What’s Driving the Trend of Plant-Based Burgers? Personal or Planet Health?

by | Jul 11, 2019 | Blog

burgers on a grillWith the recent celebration of July 4th, summer is in full swing and so is grilling season. What’s on your grill this summer may be different than previous years as the options for plant-based burgers now abound. We are past choosing between just a hot dog or burger (or the traditional veggie burger). We now have options to purchase a “burger” that looks, tastes and even “bleeds” like a traditional beef burger though it has never seen a meat counter. Are these options good for our personal health or the planet? Why the continuous investment by startups and traditional animal protein companies to find the next best “close to nature” burger and other meat alternatives?

What’s in the Burger?

Recently, several newspaper articles have appeared about the nutritional content of the current on-the-market burgers from Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. These articles question if the products are healthier than red meat, so I thought it was time to do my own investigation. Looking at the profiles of these two along with Nestle’s Sweet Earth Awesome Burger, which is to be released this fall, here is what I found: swapping a beef burger for a plant-based burger may not be lower in calories and fat than you think and you may even add more sodium/salt to your diet. However, the addition of fiber in the plant-based varieties is a plus. Here’s a quick comparison:

  • Nutrition label for the Impossible Burger

    Nutrition label for the Impossible Burger

    Impossible Burger: 240 calories; 19 gm protein (Soy protein isolate); 14 gm fat (8 gm saturated fat from coconut oil); 3 gm fiber; and 370 mg sodium. Based on the company’s website, two key genetically engineered ingredients are used in the production of the product: soy protein and heme (soy leghemoglobin) — the “magic” molecule that makes the burger “bleed” like actual meat.

  • Beyond Burger: 250 calories; 20 g protein (pea protein isolate, mung bean and rice proteins); 18 gm fat (6 gm saturated fat from coconut oil and cocoa butter); 2 gm fiber; and 390 mg sodium.
  • Awesome Burger: 290 calories; 28 gm protein (pea protein isolate); 17 gm fat (8 gm saturated fat from coconut oil); 6 gm fiber; and 400 mg sodium.
  • 100% Beef Burger (93% lean): 210 calories; 29 gm protein; 9 gm fat (4 gm from saturated fat and 1/3 of fat content from stearic acid); 95 mg cholesterol. Naturally no fiber or sodium content unless added. Calorie and fat content increases to 290 and 18 gm, respectively, if an 80/20 burger is consumed. Research studies have shown stearic acid has no effect on cholesterol.

So perhaps choosing a plant-based burger is more about health beyond our own.

Beyond Personal Health

According to The Hartman Group’s Food & Technology 2019: From Plant-based to Lab-grown Study, “as more consumers than ever question the health, ethical and environmental implications of animal products, innovative plant-based meat and dairy alternatives are taking the packaged food world by storm.”

But let’s face it, including some type of meat in our diets is still the norm for most of us in our society. Based on the 2019 Food Marketing Institute’s (FMI) Power of Meat Study, “86 percent of shoppers classify themselves as meat eaters, five percent follow a vegetarian or vegan diet and 10 percent describe their eating as flexitarian (mostly vegetarian with some animal protein). Like vegetarianism, flexitarianism skews toward younger shoppers. Gen Z and Millennials are driving the trend, but the concern for animal welfare and sustainability extends beyond the younger generation.

Earlier this year in a WIRED Magazine article — “Faux Sure! It’s Time to Embrace Fake Meat”– Cleve Thompson writes about the Impossible Burger saying, “This is good news, because the time has come to scale up fake meat, fast…and meat replacements is one of the lowest-hanging fruits” related to climate change issues. So, the issue becomes do we buy meat or meat alternative products for our own personal health or for perceived animal welfare and environmental health?

The Dilemma

Here lies the dilemma when what we want and need may be at odds with our own value system. Here’s some “food for thought”:

  • Do we view eating less meat more environmentally sustainable than producing a synthetic product? Granted, methane gas is not produced by plant-based products but does the development, procurement of plant proteins, production and transportation contribute to the overall greenhouse gas emissions more than beef production?
  • Do we abandon our quest for “clean labels” and “no product with more than five ingredients” to purchase plant-based burgers that may have up to 20 ingredients (and yes, there are some “your grandmother didn’t use”), leaving the one ingredient beef burger behind?
  • Do we realize that our definitions for “natural” and “local” may be challenged when a plant-based burger fits neither profile?
  • And finally, do we accept the value of food science and technology that has created a plant-based burger that will actually “bleed” like a real burger? Or have marbling that resembles beef? Or provide a “complete” protein and nutrient profile similar to meat due to the scientific “know-how” of blending ingredients together?
a Beyond Meat burger

A Beyond Meat burger

The choice of what to buy lies within each of us and our respective value system. Regardless of whether plant-based protein products are labeled “meat” or not and how often you include them in your diet (if at all) remains a personal choice. For many, animal protein will always be a staple in their diets. For others it will be limited or none at all. The most important thing is to know what you are buying and get the perceived value you want. After all, didn’t we just celebrate Independence Day for our freedom of choice?