With “fake meat” burgers flooding the market and popular campaigns like ‘Veganuary’ fueling pledges to cut back on meat, consumers should ask which option truly is better for their health before they swear off beef burgers for good. Marianna Moore discusses how fast food joints could now be getting consumers closer to poor health with these new plant-based meat alternatives.
It’s no secret that plant-based burgers, such as the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Meat burger, have been making headlines ever since their debut in the most profitable fast food restaurants on the market. Although these big-name corporations, such as McDonald’s and Burger King, are making great efforts toward a more “all inclusive” menu, these highly processed alternatives to meat may not fit in to the “healthy dietary pattern” recommended for Americans. Is swapping the Whopper with the Impossible Burger a health-conscious choice, or are consumers better off sticking to red meat?
Plant based alternatives to meat are by no means a new development, as seitan and tofu have been used around the world for decades as meat substitutes. Recently, companies have been formulating processed mixtures containing soy, grains, legumes, and vegetables, amongst other products, in an effort to resemble chicken nuggets, sausages, burgers, and even eggs. However, rarely do these mock meats compare in taste and texture to their meat-based competitors. That was until the newly formulated Impossible Burger hit the market—a juicy, meaty, plant-based “burger” in disguise.
Can it truly be trusted as a “healthy” option?
Replacing red meat with foods such as legumes and nuts has been associated with lower chronic disease risk and total mortality, one of the key contributing factors behind recommending plant-based foods as part of a healthier diet pattern. However, the Impossible Burger is created using ultra processing methods to isolate protein from plant-based foods, rather than using the whole food itself. We’re told that an ultra-processed diet is unhealthy, but a plant-based diet is healthy. So, where does the Impossible Burger fall on this spectrum?
“We have learned that plant-based eating can be a nutritious diet. However, just because something is vegan, shouldn’t automatically make it a good choice.” – Abbey Sharp, RD
Compared to its one ingredient beef patty competitor, Impossible Burgers require 21 ingredients in order to resemble red meat in terms of both taste and appearance. The burger is primarily composed of soy protein isolate, sunflower oil, and coconut oil. An area of concern is that Impossible uses genetically modified soy protein and soy leghemoglobin (also known as heme). The long-term health implications of genetically modified ingredients are unknown; however, it is speculated that they pose a threat to human health. The heme used in this product is what gives the plant-based burger its meaty flavor and red, blood-like drippings. This raises controversy as heme wasn’t considered safe for consumption by the FDA until the summer of 2018. It also is an ingredient that requires a long list of regulatory processes to be approved as a color additive if being sold to consumers in the marketplace. Not only are these plant-based alternatives categorized as “ultra-processed” foods, but they also contain ingredients that have been proposed to be harmful to human health.
With the Impossible Burger being comparable to burger meat in terms of its high saturated fat content, as well as overall calorie and protein content, much of the ingredient skepticism resides in the differing sodium content. While 80-percent-lean beef has 75 milligrams of sodium per ¼-pound serving, the Impossible Burger contains 370 milligrams in an equivalent serving. Too much sodium can raise blood pressure, which, in turn, raises the risk of heart attack. So, neither option receives a gold star in terms of being particularly “heart healthy.”
Dr. Frank Hu, Chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health says, “There is no existing evidence to substantiate whether these nutrient differences alone offer any significant health benefit as a replacement.” He also raised awareness about the fact that these products are generally not consumed in isolation. “When placed between a bun made of refined grains, covered in sauces and other toppings, and accompanied by French fries and soda, we can’t assume that substituting one of these alternative patties for a burger patty will improve overall dietary quality,” Hu adds.
Is the fast food industry taking advantage of consumers’ lack of knowledge?
The newly coined phenomenon, the “health halo effect,” refers to the act of overestimating the healthfulness of an item based on a claim, such as being low in calories or fat, gluten free, paleo, or vegan/vegetarian. Registered Dietitian, Lisa Hayim, commented on this concept with respect to the Impossible Burger stating, “In some cases, choosing the “healthier option” leads to less satisfaction and leads to eating more of it. Sometimes less of the real deal can be shockingly satisfying!” Both the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger fall victim to the health halo effect not only due to their vegan label, but also their high coconut oil content. Coconut oil, a main ingredient in these mock meat products, is often erroneously marketed as being good for your overall health, whereas new findings are uncovering possible deleterious health effects linked to this high-saturated fat food.
While the public may see coconut oil as healthy, the nutrition literature and recommendations advise limiting intake of coconut oil. The American Heart Association issued an advisory against consuming coconut oil, which is 90 percent saturated fat. Saturated fat is known to raise “bad” LDL cholesterol levels in the body. This is higher than the 40 percent saturated fat content of beef. However, neither a red meat burger nor an Impossible patty is a winner when it comes to heart health.
When asked how she thought the media and label industry are contributing to consumers’ philosophies on whether or not certain types of foods are “healthy,” Registered Dietitian Abbey Sharp responded saying, “Ultimately my recommendation is not to pay attention to front of package or industry marketing at all. If you’re curious if a food fits your criteria for health, check out the nutrition label and ingredients instead.”
Notes for Consumers
Ultimately, people want to know, can these novel products be a part of a healthy diet? As Dr. Hu points out, this question “remains far from clear given the lack of rigorously designed, independently funded studies.” There is no hiding the remarkable shift our society is making in offering plant-based items that make a vegan lifestyle more readily accessible. From a food production and marketing standpoint, fast food restaurants are using these burgers to show consumers that eating more vegan products and less meat doesn’t mean the food is boring or tasteless. However, consumers should remain wary of falling into the “health halo” trap by conflating “vegan” with “healthy.”
Excitement around the new plant-based meats should not take away from the fact that a healthy dietary pattern is one that includes minimally processed plant foods—vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and nuts; lower amounts of processed foods, red meat, and sugar-sweetened foods and beverages. When it comes to burger decisions at fast food restaurants, neither option seems to fall into the constituents of a healthy diet pattern. And while registered dietitians have come to agree on this point, Sharp encourages consumers to “decide what feels most enjoyable to them, and to savor that burger in moderation.”
Marianna Moore is a first-year student in the Nutrition, Interventions, Communications, and Behavior Change Program at The Friedman School. When she’s not in school, Marianna spends her time working as a food blogger, recipe developer, and owner of mariannaspantry.com. In her free time, you can find her reading, doing yoga, tending to her plants, or exploring different cafes and healthy restaurants. She has a passion for relaying evidence-based nutrition information to the general public and hopes to pursue a career in marketing and social media management for leading health and wellness companies.