Impossible and Beyond: How healthy are these meatless burgers?

Plant-based burgers are not a novel concept. But new products designed to taste like meat are now being marketed to vegetarians and meat-eaters alike. Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat’s Beyond Burger are two such options. Eating these burgers is touted as a strategy to save the earth, casting meat as a prehistoric concept. Both brands also offer up their products as nutritious alternatives to animal protein.

But how do they stack up? It turns out the answer may depend on whether your priorities lie with your personal health or the health of the planet.

The good news: Meatless burgers are a good source of protein, vitamins, and minerals

The protein content of these newer plant-based burgers has been created to compete with beef and poultry gram for gram. Both the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger have comparable amounts, the former deriving protein mainly from soy and the later from peas and mung beans.

Impossible Burger also adds vitamins and minerals found in animal proteins — like vitamin B12 and zinc — in amounts equal to (and in some cases, greater than) both red meat and poultry. This is a plus for vegetarians, because these nutrients are typically harder to come by when relying solely on foods from the plant kingdom. Vitamin B12, for instance, is found primarily in animal sources, and strict vegetarians and vegans must get their intake from fortified sources. What’s more, plant compounds such as phytic acid bind to minerals, which can increase requirements of zinc by 50% and may necessitate consuming about two times as much iron. For those who eat at least some animal protein, the vitamin and mineral fortification is less of a selling point.

This doesn’t mean a plant-focused diet is lacking in nutrients. Beans, for instance, are a good source of both zinc and iron. They are also an important protein resource. Black bean burgers are never going to be mistaken for hamburgers, but they are typically a solid choice when it comes to health.

The bad news: Meatless burgers are heavily processed and high in saturated fat

The same can’t necessarily be said of the aforementioned beef substitutes, which have been created to mimic what many people love about a burger — the red juicy center and meaty taste. Along with the ambition to replicate hamburgers comes a comparable amount of saturated fat. Since diets higher in saturated fat are associated with increased rates of both heart disease and premature death, they may not be the type to opt for if your ambitions are purely health-related. They are also a significant source of sodium, particularly for those on salt-restricted diets.

The following chart shows how the newer, meatless burgers stack up nutritionally against beef burgers, turkey burgers, and black bean burgers.

Calories Fat (g) Sat fat (g) Chol (mg) Sodium (mg) Carb (g) Fiber (g) Protein (g)
Impossible Burger (4 oz) 240 14 8 0 370 9 3 19
Beyond Burger (4 oz) 250 18 6 0 390 3 2 20
85% lean ground beef (4 oz) 240 17 6 80 80 0 0 21
Ground turkey (4 oz) 170 9 2 80 70 0 0 22
Black bean burger (Sunshine brand) (2.7 oz) 260 16 1.5 0 190 19 8 10

Even though legumes are sourced for protein in the branded meatless options, their health benefits are somewhat blunted by the high degree of processing involved. For instance, moderate amounts of whole soy foods, like edamame (soybeans), have been linked to reduced rates of cancer. This protection is often attributed to isoflavones, a subgroup of plant compounds called flavonoids thought to provide health benefits. Unfortunately, in the case of the Impossible Burger, one serving contains less than 8% of the isoflavones found in one serving of whole soy foods (one serving is roughly a quarter of a block of tofu or 1 cup of soymilk).

Poultry-based burger alternatives, such as turkey burgers, also do not contain significant amounts of protective plant compounds. On the other hand, they offer less saturated fat.

If a lower risk of diseases like cancer and heart disease is your ultimate goal, aim for the kind of veggie burgers that showcase their beans, grains, and seeds front and center. Choose legume-based varieties studded with seeds and whole grains, like brown rice and quinoa.

The bottom line: Meatless burgers are good for the planet, but not always good for our health

If you love the taste of a burger, but find the sustainability of raising cattle hard to stomach, beefless alternatives that mimic the real thing are worth a try. Producing the newer, plant-based burgers requires considerably less water and generates substantially less greenhouse gas emissions compared with traditional beef burgers. This is certainly an important consideration for the well-being of our planet, but they may not be the best option for the health of our bodies.

Comments:

  1. Sophia

    To the comment by azure, grazing cattle is leading to the extinction of the few wild animals left in the USA, and every single thing you said about growing plants using up water and pesticides, means that great, you support everyone going vegan immediately, because it takes far more plants and water, to cycle through animals to produce food for humans than if we just ate the plants directly.

    I find it depressing that the author of this article did not even mention that eating animals is barbaric and inhumane, and that this is perhaps also a great reason not to do so, especially when study after study has shown that people who eat plants and not animals have less cancer, heart disease, obesity and live longer and healthier lives, so there is no justification whatsoever to eat animals or their secretions in 2019.

