Meatless burgers that bleed and have the taste and mouthfeel of cooked ground beef are here to stay! Whether from restaurants or the grocery store, these next generation meat analog products are seemingly everywhere. Curious or health-conscious carnivores are happy to gobble down mock meat foods in an attempt to reduce their risk of cancer or heart disease while many vegetarians embrace the convenience of these prepared plant products. Now there are even blended patties combining beef with plant proteins to please every omnivore and flexitarian.
What’s in My Food?
Beef is from nature and beans are from nature… But highly processed foodstuffs made from either of them aren’t as healthy and definitely aren’t considered natural. Fresh, lean red meat offers high-quality protein, is rich in niacin, selenium, zinc, and vitamins B6 and B12, and is a good source of potassium. Unfortunately, the way typical Americans prepare ground beef – exposed to high heat until charred – creates compounds harmful to health1. With the newer meat analogs, there’s a concern over preservatives, sodium, additives like smoke flavor, artificial colors, and other factory-derived proprietary ingredients2.
Sure, we can pick them apart individually* and talk about isolated ingredients, but it may be wise to focus on the bigger picture of one’s overall diet first3. Health agencies and experts most often recommend a varied diet rich in antioxidants and vegetables, moderate in fat, with adequate micronutrients, protein and fiber1. So, it makes a difference if these newer veggie burgers replace meat or take the place of raw plant foods, and how often they do so.
There’s a growing body of research supporting the risks of red meat consumption1 and the health benefits of replacing animal proteins with plant proteins4. Compared to pure ground beef patties, plant-based burgers are naturally devoid of cholesterol and vitamin B12, may be lower in saturated fat, are higher in fiber, but are also higher in sodium3. Compared with traditional DIY veggie patty recipes that call for minimal ingredients (beans, grains, vegetables, and mushrooms), they’re lower in fiber and are higher in sodium.
Notable Ingredients of Next Gen Meatless Burgers
One of the major differences between the current next generation plant patties and other processed legume-based burgers (such as Morningstar Farm® Grillers) is in their appearance and texture to replicate the experience of eating meat. You can thank a few choice ingredients for the aroma, flavor and look of meat-like patties.
A side-by-side nutritional comparison showed that Impossible Burger, Beyond Burger™, and 85% lean real beef have similar protein content (19-21 grams per 4 ounces)5. Soy and pea protein are the primary protein contributors in the new analogs, making them higher in protein than veggie burgers which never contained beans (such as Gardenburger® Original).
Still, they differ from legumes in traditional bean-based burgers (e.g. BOCA burger, Dr. Praeger’s® Heirloom Bean) in that they are refined — and that’s not such a bad thing. Digestion of isolated proteins is slightly greater than whole plant food protein4 while the digestibility score of soy protein is about 97%, one of the highest for plant proteins. Isolating the protein from beans leaves out the natural factors that inhibit protein digestion4, so for the newer meatless patties there could be greater protein digestibility than from traditional whole bean burgers.
A compound synthetically derived from methyl chloride treatment of cellulose, a plant cell structural component, it is used as a thickening and/or gelling agent in processed foods and as a natural laxative. As a high-viscosity fiber, some studies show methylcellulose may help blunt blood sugar response to a meal6 and relieve constipation.
A convincing meaty appearance often comes from the addition of beets which impart a vibrant color, mimicking the juiciness of beef. Omnivores and cross-over carnivores see the ‘bleed’ as a positive burger characteristic, just as most people expect grill marks on a patty. Beets offer not only color, but a sweet, earthy flavor and nutrients such as folate, manganese, potassium plus the antioxidant betaine.
Plant burgers with legume heme as a color additive may also sizzle and smell like real meat4. Legume hemoglobin (called legume heme for short) is a plant-derived oxygen carrier similar to blood hemoglobin and has a distinct red color which releases upon heating5.
It contains both mono and polyunsaturated fats, vitamin E, and cholesterol lowering phytosterols5. Sounds good but some studies have shown that it releases hazardous aldehydes when it’s used in high-heat cooking, such as frying5.
What’s the Verdict?
Overall, the newer meatless burgers provide a needed cross over for people wanting to incorporate more healthy plant-based foods by replacing the all-American favorite beef hamburger. For omnivores, these mock meats allow a seamless transition in the burger category. However, those already eating a (mainly) plant only diet may be better served by sticking to whole food ingredients for their health unless they have issues obtaining sufficient protein.
* Numerous meatless burger products abound – too many to mention. Inclusion of or exclusion of any particular brand name does not imply recommendation against or endorsement for that brand’s product(s). Products mentioned are for consumer reference and comparison only.
- Marsha McCulloch. Risks and Benefits of Red Meat. Today’s Dietitian, January 2016; 18(1): 20–25.
- The Center for Consumer Freedom “5 Chemicals Lurking in Plant-Based Meats.” https://www.consumerfreedom.com/2019/05/5-chemicals-lurking-in-plant-based-meats/ May 17, 2019. Accessed 11/18/2019
- 3. Ginger Hultin. Meat Substitutes. Today’s Dietitian, June 2019; 21(6): 18-22.
- Sharon Palmer. Plant Proteins. Today’s Dietitian, February 2017; 19(2): 26-31.
- Anthea Levi. “Cracking Down on Fake Meat: Are the Impossible and Beyond Burgers Healthier Than Real Beef?” https://www.livestrong.com/article/13721456-impossible-beyond-burger-nutrition/ September 18, 2019. Accessed 11/18/2019
- KC Maki, et al. Hydroxypropylmethylcellulose and Methylcellulose Consumption Reduce Postprandial Insulinemia in Overweight and Obese Men and Women. The Journal of Nutrition, February 2008; 138(2): 292–296. https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/138.2.292