High- Tech Veg­gie Burg­ers: What’s the Beef?

Re­al­is­tic, plant- based meats are a multi­bil­lion- dol­lar busi­ness — but are they good for you?

Better Nutrition - - CONTENTS - BY LISA TURNER

Re­al­is­tic, plant- based meats like Be­yond Burger and the Im­pos­si­ble Burger are all the rage, but are they re­ally good for you? Here’s the scoop.

Of all the great food de­bates of the 21st cen­tury, noth­ing arouses more in­tense ex­change than the topic of meat— and for good rea­son. In ad­di­tion to eth­i­cal is­sues re­gard­ing how the an­i­mals are treated, the live­stock in­dus­try has a vast en­vi­ron­men­tal foot­print, con­tribut­ing to land and wa­ter degra­da­tion, de­for­esta­tion, loss of bio­di­ver­sity, and acid rain. Con­ven­tional live­stock farm­ing is re­spon­si­ble for al­most 15 per­cent of hu­man- gen­er­ated green­house gas emis­sions— more than cars, trucks, ships, and planes com­bined ( yep, it’s true).

Rais­ing an­i­mals for food also re­quires stag­ger­ing quan­ti­ties of land, feed, and wa­ter: 26 per­cent of the earth’s ice- free land is used for live­stock graz­ing and 33 per­cent of crop­lands are used to pro­duce live­stock feed. And of the less than 1 per­cent of fresh­wa­ter avail­able for hu­man use, 70 per­cent goes to­ward live­stock pro­duc­tion— a pound of beef re­quires al­most 1,800 gal­lons of wa­ter to pro­duce, com­pared to about 200 gal­lons for the equiv­a­lent amount of soy.

Stud­ies have linked in­creased con­sump­tion of meat, es­pe­cially red meat, with an in­creased risk of heart dis­ease, can­cer, neu­rode­gen­er­a­tive dis­ease, and all- cause mor­tal­ity. ( Note: Most of these stud­ies have been done on con­ven­tional meats— i. e., not grass­fed, or­ganic, and/ or sus­tain­ably farmed va­ri­eties.)

Let’s face it: Many Amer­i­cans aren’t likely to give up their beloved burg­ers— and the stan­dard bland- and- crumbly veg­gie burger won’t cut the mus­tard for com­mit­ted car­ni­vores. The so­lu­tion? A new era of meat sub­sti­tutes de­signed not only for ve­g­ans and veg­e­tar­i­ans, but also for ded­i­cated car­ni­vores. The main con­tenders— Im­pos­si­ble Burg­ers ( Im­pos­si­ble Foods), Be­yond Burg­ers ( Be­yond Meat), and Un­cut Burg­ers ( Be­fore the Butcher)— are a far cry from tra­di­tional meat sub­sti­tutes. Us­ing high- tech pro­cesses that coax plant- based in­gre­di­ents into mim­ick­ing the at­tributes of meat, these fleshy, tex­tured al­ter­na­tives brown, siz­zle, and even “bleed.” All three side­step the en­vi­ron­men­tal and eth­i­cal con­cerns of rais­ing an­i­mals for food and, by more closely mim­ick­ing the real thing, are more uni­ver­sally ap­peal­ing than their tra­di­tional veg­gie burger cousins. But are they ac­tu­ally good for you? Here’s a point- by- point ex­plo­ration of the three new- gen­er­a­tion burg­ers men­tioned above.

PROTEIN AND CALO­RIES. When it comes to protein and calo­ries, faux meats are sim­i­lar to beef. A quar­ter- pound beef patty has 20– 24 grams of protein; these three plant- based burg­ers have 18– 20 grams, with fewer calo­ries. They also have more iron: 20– 25 per­cent of the daily value ( DV), com­pared with 17 per­cent in a beef burger. And all of them have more fiber— Un­cut has a re­spectable 5 grams per serv­ing, beef has none.

TO­TAL AND SAT­U­RATED FAT. Fat gives meat its fla­vor, mar­bled tex­ture, and juicy mouth­feel, so meat- free al­ter­na­tives have plenty of added fat to repli­cate that ex­pe­ri­ence. A 4- oz. beef patty has 18– 20 grams to­tal fat and 8 grams sat­u­rated fat. By com­par­i­son, plant- based burg­ers have 14– 19 grams to­tal fat and 6– 8 grams of sat­u­rated fat. But here’s the dif­fer­ence: the sat­u­rated fat in faux burg­ers comes mostly from co­conut, and some stud­ies sug­gest that co­conut doesn’t in­crease harm­ful LDL choles­terol lev­els and may also in­crease ben­e­fi­cial HDL choles­terol lev­els. And all three plant burg­ers are choles­terol- free.

