By Jessica Scarpati —
From spongy soy patties to bland bean burgers, mock meat products have all too often failed to deliver a tasty substitute for the real thing. Now, however, even diehard carnivores are conceding that the new generation of plant-based products from brands such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat so closely mimic the taste and texture of beef that it’s hard to distinguish them from genuine meat. What’s more, these re-envisioned veggie burgers are no longer limited to neighborhood bistros. They are going mainstream with national brands — including Burger King, Denny’s, Dunkin’, Target and Wegmans — serving up these beef-free options.
The timing of this veggie burger onslaught is uncanny. U.S. consumption of beef, pork and poultry reached an all-time high in 2018. Yet our insatiable meat feast also comes with mounting evidence that burger binges undermine our health, damage the climate and generate animal welfare issues.
So, are mock meats the socially conscious and nutritionally sound answer the masses seek? Probably not, though not only the judges have voted.
One problem is that research is wanting. There are, in fact, few if any long-term studies into the comparative health benefits of vegan meat alternatives. One thing is for certain though—kale salads they’re not.
A four-ounce Beyond Burger patty contains 250 calories, 18 grams of fat and 20 grams of protein. Impossible Burgers stack up similarly, with the same serving size holding 240 calories, 14 grams of fat and 19 grams of protein. What about four ounces of traditional ground beef? Not much different. They yield 230 calories, 15 grams of fat and 21 grams of protein. Admittedly, plant-based burgers have no cholesterol, although they’re considerably higher in sodium than beef burgers.
Dr. Frank Hu summarized the difference more succinctly when he told the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s The Nutrition Source blog: no matter what’s in the bun, it’s still a burger.
“We also have to think about the broader context in which they’re consumed,” Hu added. “For example, when placed between a bun made of refined grains, covered in sauces and other toppings, and accompanied by French fries and soda, we can’t assume that substituting one of these alternative patties for a burger patty will improve overall dietary quality.”
The plant-based products’ long lists of unusual ingredients have also raised eyebrows. Beyond Meat bases its mock meats off of a mix of plant proteins (most notably pea protein) and fats (including cocoa butter and coconut oil). Impossible Foods’ key ingredient is fermented, genetically engineered yeast mixed with soy leghemoglobin— a plant protein that resembles the hemoglobin found in red blood cells and is said to impart a “meaty” flavor. Both companies assert their ingredients are safe, although Consumer Reports suggests that there are still unanswered food-safety questions.
Impossible Foods founder Pat Brown responded to criticism that a beef burger contains only one ingredient compared to the 21 in his product by telling the New Yorker: “If I gave you a poisonous mushroom, well, that’s one ingredient.”
Nutritional questions aside, both brands have stated their core mission is not to make “health food.” Instead, they are focused on creating a delicious, environmentally sustainable meat substitute. And from that standpoint, the evidence seems more compelling that they’ve succeeded.
Large-scale meat production is notoriously destructive in terms of land, water and air quality. Vegan meat alternatives reportedly offer dramatic improvements. A University of Michigan study commissioned by Beyond Meats and Impossible Foods’ own 2019 Impact Report found that, compared to beef, their burgers are pretty benign. They generate far fewer greenhouse gas emissions (90 percent and 89 percent, respectively) and require significantly less water (99.5 percent and 87 percent) and land (93 percent and 96 percent) to produce.
It boils (or broils, as it were) down to this: If you eat an Impossible or Beyond Burger every day, slimmer waistlines and lower blood pressure may not be in your future. But as an occasional indulgence, they are tasty and possibly more environmentally friendly than that Whopper you secretly adore.