-based burger at home. Oftentimes you can use leftover veggies and legumes in your refrigerator, which can help reduce food waste. Homemade veggie burgerscan be a part of a healthy diet, “especially if the ingredients are mindfully chosen, such as legumes, tofu or tempeh, whole grains and vegetables,” Shiue explains.
Another option she recommends for people who do eat meat, is to make a “blended burger,” which reduces the amount of beef by substituting lentils or mushrooms for some of the meat, for example, or to use poultry, such as ground turkey, instead of beef.
One of Shiue’s favorite meat-free homemade burgers comes from Suvir Saran, chef, consultant and author of “Masala Farm Cookbook.” Chef Suvir has kindly shared his recipe, originally published on the Cancer Research Consortium website.
Peanut, Farro and Mushroom Burgers
Total time: 50 minutes
- 3/4 cup farro, uncooked
- 1 lb sweet potatoes
- 1 sprig fresh rosemary
- 1 sprig fresh thyme
- 6 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 tsp black pepper
- 3/4 cup peanuts, chopped
- 1 lb mushroom caps, brown, finely chopped
- 3/4 tsp kosher salt
- 1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- 3 shallots, finely chopped
- 1 tbsp dry white wine (or water)
- 1/2 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, finely grated
- 1 cup panko crumbs, whole wheat
- 3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1. Bring 2 cups of water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add the farro, return to a boil, cover and reduce the heat to medium-low, cooking until the farro is tender, about 30 minutes. Turn off the heat, fluff with a fork, cover and set aside.
2. While the farro cooks, boil the sweet potatoes. Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil, add the sweet potatoes, return to a boil and cook until a paring knife easily slips into the center of the largest sweet potato, about 20 minutes. Drain and set aside. Once the sweet potatoes are cool, peel and place in a large bowl.
3. Remove the needles and leaves from the rosemary and thyme branches and place in a large skillet along with the black pepper and 6 tbsp of olive oil. Warm the olive oil-herb mixture over medium-high, stirring occasionally. Once the herbs start crackling, about 1 minute, add peanuts and cook for 2 minutes or until a nice golden color. Then add the mushrooms and salt. Cook the mushrooms until they release their liquid and the pan is dry again, 6 to 7 minutes, stirring often. Transfer the mushrooms to the bowl with the potatoes and set aside.
4. Heat 1 tbsp of olive oil over medium-high heat in the same skillet. Add the shallots and cook until they are soft and just starting to brown, about 2 minutes. Add the dry white wine (or water) and stir to work in any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Turn off the heat and scrape the shallots into the bowl with the mushrooms and potatoes. Add the cooked farro and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Use a potato masher or fork to mash the ingredients together.
5. Form the mixture into 10 patties. Place the panko crumbs in a shallow dish and press the top and bottom of each patty into the panko crumbs to evenly coat.
6. Heat 3 tbsp of olive oil in a clean large skillet over medium-high heat. Add five patties and cook on each side until nicely browned and crusty, 8 to 10 minutes total. Remove the patties from the skillet and place them on a plate. Repeat with remaining patties, adding more oil between batches if necessary. Serve hot with a lightly dressed green salad.
Bottom Line: Although these new meatless burgers may be the next “cool” thing to try, taking a deeper dive into their nutrition may tell another story. Creating your own meatless burgers is a fun way to use wholesome ingredients to eat a more plant-based diet.
Best Plant-Based Diets
DIET Ranking information as of August 2nd, 2019
Toby Amidor, Contributor