Is a Healthy Plant-Based Burger 'Impossible?'
Here's what nutrition experts say about these imitation meats in your diet
If you’ve been told by your doctor to decrease your intake of red meat and shift to a more plant-based diet, you’re not alone.
At any age, but especially as we get older, eating more fruits and vegetables lowers the risk of chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, Type 2 diabetes and obesity, says Dr. William Li, a physician, researcher and author of Eat to Beat Disease: The New Science of How Your Body Can Heal Itself.
Catering to the popularity of this diet shift, one of the biggest food trends of 2019 has been the rise of plant-based “meats.” These contain no animal products and are instead produced with plant-based ingredients such as soy, providing similar protein content to real meat.
Two leading makers of these products, Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, have taken the food world by storm, winning over meat lovers with burgers and other products that have a taste and texture surprisingly similar to real beef.
You can now buy Impossible and Beyond meat-substitute products in many grocery stores and restaurants across the U.S. For example, Burger King now has an Impossible Whopper and Subway has a Beyond Meat meatball sandwich.
“If you really love the taste of a burger, the new trend of plant-based ‘meats’ may help you satisfy your cravings while sticking with a plant-based plan,” says Li.
But while these products do have some nutritional merits, there is debate over how healthy they truly are, and if they could potentially cause more harm than good. Before you swap in plant-based patties for your beef burgers, here’s what to know:
‘Plant-Based’ Is Somewhat Misleading
While you may think you’d be eating virtuously by choosing one of these alternatives to meat, biting into an Impossible or Beyond burger is a far cry from eating a plate full of greens.
"They're doing serious food science and drastically changing the (whole food ingredients)."
The marketing teams behind these plant-based meats make the food sound enticing. But in reality, these products are highly engineered plant protein sources made from soy or pea protein isolate, says Maura Rodgers, a registered dietitian with her own practice in San Francisco. “They’re not made out of vegetables; they’re made from processed soy,” she adds.
Also, marketing for these products often implies they are healthy choices, but that depends on how you define healthy. Some brands use non-organic ingredients that may have been exposed to chemicals or that may be genetically modified (for example, more than 90% of soy in the U.S. is genetically modified, according to the Department of Agriculture).
Not the Veggie Patties of the Past
If you look at the ingredient list for a Dr. Praeger’s veggie burger or other popular brands like Boca and Morningstar, which have been around for decades, you’ll see fresh plants: carrots, onions, string beans, zucchini and broccoli.
Plant-based “meats” such as the products made by Impossible Foods, however, are different. “They’re doing serious food science and drastically changing the [whole food ingredients],” Rodgers says.
For example, while the process may have started with soy, in the final product, it’s been converted into a soy protein concentrate made by removing the soluble carbohydrates from soy flakes.
“In my opinion, this style of eating soy is so young, and we don’t have a lot of studies to assure us that these textured vegetable proteins and soy protein isolates are not creating adverse long- or short-term detriments,” Rodgers says.
It’s worth noting these new plant-based meats don’t come cheap, either, says Li. At about $9 per pound, they’re about 50% more expensive than traditional veggie burgers.
They’re High in Protein, But…
It’s important for older adults to consume enough protein to help prevent muscle loss and maintain metabolism, says Samantha Presicci, lead registered dietitian at Snap Kitchen, a service that delivers ready-made meals in several U.S. cities.
At first glance, Impossible and Beyond products seem like smart choices for this reason, boasting 19 and 20 grams of protein per serving, respectively. The issue, however, is that plant-based proteins, such as the ones found in some plant-based meats, are not complete proteins, except for soy (a complete protein means it contains all essential amino acids).
Real meat offers highly bioavailable protein, which means that the protein and micronutrients in meat are more easily absorbed by our bodies compared to plant foods, says Presicci.
Instead of plant-based meats, “I would recommend consuming more highly bioavailable protein, especially for adults over 55, in the form of responsibly raised meats and seafood,” she adds.
