These meat alternatives are trendier than ever, but they can impact your health and the environment — for good and possibly for bad.

By Christabel Lobo
Burger King Impossible Whopper
Credit: Drew Angerer / Getty Images

It seems as if the days of veggie burgers made from black beans, mushrooms, and vegetables are long gone, only to be replaced by a new generation of plant-based burgers. Also known as faux meat burgers, these 2.0 veggie burgers have taken the food industry by storm. And if the meat cases at grocery stores are any indication, the new plant-based burgers are going nowhere.

Striving to look, taste, and resemble real meat much more than their original counterparts ever did, faux meat burgers are showing up in grocery stores, restaurants, and fast-food outlets not just throughout the country, but around the world. Which begs the question, what are fake meat burgers made from? And more importantly, are faux meat burgers healthy?

The Rise of the Faux Meat Burger

One of the largest purveyors of plant-based meats in North America, Beyond Meat first debuted their faux meat offerings in 2012. First available in retail stores, they eventually expanded their coverage to the food service industry by working with multiple fast-food outlets and restaurants, such as Carl's Jr. and McDonald's, to sell their Beyond Burgers. In 2019, they also partnered with KFC to develop two Beyond Fried Chicken products: "chicken" nuggets and boneless wings.

Its main rival, the Impossible Burger, followed a similar trajectory three years later. This meat-free burger, which "bleeds" and sizzles just like a beef burger would, was first revealed to the American public in 2016 at chef David Chang's Momofuku Nishi in New York City. It was a surprising endorsement by Chang, whose restaurants have been notoriously known for their meat-heavy menus.

Then in 2018, White Castle became the first fast-food restaurant to add the Impossible Burger to their menus. Many restaurants soon followed suit — Burger King introduced its incredibly popular Impossible Whopper — and not just in the United States. The Impossible Burger is also available to try at restaurants in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Macau. The innovation continues, with the company revealing two new products in January 2020: Impossible Pork and the Impossible Sausage.

The buzz these faux meats have created has resulted in major meat companies scrambling for a piece of the pie. With the plant-based alternatives market forecast to grow to $100 billion in 2030, meat companies like Tyson, Nestlé, and even JBS (the world's largest meat producer) have all introduced their own plant-based offerings to the market.

So, Just How Is a Faux Meat Burger Made?

Most homemade veggie burger recipes make use of chickpeas, black beans, and mushrooms, ingredients that can be easily found in grocery stores. Faux meat burgers, on the other hand, "are made from isolated plant proteins, seed oils, and fibers, like cellulose," explains chef Celine Beitchman, Director of Nutrition at the Institute of Culinary Education.

Take a look at the ingredients in a single Beyond Meat burger and you'll soon realize that these faux meat burgers are not ones that can be casually whipped up with ingredients from your pantry:

Water, Pea Protein, Expeller-Pressed Canola Oil, Refined Coconut Oil, Rice Protein, Natural Flavors, Cocoa Butter, Mung Bean Protein, Methylcellulose, Potato Starch, Apple Extract, Pomegranate Extract, Salt, Potassium Chloride, Vinegar, Lemon Juice Concentrate, Sunflower Lecithin, Beet Juice Extract (for color)

And, for an Impossible Burger, the list is even longer:

Water, Soy Protein Concentrate, Coconut Oil, Sunflower Oil, Natural Flavors, 2% or less of: Potato Protein, Methylcellulose, Yeast Extract, Cultured Dextrose, Food Starch Modified, Soy Leghemoglobin, Salt, Soy Protein Isolate, Mixed Tocopherols (Vitamin E), Zinc Gluconate, Thiamine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B1), Sodium Ascorbate (Vitamin C), Niacin, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B6), Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Vitamin B12

"While the ingredients are plant-based and may be naturally derived, those parts of plants don't contain vitamins, minerals, soluble fibers, and starches that make vegetables nutritional powerhouses," Beitchman explains. Just like so many other processed foods on the market, some faux meats like the Impossible Burger do also come fortified with vitamins and minerals, enhancing their overall nutritional value.

Even though the faux meat burgers contain protein from legume sources like soy and peas, their highly processed nature means the health benefits are affected. According to Harvard Health Publishing, whole soy foods like edamame contain isoflavones, which have been linked to a decrease in the incidence of cancer when consumed in moderation. When it comes to the Impossible Burger, however, one patty contains less than 8 percent of the isoflavones found in whole soy foods.

"If you are trying to cut back on meat, this can be a great swap to make," says Dr. Nicole Avena, a research neuroscientist, author, and assistant professor at Mount Sinai Medical School. "However, I think we need to be mindful of the touted health benefits of these burgers and understand that they are processed products."

