Plant-based diets are being recommended by registered dietitian nutritionists and other health professionals. To cash in on the trend, manufacturers are developing an increasing number of products that look and taste exactly like meat. Even fast-food chains like Burger King offer meatless options on their beef-driven menus.
But are these plant-based options really any better for you? Turns out there are both perks and pitfalls when it comes to meat-free burgers.
What’s in a Plant-Based Burger?
It looks and tastes like a beef burger, but it’s made from plants. So what exactly is it? The primary ingredient in these plant-based burgers is water. After that, there's a mix of plant proteins and fats. The Impossible Burger contains soy protein, potato protein and coconut oil and the Beyond Burger is made of pea protein, coconut oil and canola oil.
The irony: When it comes to calories, fat and protein, these burgers are strikingly similar to traditional beef burgers. Even the saturated fat content is largely the same. And although the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger sport an additional 2 to 3 grams of fiber compared to beef, they also contain five times the amount of sodium. Soy protein burger options such as Boca and Morningstar pack in more than 10 times the sodium of a traditional burger. That's a lot of salt!
Deciding Whether to Switch to Plant-Based Meat
One great advantage to plant-based meat is that it’s better for the environment. Steering clear of animal products has a positive impact on greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity, land use, water pollution and pesticide use. The Beyond Burger, for example, generates about 90% fewer greenhouse gases and requires 46% less energy to create compared to a traditional beef burger.
Switching to plant-based meats for nutrition reasons? You may not be doing yourself any favors, particularly if you have a salt-sensitive health condition like high blood pressure. Since these burgers contain a mix of more than 20 ingredients, they're also more likely to contain allergens.
When it comes to which burger is best, there's no clear-cut answer. It depends on what's important to you. Looking for a cheap protein meal? A soy burger like Boca or Morningstar Burgers may be your best bet. Want something that provides solid protein and a mix of nutrients, including tough-to-get vitamin B12? Beef, turkey or venison burgers are top contenders. Committed to doing your part to safeguard our environment? The soy burgers, as well as the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger, tick off that box.
To really customize a plant-based burger to your needs, build your own with ingredients such as black beans, quinoa and mushrooms. It’s easy to find a recipe that can satisfy any burger craving. Plus, you'll avoid the sodium and mysterious ingredients in plant-based meats. Here are a few of my favorites:
- Black Bean and Quinoa Burger
- Portabella mushroom burger (use a portabella mushroom cap as the burger)
- Use our Mushroom Meatloaf recipe to make a burger instead of putting it in a loaf pan (Although this is a "less meat" burger not a "meatless" burger -- we reduce the amount of beef used by replacing half of it with chopped mushrooms.)
Bethany Thayer, MS, RDN, is the director of the Henry Ford Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention. Learn more about Bethany.