This is one food trend that RDs are generally pretty into. “By reducing meat intake, not only do we have an opportunity to improve our health, but also make a positive contribution to efforts to reduce or slow climate change,” Nora Minno, RDN, a plant-based dietitian and certified personal trainer in New York City. The motivation for choosing plants over meat is three-fold: (1) reduced risk of certain conditions and diseases, like Type 2 diabetes and cancer, (2) animal welfare and (3) the environment.
The alt-meat conversation has long been dominated by the Impossible Burger vs Beyond Burger debate, but now more companies are stepping into the fray with their own meat-like burger offerings. Morningstar Farms will launch an Impossible-esque "bleeding" burger in early 2020, and Trader Joe's is reportedly launching its own plant-based patties this year. So many options, so little time.
In order to help you navigate this increasingly crowded space, we talked to dietitians to help us break down the nutritional benefits of each plant-based burger currently on the market right now.
1. Best overall: Beyond Burger
Known as the first plant-based burger to actually look and taste like beef, the Beyond Burger (made by Beyond Meat) is high in protein while shunning the use of GMOs, soy, and gluten. The burger even looks like meat when you bite into it, an effect made possible by beet juice extract.
“I love that this burger has 20 grams of high-quality plant-based protein from sources like pea protein, rice protein, and mung bean protein and is free from any artificial colors or flavors,” Minno says. “Instead of genetically modifying ingredients, they identified the components of regular meat—e.g. amino acids, lipids, trace minerals, vitamins, and water—and sourced those from non-meat sources, mainly plants, and assembled them to mimic the structure and taste of meat.”
Minno says that while some shoppers might balk at the burger’s higher saturated fat content (6 grams), the Beyond Burger uses fat from coconut oil and cocoa butter, which are naturally rich in saturated fat and “have been shown to boost HDL [cholesterol].” She points out the same cannot be said for animal-derived saturated fats. “I would, however, be sure to still factor in the total fat, saturated fat, and calorie content into your overall daily intake, just like you would with any other food,” she says.
Final word? Minno—who doesn’t eat meat—says she keeps this burger in her home and would recommend it to anyone as a non-meat alternative.
Nutrition stats (per 4-ounce patty): 250 calories, 18 g fat (6 g saturated fat), 390 mg sodium, 3 g carbohydrates, 2 g fiber, 20 g protein, 0 g sugar
2. Best for meat lovers: Impossible Burger
The Impossible Burger gets its plant pizzazz from a combo of potato protein and textured wheat protein. You’ll also find coconut and sunflower oils, as well as heme, the ingredient that, according to the company’s website is “what makes meat taste like meat.”
Heme is an iron-carrying molecule found in plants and animals, and one that makes you crave the taste a typical meat burger can deliver. But Impossible Foods uses a genetically-engineered version of heme found in the roots of soy plants to deliver the same taste minus the meat. It's a controversial ingredient in some spheres of the health world—some experts don't like that it's a new, GMO-based ingredient—but it was cleared by the FDA for safe use earlier this year.
Like Minno said about the Beyond Burger, Whitney English, RDN, a dietitian and certified personal trainer in Los Angeles, says it’s worth noting that the Impossible Burger’s saturated fat content is pretty high (8 grams). “Saturated fat consumption has been associated with an increased risk of heart disease,” she says. “However, the saturated fat in these burgers comes from plant sources like coconut oil, as opposed to animals, which may mean less of a detrimental impact on health.”
Nutrition stats (per 4-ounce patty): 240 calories, 14 g fat (8 g saturated fat), 370 mg sodium, 9 g carbohydrates, 3 g fiber, 19 g protein, <1 g sugar
3. Best for fiber: Sweet Earth Foods’ Awesome Burger
Hitting grocery stores shelves nationwide on Oct. 1, the Awesome Burger is poised to fit in nicely with its other plant-based burger siblings. Minno points out that the recipe—made from a combination of pea protein, coconut oil, canola oil, wheat gluten, and fruit and vegetable extracts—has one component that is especially worth noting.
“One thing that stands out about this burger is the six grams of fiber in each serving,” she says. “Adequate fiber intake—which is 25 to 38 grams per day for adults depending on age and gender, according to the Institute of Medicine —has been associated with the reduced risk of several diseases, including heart disease, stroke, hypertension, and Type 2 diabetes.” Yet very few people meet that daily intake requirement, she says.
“Typical burgers contain no fiber, so by switching to this meat alternative you can guarantee an extra six grams of fiber, or approximately 15 percent of the daily recommended intake,” she says. “Pair the burger with a whole wheat bun and you could be looking at approximately 10 grams of fiber total.”
Nutrition stats (per 4-ounce patty): 290 calories, 17 g fat (8 g saturated fat), 400 mg sodium, 6 g fiber, 28 g protein.
4. Best affordable option: Simple Truth Vegan Meatless Burger Patties
Grocery store chain Kroger very recently launched its own answer to Impossible and Beyond through its in-store line, Simple Truth. Ingredients-wise, it's pretty similar to other competitors—it uses soy protein concentrate, wheat gluten, isolated soy protein, and canola oil along with some other ingredients to make its plant-based patty.
But it has a few other things going for it that make it stand out from the crowd. It's the lowest in saturated fat on this list (one gram compared to the six to eight grams found in other burgers) while still offering an impressive 20 grams of protein. It's also the most affordable on this list—it retails for about $4.99, depending on store location. (By comparison, Beyond Burger and The Meatless Farm costs $5.99 for two patties, and Impossible Burger costs $8.99 for a 12-ounce package.) It may also be more readily available to consumers, as Kroger owns nearly 2,800 grocery stores in 35 states.
Nutrition stats (per 100-gram patty): 160 calories, 7 g fat (1 g sat fat), 410 mg sodium, 10 g carbohydrates, 2 g fiber, 20 g protein, 1 g sugar.
5. Best natural-ish option: The Meatless Farm
Like its meatless counterparts, The Meatless Farm burger (which originally hails from the UK) relies on a mix of plant-based ingredients to deliver their take on the high-protein burger. Pea protein, soy protein, chicory root fiber, carrot fiber, vegetable and fruit extracts, and natural flavoring for “a beefy style flavor,” are some of the key ingredients in gluten-free, wheat-free patty, according to the company’s website.
There’s also salt, an ingredient that The Meatless Farm burger definitely leans on a bit more heavily than its competitors—1410 milligrams to be exact, which is more than half of the American Heart Association’s recommended 2,300 milligrams per day for most adults (with the ideal limit clocking in at 1,500 milligrams).
It’s ingredients like these, English says, that point at one factor all of these plant-based burgers have in common—they are all heavily processed forms of protein. “It doesn't make them ‘bad’ per se, but it's hard to say whether they possess the same nutritional benefits of whole plants,” she says.
But English says she would recommend these burgers to people who are interested in trying a plant-based diet. “They're a great ‘transitional food’ and help people to make the leap toward a more plant-based diet,” she says. “They're also a better choice for the health of the planet than beef burgers and can certainly be a part of a healthy, balanced, predominantly whole foods diet.”
Nutrition stats (per 100 grams): 203 calories, 10.5 g fat (3.3 g saturated fat), 1410 mg sodium, 3.3 g carbohydrates, 4.5 g fiber, 21.8 g protein, <1 g sugar.
Beyond alt-burgers, here's what a healthy plate looks like on a plant-based diet. And no, being vegan and being plant-based aren't quite the same thing.
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