If you are vegetarian or vegan, you can include complete proteins in your diet by eating a variety of plant foods, like legumes, lentils, nuts and whole grains, on a daily basis, said Rachel Stockle, a licensed dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic, in an article on the clinic’s website.
Plant-Based Meats Are High in Saturated Fat
It's also worth noting that the Impossible Burger contains 8 grams of saturated fat per 4-ounce serving due to the addition of coconut oil and sunflower oil, which help make beef patties “sizzle” when grilled. Beyond Meat has 6 grams of saturated fat per serving, containing refined coconut oil and expeller-pressed canola oil.
In general, we know that too much saturated fat — found primarily in animal sources — is harmful to our health, associated with heart attacks and inflammation in the body, says Rodgers.
There’s still a debate in the medical community over whether coconut oil, the non-animal source outlier, provides more value than detriment. Rodgers says aging adults especially should proceed with caution when consuming products with coconut oil.
“As you get older, you are at a higher risk for chronic disease,” she explains, so while it may be time to reevaluate how much meat you’re consuming and transition to a more plant-based diet, simply swapping your beef burger for a plant-based one isn’t necessarily the answer.
More Pros and Cons on Plant-Based Meats
Most plant-based meats provide roughly the same amount of calories as regular meat, and a lot more sodium.
“For older adults trying to limit their sodium intake — to reduce risk of high blood pressure and heart disease — plant-based meats may not be a better option,” says Megan Wong, a registered dietitian who works with AlgaeCal, a calcium supplement company in Vancouver, British Columbia.
The Impossible Burger, for example, contains 370 milligrams of sodium per 4-ounce patty. However, there’s a silver lining; it also contains 610 milligrams of potassium (that’s about 200 milligrams more than a banana), which helps your body get rid of excess sodium, Wong says.
Plant-based meats can also provide more iron than the average beef patty, Wong says. “This can be helpful for older adults who don’t consume enough iron and are at risk of, or have been diagnosed with, iron-deficiency anemia,” she says.
A deficiency in the B vitamins B12 and folate can lead to anemia, which becomes more common as we age — and the Impossible Burger is high in both. Additionally, the Beyond Meat burger is a good source of calcium, providing 80 milligrams per serving (about as much as one serving of almonds), which can help older adults reach the recommended amount of calcium — 1,000 to 1,200 milligrams — per day after age 50.
Better for the Environment
Looking beyond the health element, plant-based meats are becoming more popular for their reduced impact on the environment.
For example, a 2018 study commissioned by Beyond Meat with the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan found that a plant-based burger generates 90% less greenhouse gas emissions, requires 46% less energy to produce and has 93% less impact on land use than a traditional U.S. beef burger.
They Do Taste A Lot Like Beef
Plant-based meats are not only for the vegetarians and vegans of the world. In an unofficial taste test of side-by-side sliders — one beef and one plant-based — this writer can say it is hard to distinguish the difference.
Even reviewers at Food & Wine magazine described the Impossible Burger as “almost identical to beef.”
That’s exactly what the companies producing these products are going for, replicating the same meaty texture and juiciness of ground beef without the actual meat. The Impossible Burger has even been genetically engineered with hemoglobin, a plant version of the protein that makes blood red, to look like it “bleeds” when you cook it,” Li says.
The Bottom Line on Plant-Based Meats
While plant-based meats can help older adults reach their daily recommendations for protein, iron, B vitamins and calcium, they’re still highly processed. In principle, Li says he thinks they’re superior to red meat, but that it’s still too early to know for sure about the health effects of plant-based burgers.
If you want to try incorporating plant-based meats like the Impossible or Beyond burgers into your diet, first make sure your diet is mostly made up of whole foods rather than ultra-processed foods, Li says.
“Then, consider if plant-based burgers fit your budget, if you’re allergic to soy or other plant proteins and if you enjoy the taste," he says. "If all systems are a go, then by all means, dive in and enjoy one — but only in moderation.”