    The current meme on social media which I am sure uses this article to support its ‘argument’ about how some veggie burgers are processed, so we should all just carry on eating animals and their secretions while the amazon burns and we run out of water and the ice caps are melting and our waterways are choking with animal manure so that whatever fish humans haven’t already killed directly will die from this and other human-caused pollution, and so on, is patently absurd, with its implicit suggestion that all vegans eat are beyond burgers. Some of us eat the odd veggie burger here and there, some of us never eat veggie burgers, and some of us eat them all the time. Furthermore, some vegans don’t even eat the impossible burger since one of its ingredients was tested on animals.

    300 billion animals are killed PER DAY around the world (this includes fish) for food, and all of this suffering, pollution, death and violence is completely unnecessary. Be part of the solution, be peaceful, be loving, be vegan. Thanks for reading.

  2. MadMck

    This article is extremely misleading. The Beyond Burger and 70% lean ground beef have exactly the same saturated fat content. And although the Impossible Burger has more saturated fat than ground beef, it overall has less fat in total. There is also no mention that plant-based options are cholesterol-free, which is another major benefit.

  3. Ann Emery

    I have been told that fetal calf blood is used in the manufacture of these “plant based” burgers. Is this correct?

  4. Pam

    A plant based burger show works well on the digestive system

  5. jojo

    “Since diets higher in saturated fat are associated with increased rates of both heart disease and premature death”

    NOTHING wrong with Saturated Fat. It’s a complete myth. You should be discredited.

  6. Jennie

    You neglected to mention plant based burgers have FIBER in them, which helps keep our hearts healthy! Sure the graphic shows this, but readers might not know the connection…as a dietitian I thought you would elaborate on that? And since beef and turkey has ZERO fiber and still have saturated fat, I would think plant based is HEALTHIER all around!

  7. azure

    “The bottom line: Meatless burgers are good for the planet, but not always good for our health” Depends on where the saturated fat these very processed burger comes from doesn’t it? What if it’s palm oil? Which has been demonstrated to increase LDL levels? And is known to be produced in environmentally destructive ways, i.e, by clear cutting/burning tropical rain forest to create fields for creating palm plantations, i.e, mono crops, that exhaust the soil. Not so “good for the earth” then is it?
    While I think CAFOs are environmentally destructive & very hard on cattle (just as some chicken farms that crowd chickens into too small areas and require that they receive continual low levels of antibiotics to increase their growth rate & not become ill from overcrowding (easy for illness to spread), I think there are parts of the world, including the US, where grazing animals (including buffalo) are the best use of the land. It was poor land use practices plus drought (poor practices made the effects of the drought worse, just as farming practices made the late 1800’s drought in MN, Dakotas far worse then it would otherwise have been) that dried up prairies that had been plowed and planted. Had those lands been left for grazing (not overgrazing) by buffalo or cattle, it’s likely the effects of drought would’ve been lessened.
    Hard to believe the irrigation (and pesticides) used to grow cotton and other water hungry crops in CA and elsewhere (AZ) is a better and more efficient use of water then raising cattle or buffalo on the prairies. Or any other area in the world where the resident peoples (whether nomads or a people who moved to/from grazing grounds with their animals (that would include those who raise reindeer) and whose societies lasted for generations (without environmental degredation). Or irrigation dependent crops grown in eastern OR irrigated by water from dammed rivers in the Pacific Northwest. Those same dams provide electrical power (“clean” energy) yet are responsible for the sharp decline in salmon populations, lamphrey eels (eaten and used in other ways by PNW native Americans and other edible species that once lived in the dammed rivers. The analysis in this article ignores the complexity of water use issues for agriculture, forestry, and maintaining commercial fish & other river/estuarine species (or that may spend part of their life in the ocean). Not to omit mention of how other societal practices, burning coal, other forms of pollution and USDA supported pesticide use (such as arsenic) has resulted in fish that aren’t safe to eat except occasionally and not at all by pregnant women (mercury in tuna, other fish at the top of the ocean/estuarine food chain/that live a relatively long time), even more so if they’re “farmed”, and rice whose consumption should be limited because of arsenic levels. Because arsenic was once used as a rice pesticide and it sticks around for a long long time (in the soil). More in brown rice in then white. Unless it’s been grown outside of the US or in a part of the US where arsenic based pesticides weren’t used as much. Then there’s the huge range & variety of pesticides (which includes herbicides) used to grow so many plant crops in the US at this time–I believe 32 are approved for use on one kind of legume. Surely a cost, like water consumption, that needs to be considered in an analysis of the costs of growing plant foods.

  8. JP

    No one eats a burger – veggie or otherwise – as a “heathy” choice. It’s unclear why veggie burgers are constantly held to this high standard. Looking at these numbers plant-based burgers certainly seem to be roughly equally healthy as meat burgers, with the possible exception of the higher sodium content.

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