Just because something is marketed as a plant-based product, she notes, doesn't mean that it is magic or healthy. For example, the Beyond Meat burger has 250 calories, 6 grams of saturated fat, 390 milligrams of sodium, 2 grams of dietary fiber and 20 grams of protein. An Impossible Burger offers 240 calories, 8 grams of saturated fat, 370 milligrams of sodium, 3 grams of dietary fiber and 19 grams of protein.

By comparison, a 4-ounce beef burger has 287 calories, 8.6 grams of saturated fat, 74.6 milligrams of sodium and 19.4 grams of protein. It also contains 1.3 grams of trans fat and 80.2 milligrams of cholesterol, both of which are absent in the plant-based versions. While not all cholesterol is bad and animal fat does contain naturally occurring trans fats, Beitchman explains that these are not recommended for long-term health.

Diets high in saturated and trans fats can lead to the development of fatty deposits in blood vessels, which over time, can put a strain on your heart and lead to a heart attack or stroke. "When I look at the plant option, the fat content is not significantly lower, but the types, mono and polyunsaturated, may be better for us," Beitchman says.

The Science of Heme

In 2016, Congress officially passed the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Law, which established a mandatory standard for products to disclose whether they are or may be bioengineered. According to the law, bioengineered foods are defined as those that contain genetic material modified by lab techniques and cannot be created through the methods of conventional breeding or found naturally occurring in nature.

The Impossible Burger contains two bioengineered ingredients: soy protein and soy leghemoglobin. The latter, which gives plant-based meat its distinctive meat-like taste and blood-like drippings, has come under scrutiny by critics from anti-GMO groups.

An iron-containing molecule, heme, is required for biochemical processes that involve oxygen. Our bodies obtain this type of iron, in the form of myoglobin and hemoglobin, by eating animals. "Heme's high concentrations in meat is why meat smells, looks, and cooks different from any other item," says Impossible Foods' CCO, Rachel Konrad.

Heme is not just present in animals and humans. Researchers have discovered that it can also be found in the root nodules of leguminous plants, where they're referred to as leghemoglobins. "We produce heme from plants — in our case soy — so no animals are required. We use genetic engineering and fermentation to produce heme in large quantities. Then we add that to our burgers," Konrad explains.

Even though soy leghemoglobin naturally occurs in plants, it has never been used in food prior to faux meat burgers. And, certainly not in its genetically engineered form found in an Impossible Burger. Even though the FDA ruled in July 2019 that soy leghemoglobin was safe for use as a color additive in faux meat burgers, it is important to note that faux meat burgers are a relatively new addition to our diets and their health effects will only be gauged with time.

The Environmental Impact of Faux Meat Burgers

Results of a recent Gallup poll revealed that nearly one in four Americans have reduced their meat intake in the past year. The two significant reasons for cutting back on meat? Health concerns, followed by the environmental impact that meat production has on the planet.

"Animal products often use much more resources, including land, water, fertilizers, and pesticides. They also cause more pollution — water pollution, manure, and greenhouse gases — than plant-based foods," says Isaac Emery, Ph.D., a sustainability consultant based in Seattle, Washington.

He explains that according to recent studies, one pound of U.S. beef requires about 600 gallons of water and 800 square feet of farmland. It also generates 56 pounds of manure and causes about 44 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions. Compare this with the impact plant-based burgers have on the environment, and it's not hard to see why a portion of conventional meat-eaters would want to switch to plant-based options.

In 2018, research conducted by scientists at the University of Michigan — the study was funded by Beyond Meat — found that the burger used 90 percent fewer greenhouse gases, 99 percent less water, 93 percent less land, and 46 percent less energy when compared with a beef burger. The Impossible Burger boasted similar statistics: 89 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions, 87 percent less water and 96 percent less land.

While it's clear that faux meat burgers like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger are better for the environment, getting consumers to make the switch is something that won't happen overnight. "We eat a lot of burgers in the U.S.," says Emery.

"The North American Meat Institute reported that American companies processed over 27 billion tons of beef in 2017." If Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods and other plant-based meat companies want to make an environmental difference, they have their work cut out for them.

Bottom Line

The choice between real meat and faux meat is personal: Do faux meat burgers align with your health and environmental impact goals? Then, the answer is clear for you. Are you looking to enjoy your favorite foods while possibly improving your health? Beyond Meat burgers and Impossible Burgers have less cholesterol and trans fat than traditional beef versions but similar calories and saturated fat grams. When it comes to the planet's health, faux meat burgers also have less of an environmental impact than beef. But if you're looking to significantly clean up your diet of processed foods, then faux meat burgers probably aren't a good choice since they do contain a long list of ingredients, many of which are manufactured in labs.

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