Consumers are unsure what to make of the new plant-based kid on the butcher’s block — burgers that meld features of meat with those of plants.
The hope is that meat lovers have their cake and eat it too — reduce their red meat intake, increase their veggie intake, all while enjoying a decadent burger. Can they?
This article takes a science-based look at the health profile of plant-based burgers. Warning! You may find that you need to re-examine some of your favorite rules of thumb for choosing healthy foods. (Ed. Note: Got questions about the environmental impact of beef? We’ve got a blog post for that too.)
Plant-Based “Meat” Is Not A Viable Replacement For Whole Vegetables.
Why not? Whole veggies are loaded with fiber, one of the most critical, yet under-consumed nutrients. We need dietary fiber to keep our systems running smoothly and to feed the little bugs in our gut that keep us healthy. Plant-based burgers score slightly better on fiber than meat (a big fat zero) but are still sadly lacking.
Whether we’re talking about heart health, cancer, diabetes, or obesity, the message is loud and clear: eat your veggies! A good rule of thumb is to fill half of your plate with (whole) fruits and veggies (see Canada Food Guide). Don’t forget to eat a diversity of fruits and veggies to get the full rainbow of micronutrients that they offer.
Faux Meat Provides The Same Nutritional Benefits As Ground Beef
Compared to typical ground beef (20% fat or more), plant-based burgers provide similar amounts of:
- calories (~250-280 calories)
- high quality protein (20 grams per patty)
- iron (~16%-25% bioavailable)
- other micronutrients (*Varies by brand. The Impossible Burger from Impossible Foods dials up the zinc and B vitamins including Vitamin B12. Beyond Meat does not (yet).)
Much ado about sodium
Plant-based burgers have been criticized for their sodium content. While this criticism is technically valid, it lacks appropriate context. A typical beef patty contains about 80 mg of sodium, whereas plant-based burgers land at around ~370 mg. In most cases, this sodium is naturally occurring (we need it to live!), not added for flavor.
Is 370 mg of sodium a lot? Not really. You could eat 4 patties and still land on the low end of healthy recommended daily intake for sodium (1,500 to 2,000 mg per day). Rather than fixating on the sodium content in their patty, consumers would benefit from choosing their toppings and bun wisely: a fully loaded fast food burger can easily contains over 1,000 mg of sodium, of which only 1/3 is from the patty!
- Learn more about sodium needs and sources Some shockingly high sources include bread products, processed meats, tomato sauces and soups.
Plant-Based Burgers Offer Potential Health Benefits Over Ground Beef
Each of these benefits is relatively small, especially for infrequent burger consumers, but together, they tip the health balance in favour of plant-based burgers.
Benefit 1: A (slightly) healthier mix of fats
An average 80/20 beef patty contains nearly 20 grams of fat, of which about half are saturated fats. This means that a single patty gets you nearly half of the max recommended saturated fat intake for adults (5-10% of calories). The most decadent of the new veggie burgers contain the same or slightly less total fat, but the mix is more favourable – less saturated fat (5 to 8 grams per patty) and more unsaturated fats. Reducing saturated fats is a win for heart health – as long as you replace them with unsaturated fats, rather than with sugars. Furthermore, most faux-meat burgers use coconut oil as their source of saturated fat, which may be less harmful than the saturated fats found in beef. Coconut oil appears to raise “good” HDL cholesterol (while also raising “bad” LDL).
- Learn more about coconut oil and get Harvard’s scoop on good and bad fats.
Benefit 2: Low to no trans fats
A single standard beef patty (80/20 cut) contains 1-2 grams of ruminant trans fats, thanks to the bacteria in the cow’s rumen. These naturally occurring trans fats are remarkably similar to industrial trans fats, such as those found in old-school margerines and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. The World Health Organization and others are taking a cautious stance on ruminant trans fats, regulating them the same as industrial trans fats. They recommend limiting total trans fats to under 2 grams per day, which means that one beef patty gets you close to the warning zone. The only potential trans fats in plant-based burgers come from canola oil, which can contains trace amounts of trans fats due when heat is used during processing
- Learn more about ruminant trans fats: Fueled by Science (video), World Health Organization 2018 draft guidelines and recent review (Nestle, 2014).
Benefit 3: Lower risk of foodborne illness
Plant-based burgers are safer to handle raw than ground beef, due to the reduced risk of contamination with pathogenic bacteria like Salmonella and Escherichia coli O157:H7 . When I visited the Impossible labs, I happily sampled a raw patty!
Raw ground beef must be handled with great care due to the risk of pathogenic bugs from cow innards that can contaminate meat during slaughter. These same gut bugs can contaminate water used to irrigate farms and end up in fresh produce, notably leafy greens. In theory, a large scale shift away from animal farming would make fresh produce safer too!
- Learn more about foodborne illnesses from the US Centers for Disease Control. Beef and fresh produce (leafy greens) top the charts for deaths and illnesses respectively.
Benefit 4: Lower cancer risk (maybe)
In 2015, the World Health Organization labeled red meat as a Class 2A “probable carcinogen” based largely on a strong link with colorectal cancer. While controlled trial data are lacking, there is a strong mechanistic basis, particularly when using certain high-heat cooking methods, which generates well known carcinogens (such as Heterocyclic Amines (HAs) and Polycyclic Hydrocarbons. This link is well established in animal models but it is unclear how much red meat you would have to consumer, and under what conditions, to translate to a real-life increase. As always, the dose makes the poison!
This excerpt was posted with permission from Dr. Chana Davis. Click here to read the rest of the post.
Dr. Chana Davis is a scientist and mother of three little monkeys. She completed her PhD in genetics at Stanford with Impossible Foods founder, Dr. Patrick Brown, and worked for a decade in personalized medicine research. In 2018, she founded Fueled by Science, as a platform to help others “make informed food choices that taste and feel good”. Check out her articles, videos, and recipes at FueledbyScience.com or follow her on Facebook or Instagram. Chana has no financial ties to any fake meat companies.
Featured image of a hamburger at the Galaxy Diner by Mark Cameron via Flickr.