Summer is here! Fire up the grills! With the start of summer holiday picnics and backyard grilling, our search for the best “burger” extends beyond the meat counter. The days of only having a choice between a hot dog, beef burger or a traditional veggie burger are long gone. With the plethora of available plant-based meat alternatives, we now have the option to purchase a “burger” that looks, tastes and even “bleeds” like a traditional beef burger though it has never seen a cow. Are these “new” choices better for our personal or planet health? Is the health “halo” valid for plant-based meats? Often as consumers, we focus on the “new” without thinking about the true benefit of our food-nutrition. Looking beyond the “halo” usually leads us to making better choices.
Beyond the “Halo”
The availability of plant-based meat “burgers” from retail to restaurants has continued to climb over the past few years as more consumers are questioning whether we should eat for personal or planet health? To explore the issue, Jennifer Garrett, PhD and I looked at the seven most common burgers in our 2020 article “The Nutrition Limitations of Mimicking Meat.” 1 When comparing the seven products, we saw similarities and differences. Each have their own unique ingredient composition but to appeal to our taste buds, their protein and total and saturated fat content are similar to a traditional beef burger. The distinct difference between the two options? Due to their ingredients, plant-based burgers have a higher sodium and fiber content (a minus and a plus).
The term “plant-based” can conjure the perception of “healthy” without the proof, overlooking the nutritional benefits, especially protein, of traditional choices (like lean ground beef). Protein is a “hot” topic so let’s explore a little deeper.
It’s a basic fact — all proteins are not created equal. Products may have the same quantity of protein, but the quality is not the same. Why is this important? Protein is core to the vital functions in our bodies. Even though some health experts may say protein quality is not an issue, citing protein overconsumption, others would disagree. Let’s review the facts:
- Protein quality is determined by its amino acid composition and digestibility. Meat, poultry, eggs, dairy and fish contain all nine essential amino acids. Soy is the only plant-based protein that contains all nine essential amino acids. However, they are present in lower quantities and digestibility is lower than animal and fish sources.
- Proteins with the highest level of the nine essential amino acids (EAA) and bioavailability will be the most useful to the body.
- Essential amino acids (EAA) are not made by the body, so they must be supplied through what we eat.
- In addition to the quality and quantity of EAA in protein, it’s also about the digestibility of amino acids. In 2011, a new research tool, the Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Score (DIAAS), was recommended by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization to evaluate more precisely the body’s use of the proteins we consume.1
- Using this new DIAAS scoring system, animal-based are ranked as an “excellent” source (DIAAS>100) while soy and pea isolates are a “good” source (90 and 82, respectively) of available EAA the body needs.1 So, from a protein quality perspective, the advantage would go to the beef burger.
As with any food, a single nutrient does not determine its overall nutritional benefit and meat and plant-based alternatives are no exception. Animal and fish sources naturally provide a nutrient dense bundle of vitamins and minerals, especially niacin, thiamine, Vitamins B6 and B12, zinc, chloride, and selenium. Since many of these vitamins and minerals aren’t naturally occurring in plants at the same level as their animal source counterparts, food manufacturers do add the additional nutrients to the plant-based burger to match the composition found in animal-based burgers.
Planet or Personal Health Conundrum
So what burger is best on the grill this summer? The answer may depend on what attributes are most valued by an individual. Based on the nutritional profile comparison in our article review, the 93% lean beef burger choice has the nutrient advantage in all categories. However, with concerns of animal welfare, sustainability and food safety as top priorities for some, the “health halo” for plant-based meats may extend beyond personal health. The choice of what to buy lies within each of us and our respective value system.
For many (like me), animal protein will always be a staple in our diets. For others it will be limited or not consumed at all. The most important thing is to know what you are buying and get the perceived value you want … and need. Make your best “burger” choice for you.
1. Smith Edge, M, Garrett, J, “The Nutrition Limitations of Mimicking Meat,” Cereal Foods World, Vol. 65, Number 4, July-August, 2020.