SODIUM. Both the Im­pos­si­ble Burger and the Be­yond Burger have con­sid­er­ably more sodium than an un­cooked 4- oz. beef patty ( see p. 38). This seems shock­ing, un­til you con­sider that when you cook a beef burger, you’re most likely sea­son­ing it with salt, which raises the sodium con­tent. By com­par­i­son, a McDon­ald’s Quar­ter Pounder weighs in at 730 mg of sodium. So un­less you’re at risk for high blood pres­sure, the sodium con­tent may not be an is­sue. If it is, Un­cut Burger is a bet­ter choice, with a mod­est 150 mg sodium per serv­ing.

SOY. It’s the main in­gre­di­ent of the Im­pos­si­ble and Un­cut burg­ers— not nec­es­sar­ily a prob­lem, ex­cept that Im­pos­si­ble Burger un­apolo­get­i­cally uses GM soy. The com­pany says that it sup­ports the re­spon­si­ble, con­struc­tive use of ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing to solve en­vi­ron­men­tal, health, safety, and food se­cu­rity prob­lems, and main­tains that it wouldn’t be able to make a “prod­uct that ri­vals or sur­passes beef for fla­vor, tex­ture, nutri­tion, sus­tain­abil­ity, ver­sa­til­ity, and ac­ces­si­bil­ity with­out it.” Un­cut Burg­ers, on the other hand, use only soy that’s free of GMOs. “We chose soy be­cause it has a neu­tral fla­vor and adds a more re­al­is­tic bite and tex­ture,” says

Danny O’Mal­ley, founder of Be­fore the Butcher. “And we didn’t want to use wheat gluten, be­cause it’s im­por­tant to us that our prod­ucts are gluten- free.” If you’re sen­si­tive to soy, Be­yond Burger is a bet­ter choice: it’s soy- free, non- GMO, and uses pea, rice, and mung bean protein.

HEME. The Im­pos­si­ble Burger’s taste is achieved pri­mar­ily through the ad­di­tion of heme, a ge­net­i­cally en­gi­neered in­gre­di­ent made by in­sert­ing DNA of soy leghe­moglobin ( a protein found in the roots of soy­bean plants) into yeast, then fer­ment­ing the yeast. The com­pany says this prac­tice avoids har­vest­ing soy plants for heme, “which would pro­mote ero­sion and re­lease car­bon stored in the soil.” Heme is what gives the Im­pos­si­ble Burger its meat- like fl avor, aroma, and red­dish- pink color. If the whole idea of ge­net­i­cally mod­ifi ed soy leghe­moglobin creeps you out, Un­cut Burger and Be­yond Burger use beet juice to achieve the same bloody look.

METHYLCELL­ULOSE. All three burg­ers con­tain more than a dozen in­gre­di­ents, in­clud­ing methylcell­ulose, a chem­i­cal com­pound de­rived from cel­lu­lose, the main con­stituent of plant cell walls. In foods, it’s used as a binder and helps mimic the tex­ture of meat in faux burg­ers. It’s a unique in­gre­di­ent that helps cre­ate the fi rm bite and var­ied tex­ture that mim­ics beef, says O’Mal­ley— and it’s the rea­son these burg­ers don’t fall apart the minute you bite into them. While cel­lu­lose can be de­rived from corn cobs, soy­bean hulls, su­gar cane stalks, and other plant in­gre­di­ents, in re­al­ity, it usu­ally comes from highly pu­rifi ed wood pulp ( Un­cut Burg­ers uses non- GMO cel­lu­lose) that’s treated to cre­ate a bind­ing eff ect in the ab­sence of gluten. Be­fore you freak out, you should know cel­lu­lose and methylcell­ulose are found in many foods that you may al­ready eat, in­clud­ing Boca Burg­ers and 365 Meat­less Burg­ers, as well as a va­ri­ety of pack­aged breads, pas­tries, and pack­aged grated cheeses. It’s also the pri­mary in­gre­di­ent in many over­the- counter lax­a­tives. So while it’s defi nitely not what a purist would con­sider a clean la­bel read, it does not ap­pear to be harm­ful.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to you— your per­sonal goals, needs, and ethics. Are these new- gen­er­a­tion plant- based burg­ers su­per- clean su­per­foods that will make you im­per­vi­ous to dis­ease? Prob­a­bly not. But are they a more eth­i­cal and sus­tain­able choice than con­ven­tional meat? Un­doubt­edly— and maybe that’s enough.

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