As concern for our planet and collective health grows, we’ve been told we should cut down on meat consumption to lighten our load on the earth. After all, animals require huge amounts of resources to raise and maintain, and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO) can contaminate groundwater and release damaging pollutants into the environment.
Veganism is becoming more popular: Between 2004 and 2019, there was a 30-fold increase in vegans in the United States — from 290,000 in 2004 to almost 10 million in 2019. (source). And food companies are paying attention to this trend: Vegan and plant-based food sales are projected to increase to $162 billion by 2030.
You’ll see many fake meat burgers and plant-based proteins available at the store these days. But are these fake meat products healthy? Are they better for you than good old fashioned meat? Let’s dive in to the health and environmental concerns of fake meat and fake meat burgers.
Fake Meat Burgers
Back when I was a vegetarian in my teens and early 20s, you had tofu, Boca burgers, and Morningstar Farms for your meat subs. Now we have Impossible Burgers, Beyond Burgers, and countless other brands. These companies are meeting consumer demand as interest in eating vegan and plant-based grows. Side note: veganism and plant-based diets are not the same thing. Vegan diets eliminate all animal products, while plant-based diets may not eliminate all animal products (like eggs and dairy, for example), but the focus is on, well, eating mostly plants.
I’m going to focus here on the fake meat newbies, Impossible Burgers and Beyond Burgers. They come neatly packaged like ground beef for prep ease.
Beyond Meat provides 20 grams of protein, impressive, and is soy and gluten free. Great. Here are the ingredients:
water, pea protein, expeller-pressed canola oil, refined coconut oil, rice protein, natural flavors, cocoa butter, mung bean protein, methylcellulose, potato starch, apple extract, pomegranate extract, salt, potassium chloride, vinegar, lemon juice concentrate, sunflower lecithin, beet juice extract. (to give the burger its “blood” look). This is actually a complete protein due to the rice and mung bean protein amino acid profile. That can be hard to achieve with vegan/plant-based foods. The Beyond Burger goal: to create “marbling designed to melt and tenderize like traditional ground beef.”
Here are the Impossible Burger ingredients, slightly different, as it contains soy:
soy protein concentrate, coconut oil, sunflower oil, potato protein, methylcellulose, yeast extract, salt, gums, and water and additives, including vitamin B12, zinc, vitamin B6, thiamin (B1) and niacin. Impossible Burgers contain soy-based heme made from yeast fermentation to give it its “meaty” taste. The ingredient that gives the Impossible Burger the meaty taste is heme. Heme is an iron-containing compound that is present in meat.The Impossible Burger heme is soy-based and comes from yeast fermentation.
You can get the Impossible Burger in a brick, like real beef, or in patties. It has 19 grams of protein.
Now, I’ve tried both of these, and they just OK in my opinion. I also tried the Beyond sausages which were a bit better. I didn’t enjoy the mouth feel, and the smell when it was cooking was a real turn off. The Beyond was a bit better than Impossible, but I personally would not eat either regularly (and not just because of the junk ingredients which we’ll dissect below).
Are Fake Meat Burgers Healthy?
There’s an assumption that if one swaps a plant based burger for a red meat burger, somehow the former option is healthier. This is largely due to the narrative that red meat was declared a carcinogen, and we’ve been told to adopt a more vegetarian diet for health. (source) There’s also the assumption that plant-based burgers are made from vegetables/plants, but they don’t actually contain any vegetables like other plant-based burgers.
Read my post on red meat + why the research around its carcinogenic label is somewhat shoddy.
“Concern for our well-being is one of the biggest drivers in fake meat sales; many of us think we’re healthier without any real proof of the fact. The term plant-based conveys a health halo, even though, depending on the burger, it could be full of ingredients like fillers and additives.” (source: article from Bon Appetit magazine)
Per four ounce uncooked Beyond Burger patty, you’ll get:
- Calories: 270
- Fat: 20 g (6 g saturated fat)
- Sodium: 380 mg
- Carbohydrates: 5 g
- Fiber: 3 g
- Sugars: 0 g
- Protein: 20 g
Compare that to four ounces of raw beef (80 percent lean):
- Calories: 287
- Fat: 23 g (9 g saturated fat)
- Sodium: 75 mg
- Carbohydrates: 0 g
- Fiber: 0 g
- Sugars: 0 g
- Protein: 19 g
Similar nutrient profile, though Beyond contains quite a bit of sodium (as most processed foods do, up to 5 times more than beef) and some fiber, which meat does not provide. Beyond also has 5g carbs, and meat is always free of carbs.
So even though the nutrition profile is similar on paper, how does that translate into actual nutrition?
First off, let me state the obvious. There is 1 ingredient in beef: Beef. Beef is a very nutrient dense food that supplies you with protein, iron, amino acids, zinc, B vitamins, and because of its bioavailability (meaning how easily you absorb nutrients from food), you are able to utilize said nutrients. Beyond & Impossible burgers are highly processed and contain unsavory ingredients like soy protein concentrate and vegetable oils.
