May 31, 2019 -- Imagine you’re about to bite into a decadent-looking burger. You inhale the aroma of grilled meat, note the enticing char, anticipate that first juicy mouthful. Take a bite and savor the umami richness. The heat and the smoky flavor are there. It’s perfectly dense and sublime.
Now imagine learning you’ve just eaten a veggie burger.
That’s the idea behind “meat analogue” products like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat. They claim to make vegan burgers that would satisfy even a sworn carnivore. They also aim to save the planet by reducing the environmental impact of cattle farming. And, they’re becoming big business.
Beyond Meat, which sells plant-based burgers, sausages, and ground “meat” in supermarkets, raised more than $240 million in its early May initial public offering of stock. Impossible Foods, whose burgers are available only in restaurants for now, has teamed up with fast-food chain Burger King. A field test in St. Louis saw foot traffic more than 18% above the chain’s national average. The Impossible Whopper should be available nationwide by the end of the year. And Little Caesars has begun testing a pizza topped with Impossible’s new sausage product in three cities.
Beyond Meat, too, has gotten into the restaurant game. It signed with Tim Hortons, a Canadian chain, to offer three different breakfast sandwiches, CNN reported. The company also sells a Beyond Famous Star burger in Carl’s Jr. restaurants. A&W sells a sausage breakfast sandwich made from Beyond Meats products, and Del Taco restaurants feature a Beyond Meat taco.
But is mock-meat any better for you than burgers or other items made with beef, or sausage from pork? And could eating them really help stop climate change?
Plant-Based Meat Isn’t Just a Veggie Burger
If you’re already a strict vegetarian or vegan, these burgers might not be for you. They replicate meat so closely in taste and texture -- they even “bleed,” thanks to innovative ingredients such as beets in Beyond Meat -- that folks who shun animal products may find them too close to the real thing. But, for red meat lovers looking to cut their consumption, plant-based meat can be life-changing.
“The first time I tried one, I said, ‘I could go vegetarian, now that this exists!’ ” says Andrew Seegers of Solana Beach, CA. “The rumors are all true: It chars, bleeds, and tastes like fresh ground beef.”
His vegetarian wife, on the other hand, prefers traditional veggie burgers.
Sarika Chawla of Ardsley, NY, chooses them for a different reason. “When I’m having lunch in a casual place, I really love the experience of biting into something in a bun with a side of fries,” she says. “But I’m health-conscious and rarely have red meat at lunch. I was thrilled when these burgers started to appear on menus, because it feels like the best of all worlds.”
How Faux-Meat Burgers Compare Nutritionally
When it comes to your health, mock-meat burgers do have an advantage over beef. They won’t save you much in the way of calories, fat, or even saturated fat, but because they’re plant-based (Beyond Meat’s products use pea protein, while Impossible Foods’ use soy and potato protein), they provide healthy fiber and eliminate the heart-clogging cholesterol found in animal products. But some of the restaurant versions with Impossible products actually have more sodium than the meat versions.
“If you’re using these burgers to replace red meat because you’re trying to cut down, it could be a positive strategy,” says Debbie Petitpain, a registered dietitian and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “But not so much if you’re eating it instead of more minimally processed foods. At the end of the day, processed food is processed food, and this is processed.”
So if you order a plant-based burger instead of a beef one, terrific. If you’re ordering it (topped with special sauce and cheese, plus fries alongside) instead of a salad filled with fresh vegetables and legumes, you may want to rethink that.
Petitpain sees burgers like this as a steppingstone for people who eat fast food often. Once they realize that a veggie burger can be as satisfying as a real one, “It opens up the possibility for a lot of other plant-based options,” she says.
Could Plant-Based Burgers Save the Planet?
“Reducing red meat consumption is one of the most powerful things the average person can do to minimize their environmental impact,” says Rosemary Ostfeld, PhD, a visiting assistant professor at the College of the Environment at Wesleyan University. “People don’t necessarily have to become vegetarian or vegan.”
Here’s why: Livestock are responsible for 14.5% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, and beef production alone accounts for nearly half of that. Cattle’s environmental impact is 20 to 100 times as high as plant-based foods’. Both Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat tout the ways a plant-based diet can help the environment.
“Society has been aware of the detrimental impacts of animal agriculture for decades,” says Rachel Konrad, chief communications officer at Impossible Foods. “But guilting people into changing their eating habits simply doesn’t work for the majority of the population.”
Says Ostfeld: “These burgers absolutely have the potential to make a big impact environmentally. Getting them into Burger King and places that sell cheeseburgers means meat eaters are eating them.”