What’s Really Inside a Meatless Burger?
Plant-based patties are great for the environment. But what about for your body?
A few years ago, chef Paul Canales was curious about the new and mysteriously meaty meatless burgers that were creeping onto the food scene. Products like the Impossible Burger were harder to get back then, but Canales managed to secure 20 pounds to play with at Duende, the Spanish restaurant he runs in Oakland, California.
“I wasn’t happy with it as a burger, so I came up with this idea of making a meatball,” Canales recalls. He added cumin, garlic, and parsley and fried the “meat” into something resembling Spanish-style meatballs, calling his creation albondigas improbables (improbable meatballs).
“People loved them. They’d get two or three orders at a time,” Canales says. The chef had a hit on his hands, but he was bothered that he didn’t know exactly what he was serving.
“You can’t really identify vegetables in it at all,” he says. “I thought, ‘I’m selling a ton, but am I really providing nutrition to people?’”
Canales isn’t the only one wondering about the nutritional value of products like the Impossible and Beyond burgers, which have officially gone mainstream now that McDonald’s and Burger King have added them to their menus. While advocates for a plant-based diet welcome such products as a way to reduce meat consumption, dietitians are asking: Are they actually good for you?
“‘Good for you’ is a subjective question,” says Jill Edwards, director of education for the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies. “What are we comparing it to? Is it healthier than the comparative beef burger? Absolutely.”
Others aren’t so sure. On the face of it, plant-based burgers seem like a win, especially for those attempting to eat according to Michael Pollan’s famous maxim, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” This is a way to eat more vegetables without having to make peace with those mushy bean patties that have been languishing in the freezer section of organic food co-ops everywhere since the Nixon administration… right?
Not exactly. It’s a matter of weighing the nutritional benefits implied by the trendy “plant-based” label against the extreme processing required to coax a meat-like taste and texture from plant fibers.
“I tend to discourage them as a way to be healthier,” says Emily Gelsomin, a registered dietitian and senior clinical nutrition specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital.
A look at the nutrition labels doesn’t reveal much of a difference between Impossible meat and, say, an 85% lean beef burger. When you compare them patty to patty, both clock in at 240 calories and around 20 grams of protein per serving (19 grams for Impossible, 21 for beef).
The plant-based burgers are cholesterol-free and contain nutrients like vitamin B12 and zinc, which Gelsomin notes can be hard for vegetarians to come by. But when it comes to saturated fat, the Impossible patty actually contains more than beef, at eight grams of fat per serving to beef’s six.
Some plant-based burger companies “are adding in things like coconut oil, which isn’t necessarily as healthy,” says Gelsomin, who notes that saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
Impossible and Beyond patties also come up shorter than one might expect on fiber, which is one reason doctors tell us to eat more vegetables in the first place. As a benchmark, a food should have at least three grams per serving to be considered a good source of fiber, Gelsomin says. Impossible and Beyond hit that mark, but barely. Compare that to the black bean–based Sunshine burger, which packs eight grams of fiber into a smaller, 2.7-ounce serving.
The faux burgers also have higher levels of sodium — 390 milligrams per serving for the Beyond burger, compared to just 80 milligrams for the lean ground beef patty. This could be a concern if you’re watching your blood pressure, since excessive sodium consumption is associated with hypertension.
There are many reasons to cheer the arrival of plant-based burgers. But on the issue of health, the jury’s still out.
But Edwards warns that those figures don’t tell the whole story. “A standard burger you get at a restaurant has just as much salt, if not more,” she says. Consider the eye-popping 980 milligrams of sodium packed into a single Burger King Whopper.
“I tell my patients not to worry about the sodium that they’re adding to, say, their broccoli to make it taste better,” Gelsomin says. Whole fruits and vegetables often contain potassium, for instance, which works as a natural counterbalance to salt.
But when those foods are highly processed, they can lose some of their protective properties, along with phytonutrients like flavonoids, which may play a role in preventing certain diseases and boosting the immune system.
Companies like Impossible and Beyond describe their products as being derived from wholesome foods like legumes and potatoes, but it’s unclear if those foods’ beneficial aspects survive heavy processing.
“Plant-based is not plants. It’s an ingredient from a plant,” says Ricardo San Martin, research director of the Alternative Meat Program at the Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology at UC Berkeley. “In some cases, they preserve the benefits [of the plant], and in others, they don’t. We can’t get so far away from the plant that we lose the benefits of a plant-based diet.”
Impossible, for example, gets its meat-like taste and texture from soy protein concentrate and a molecule called heme, which the company makes by fermenting genetically engineered yeast. Beyond relies on pea protein isolate.
“It takes a lot of chemicals and processing to get from a plant-based ingredient to something that feels like a meaty ingredient,” San Martin says. “It’s not like the plant makes protein isolate.”
At this point, it’s worth remembering another of Pollan’s nutritional aphorisms: “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” Scanning the labels on Impossible and Beyond, Grams would raise a silver eyebrow at ingredients like methylcellulose and “mixed tocopherols.”
“People should examine the products in a critical way,” San Martin adds. “Are these products benefiting the overall healthiness of the population? Are we going to have fewer heart attacks because people suddenly started eating less meat? We need more independent studies, not studies made by the companies.”
San Martin disagrees with the notion that plant-based burgers are always a healthier option than their beefy brethren. “It appears to me that we are replacing a symbol of unhealthiness with another unhealthy food. We are not replacing quinoa,” he says. “If you have a cholesterol problem and you have to eat burgers every other day, these products may marginally help you to lower your cholesterol, but they’re not going to contribute to your healthy diet.”
While Paul Canales’ improbable meatballs remained improbably popular at Duende, you won’t find them on the menu today.
“It was about knowing what was in there and knowing the nutritional quality, and that level of processing doesn’t seem like the right direction for me,” says Canales, who stopped serving the dish more than a year ago. “A lot of things are plant-based, but that doesn’t necessarily make them healthy.”
Edwards agrees that the “plant-based” tag carries a halo of healthfulness that isn’t always earned. “Soda pop is plant-based,” she says. “Twizzlers and Oreos are plant-based.” Still, she remains bullish on the burgers overall.
“Even with the added oil and isolated proteins, they still have fiber, they’re high in protein, they have iron,” Edwards says. “They’re a great transition burger to get people to eat less meat, but they should never be a substitute for whole, plant-based foods.”
Overall, Americans still don’t seem to have the same appetite for whole, plant-based foods that they do for a juicy burger. Gelsomin would like to see that conversation begin to change.
“We do people in this country a disservice [because] we have these parameters of what’s supposed to taste good and what isn’t,” she says. “I wish companies would market products that highlight actual foods, like a black bean burger as its own thing to be enjoyed, rather than trying to have it masquerade as something else.”
There are many reasons to cheer the arrival of plant-based burgers, including their promise to mitigate some of the ethical and environmental impacts of conventional meat production. But on the issue of health, the jury’s still out.
“If the objective of the founders of these companies were to take animals out of the equation, they have fully succeeded,” San Martin says. “If the objective is to provide the world with fast food that is healthier because it’s based on plants, that’s another story.”
Disclosure: Obvious Ventures, a venture capital firm founded by Medium CEO Ev Williams, is an investor in Beyond Meat.