Gone are the days when food choices were simple: only three kinds of cereal, one type of milk and four varieties of bread. Today we have an abundance of choices differentiated by levels of calories, fat and other nutritional measures. The latest fad to hit the market are plant-based hamburgers, not to be confused with veggie burgers, turkey burgers, soy burgers and salmon burgers.
Unlike other alternatives to beef burgers, plant-based burgers are marketed as containing the same look, texture and taste as the real deal while providing enhanced health benefits. Taste preferences aside, which will always be a personal choice, we can objectively compare the health benefits without ever biting into an Impossible Whopper or Beyond Famous Star.
First before we get to the nutritional comparison, I’d like to take a step back and ask, what are your health goals? What do you enjoy eating? What is the frequency of eating specific foods? What is your budget? What are other contributors to your dietary/food intake pattern?
As a registered dietitian/nutritionist, I recommend experimenting. Try new foods! See how they taste. How easy do they fit into your reality and health goals?
Once you’ve established what you like to eat, consider nutritional values. The newest burger on the block, the Impossible Burger (produced by Impossible Foods), is made from a plant-based protein featuring a shade of pink you’d find in a medium-rare beef burger. The high protein comes from processed sources. (However, “processed” is not a bad word, despite the chatter. Peanut butter, coffee, yogurt, frozen vegetables and fruits are processed and are still a staple in most diets. We need processing to make foods safe, edible and affordable.)
Produced to be meat-like, the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger (another plant-based burger marketed by Beyond Meat) contain similar protein content to ground beef. However, protein quality matters as well and the protein in Beyond and Impossible Burgers comes from processed plant-based ingredients, not of the same quality as beef protein. This is not necessarily a problem if you maintain a healthy diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, calcium-rich foods and other healthful eating habits, but it can be if you don’t have a well-balanced diet.
Beyond Burgers have approximately 20 grams of protein and Impossible Burgers 19 grams of protein per 113 grams serving size. Ground beef (80% lean) has 17 grams of protein per 100 grams serving size, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Soy and potatoes are protein sources for Impossible Burgers. Peas are also used in plant-based burgers, along with beans and other ingredients. If people have specific allergies or intolerances, this would need to be considered. Beef or turkey burgers have only one ingredient, beef or turkey.
Two popular plant-based products: Garden Veggie Burgers and Boca Veggie Burgers, also contain soy. Morningstar Farms burger has 11 grams of protein per 67 grams serving size and a Boca burger has 13 grams of protein per 71 grams serving size. Another popular veggie burger, Gardenburger, contains brown rice, mushrooms and oats as its main ingredients. Of note, these products offer good sources of fiber, and Americans often fall short in the recommended total dietary fiber intake. Gardenburger has 5 grams of protein per patty.
Many people are looking for high protein content, which for some may be important (those recovering from wounds/surgery or other medical issues) but for most of us, we consume often twice or three times more than we need to each day. If a burger patty has around 10-15 grams, that’s a great source of protein. We get good protein from other foods such as fish, dairy products, eggs, poultry, beans, lentils and nut butters.
One ingredient that may have negative health consequences is coconut oil, found in both Beyond and Impossible products. This is a saturated fat that we benefit from having less of in our diet. Research-based recommendations say coconut oil fats are less healthful compared to others like olive or canola oil. The American Heart Association issued an advisory against consuming coconut oil, saying it is 82% saturated fat, which can raise LDL or “bad” cholesterol, like the way butter and beef fat do. Among traditional veggie burgers, Morningstar Farms has 0.5 grams, Gardenburger 1.5 grams and Boca 1 gram of saturated fat.
One standout concern in plant-based burgers are sodium levels. The high sodium levels of Beyond and Impossible products are close to 400 milligrams of sodium per serving. For those who are sodium sensitive or on sodium-restricted diets, this may add up quickly. A high sodium intake over time may increase risk for high blood pressure, stroke and cardiovascular disease. Choosing ground beef or turkey or making your own veggie burger using lower sodium seasonings will give you more control over sodium intake.
On the positive side, increasing vegetables in our diet via plant-based burgers can correct many imbalances by adding water, fiber, antioxidants and other nutrients, and decreasing total calorie density. We could accomplish the same purpose by increasing our intake of frozen and canned vegetables without adding as much sodium and saturated fat.
The conclusion is that plant-based burgers have some health advantages and disadvantages when compared to beef from a nutritional standpoint. Neither is clearly healthier than the other. If you must decide between the two, you should consider how each fits the needs of your overall diet, goals and lifestyle choices.
Janice Baker is a registered dietician and nutritionist for Palomar Health and Arch Health.