Secondly, there is some question about nutrient profile and bioavailability of fake meat. “Among these products, we saw a wide variation in nutritional content and how sustainable they can be from a health perspective,” says this statement. “In general, the estimated absorption of iron and zinc from the products was extremely low. This is because these meat substitutes contained high levels of phytates, anti-nutrients that inhibit the absorption of minerals in the body.” You can read the entire statement which examines the concerns about nutrients in fake meat products here.
The days of the REAL veggie burger that was some combo of black beans, chick peas, and actual vegetables are waning. Sunshine Burgers and Hilary’s, which contain greens like kale and spinach, root veggies, and various beans and seeds, are good options (though not very protein rich), but manufacturers are trying to create products that emulate real beef, and these fake meat burgers contain many processed ingredients to get that effect. That never made sense to me: If you go vegan or vegetarian, why do you want something that is trying to imitate meat?
Will Veganism Save the Planet?
While we can all benefit from eating more plant foods, the real questions we should be asking are does everyone need to be vegan? Will veganism make that much of an impact on the planet? Is a vegan diet even healthy long term?
According to Beyond Meat, creating a Beyond Burger uses 99% less water, 93% less land, and 46% less energy than producing a beef patty. There’s no denying that animal agriculture, the way we’re doing it presently at least, is a drain on our environment.
But removing cattle from the equation doesn’t mean we automatically free up more land for food. More than 60% of land cannot support agriculture but CAN be used by animals for grazing. And in many parts of the world, raising and grazing livestock is one of the only ways people can survive. A truly sustainable food system is not plants only. (source @sustainabledish and @globalfoodjustice)
Humans have accelerated climate change, and we could stand to cut down on meat consumption until we move to a more sustainable model. And we definitely need a massive overhaul on raising animals for food. But consider that a fully vegan planet will introduce even more pesticide and herbicide use, more monocropping, and not all available land can be used for growing crops (only about 40%).
Another factor people fail to consider is the millions of animals killed every year to prepare land for growing crops like corn, soybean, wheat, and barley, the staples of a vegan diet. Any disruption of the land reduces the amount of land left for other animals, resulting in the deaths of many. (source)
In terms of a vegan diet and human health, there is an undeniable risk associated with a vegan diet in terms of the deficiency of certain macronutrients and micronutrients. Nearly every vegan with whom I have worked has suffered some type of health issue directly related to his/her diet. A vegan diet always requires supplementation with B vitamins, iron, zinc, and sometimes omega 3 fatty acids.
Vegans are usually depleted if they’re not supplementing. I’ve seen hair loss, infertility issues, fatigue, digestive issues, and depression among my vegan clients. They’ll feel amazing initially, then after several months (or even years), they crash. Vegan diets have to be well curated to cover nutrient bases, like getting all your amino acids, and many plant foods just aren’t as bioavailable as meat. Add to that: Some people have a physiologically higher need for protein than others and don’t do well on an entirely plant-based diet.
It’s true that people who go 100% plant-based eat more plants, and therefore, their health Improves. But we fail to account for the people who *do* eat plant-based diets (the majority of their diets are plants, legumes), but they still eat meat. It’s just not the focal point of their meals, maybe only 25% or less of their regular diets.
Meat eaters are often seen as less healthy, but that may be because of the quality of their overall diets. Vegetarians may live longer BECAUSE they eat more plant foods, not because they DON’T eat meat. And vegetarians may be more conscious of living a healthier lifestyle overall, whereas meat eaters may take in more processed foods and saturated fats.
As you can see, it’s a nuanced topic, and we know that one single diet will not be right for every human. We have very diverse dietary needs based on our genetics and current health status.
Most nutritionists agree that eating fake meat burgers occasionally is fine, but they’re no healthier than a regular beef burger, which supplies far more easily absorbable nutrients. Add to that: We should be eating the least processed food diet we can, and beef is just beef (it’s processed so it’s ground), whereas fake meat burgers are highly processed and aren’t as bioavailable.
Animal products provide so many essential nutrients that humans need to thrive. Ideally we DO consume a plant-based diet (about 50% of your intake) filled with all kinds of fruits and veggies. Eating more plants reduces disease risk. How much animal protein you need depends on you. Your dietary needs change throughout your life. We don’t need large amounts of animal products at every meal, and a plant-based meal daily or several times a week is a great idea for most people.
But a fake meat diet is not ideal for human health or for the environment. Simply eating a fake meat burger does not mean you’re making a healthier choice. Enjoy your Beyond & Impossible burgers occasionally if you like them, but strive to make the majority of your diet as unprocessed as possible. If you’re entirely plant-based, choose predominantly legume and vegetable-based burgers rather than the highly processed counterparts.
Mary Vance is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and author specializing in digestive health. She combines a science-based approach with natural therapies to rebalance the body. In addition to her 1:1 coaching, she offers courses to help you heal your gut and improve your health. Mary lives in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Read more about her coaching practice here and her background here.