Plant-Based Burgers: Are They Really Better For You?

Led by theemergence of “fake” burgers from brands like ImpossibleTM Foods and Beyond Meat, plant-based meat is quickly becoming a thing. It canbe found on more and more restaurant menus nationwide and, increasingly, athome on consumers’ dinner plates.

Unliketraditional vegetable burgers, which have been a vegetarian staple for decades,both Impossible and Beyond do a very good job at replicating the meaty aroma,taste and texture that make a real beef burger so enticing.

Plant-based meatshave become so popular, in fact, that “Big Meat” producers such as Tyson,Purdue, Smithfield and Hormel are investing millions of dollars in their own alternativemeat products.

Market researchfirm NPD Group did a study showing that an overwhelming majorityof consumers eating plant-based burgers are “bi-curious” meat eaters whobelieve these products may be be more healthful and better for the environment.But, nutritionally speaking, are meatless burgers really any better for you?

Comparing thenutrition labels

Lucette Talamas, Registered Dietitian with Community Health at Baptist Health South Florida

Lucette Talamas, aregistered dietitian with Community Health at BaptistHealth South Florida, saysa quarter-pound ImpossibleTM Burger contains about the same amount of protein as a same-sizeburger made from 90-percent lean beef (19g vs. 21g).

Any similaritiesend there, however. An ImpossibleTM Burger packs 40 percent more caloriesthan a lean beef burger (240 vs. 178), twice as much saturated fat (8g vs.  4 g) and nearly seven times as much sodium(370mg vs. 56mg). It’s easy to see why some people deride plant-based burgersas “junk food for vegans.”

Another concern,according to Ms. Talamas, is that many plant-based burgers are highly processedfoods with lengthy ingredient lists. Beyond Meat’s burger has about 18ingredients – purified pea protein, coconut and canola oils, rice protein,potato starch, and beet juice extract, to name just a few – while real beefburgers are made from, well, beef.

So, bottom line, if you’re hoping toimprove your diet by eating less meat, not all plant-based burgers are necessarilya healthier alternative.

#BaptistHealth Lentil Veggie Patty

“A homemade plant-based burger patty madefrom beans or lentils, such as a delicious #BaptistHealthyLentil Veggie Patty, would be the healthiestversion of a plant-based burger,” Ms. Talamas says.

At the same time, however, Ms. Talamasis hesitant to recommend real beef over plant-based meat.

“When it comes to red meat versusplant-based meat, precaution should be taken with both, not just in terms of howoften you eat it but also the amount you eat in one sitting,” she says. “Redmeat tends to be higher in saturated fat, and numerous studies have linked its consumptionto an elevated risk for cancer, cardiac disease, diabetes and other healthissues.”

Ms. Talamas also notes that replacing abeef burger with a plant-based burger matters little if you’re enjoying it witha pile of French fries and washing it down with a super-sized, sugar-saturatedsoda.

“For a good source of lean protein, chicken, fish orbeans are always a better choice,” she says.

But they’re better for the environment,right?

Another reason plant-based meat is goingmainstream is growing consumer awareness of the environmental costs andinefficiencies of raising animals for meat consumption. Every year, more thannine billion animals in the U.S. are raised and slaughtered on factory farms, anumber that continues to rise as the demand for meat increases worldwide.

With the disproportionate amount of landand water it takes to put a real beef burger on your plate – especiallycompared to a plant-based burger – factory farming on such a massive scale maybe unsustainable.

One analysis found that the carbonfootprint of the ImpossibleTM Burger is 89 percent smaller than a real beef burger, and itsproduction requires 87 percent less water and 96 percent less land. Climatechange is also a concern; roughly 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions comefrom livestock alone, placing factory farms among the most greenhousegas-intensive sectors in manufacturing.

For some consumers, saving theenvironment is reason enough to make the switch to plant-based burgers. But inorder for it to have any significant benefits for our planet, the industrywould need to scale up to a much higher level. Right now, the market for plant-basedmeat is just a fraction of the overall market for real meat.

So, what shouldI eat, then?

“Ultimately, a healthy diet is based ona healthy eating pattern – not just what you eat in one meal, but what you eatover the course of time ,” Ms. Talamas says. “Try to eat fewer processed foodsand more whole food sources of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and a varietyof proteins, which includes plant-based beans, lentils, nuts and seeds.” 

Ms. Talamas suggests following BaptistHealth’s “Healthy Plate” model, which emphasizes a half-plate (1 cup) of vegetables,a quarter-plate (1/2 to 1 cup) of whole grains, and a quarter plate (3-5ounces) of lean protein. “Pair that with a serving of fruit and a glass ofwater and you’ll be on your way to a healthier lifestyle.”

Lucette Talamas is a registereddietitian with Community Health at Baptist Health South Florida. She holds abachelor’s degree in food science and human nutrition from University ofFlorida. With additional experience as a clinical dietitian, Ms. Talamas enjoysproviding practical nutrition information to promote healthy lifestyles thatcan help prevent and manage chronic diseases. Her expert tips and advice havebeen featured in print and broadcast media, including Miami Herald, CBS Miami,Telemundo and Univision. Active in professional nutrition organizations, Ms.Talamas was recently honored with the 2018 Recognized Young Dietitian of theYear Award from the Florida Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

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