The Juxtaposition of Processed Plant-Based Burgers
November 12, 2019
Food Quality & Nutrition
Rosanne Rust, RDN and GMOAnswers expert explores the lesser known facts of plant-based meats and asks the real questions like, “are plant-based burgers really going to save the earth?”
You’ve probably been hearing a lot about all of the new plant-based burgers coming into the market. Beef burger replacements are exploding. While I am always intrigued to see new technology applications in the food space, I have a lot of issues with all of it.
Some of the emerging plant-based “beef-like” burgers are using fear factor marketing, with claims that by choosing a non-beef burger, you can help reduce climate change. Worse, they are targeting the beef industry as a big player in global warming. This is a marketing tactic. Yes, beef production does emit some greenhouse gas in the form of methane, but it certainly isn’t the only contributor. I can’t blame the beef industry for being unhappy when these products are marketed that way, which is probably why they often refer to these newer plant-based burgers as “fake meat”.
“I feel there can be a place in the market for all sorts of burgers, but I don’t always agree with the ‘why’ when it comes to making that choice.”
Impossible Burger started the buzz last year with their plant-based, ground “not-meat”, that bleeds like an animal product. They offer the product in restaurants and earlier this year launched it in the Burger King chain as the Impossible Whopper®. It’s also being added to other restaurant menus nationwide.
Everyone’s Doing It.
Other new vegan burger options include Beyond Meat™, and MorningStar Farms (owned by Kelloggs). MorningStar Farms recently has rebranded some of their products, and have new ones coming into the market. While Impossible Burger™ is found in restaurants, Beyond™ products will be available to buy and cook at home, MorningStar Farms® brand has been in the freezer section for decades offering plant based options for vegetarians (bean burgers, frozen mixed dishes, frozen breakfast items). In addition to these, the Kroger grocery chain has announced they’ll be launching their own store-brand plant-based burger, along with Nestle and Tyson jumping on the wagon.
History of Food Fear.
Unfortunately, some of the ad campaigns for plant-based burgers are claiming they are a more environmentally friendly choice, even though there is no data whatsoever yet on the impact these new products will have on the environment.
It seems that there’s always a “bad food of the day”. About 15 years ago, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) was the “feared ingredient”, and thought to cause obesity (false). Since consumer concerns drive food marketing, over the years manufacturers removed the HFCS, and replaced it with other sugars. By 2012 however, the science community came to realize that HFCS didn’t behave any differently biologically than sucrose or honey. Still, we see the “no high fructose corn syrup” labeling on packages, and many consumers still perceive that as a “this is good for me” message (the “free-from” label actually means nothing other than there’s no HFCS in that food. There may still be lots of sugar in it).
Next up were GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms). The non-GMO project (a fee-based food labeling stamp) ramped up concerns about “knowing what’s in your food” and supports activism for labeling all foods for GMO ingredients. Currently food companies can pay the non-GMO project to qualify (then get the butterfly logo on their products).
Some farmers and scientists have issue with this labeling system since many foods are labeled as non-GMO that never had a GMO in them (that is, they have no GMO counterpart). This leads to confusion over what is, or is not, a GMO. There are actually only 10 GMO food products on the market today (soybeans, corn, canola, cotton, alfalfa, sugar beets, summer squash, papaya, potatoes and apples.). And now, “plant-based” is a key message.
Are Plant-Based Burgers Really Going to Save the Earth?
In 2019, the hot topic is definitely concern for how our food impacts the environment. Cue alternative “meats” as the proposed solution to climate change. Some of the folks who can get on board with consuming less meat and adhering to a plant-based diet, are the same folks who have concerns about GMOs. Interestingly, activists have voiced big concern, over the same GMO ingredients that are being used in these new plant-based foods, when cattle are consuming them (all beef cattle graze naturally on grasses, many are supplemented with soy, corn and alfalfa – often GMO crops. But, there is no detectable GM DNA left in the consumable milk or meat).
The Impossible Burger® has taken some heat for using GMO ingredients. This article from the Center for Food Safety, is heavily biased and makes false statements (“under-regulated genetically engineered products”…this is actually well-regulated. “GM soy is sprayed with large amounts of pesticide”, also misleading. Crops are not “doused” with pesticide. It is applied in the right amounts at the right time, with safety front of mind). Their beef (pun intended) with the plant-based burger is that it is “ultra-processed” and uses GM soy.
Beyond™ meat on the other hand, uses non-GMO ingredients. Now if you’ve followed Chew the Facts™ for any length of time, you’ll know that my stance on GMOs is that genetic engineering is a useful agricultural tool. In addition, current GMO crops pose no known health risk, and are nutritionally equivalent to their non-GM counterparts. Whether a plant-based burger is made with or without GM ingredients makes no difference to me. However, I am concerned about how they may impact health, or the “health halo” they may misrepresent.
Beyond™ also has a firm mission with a focus on marketing their products as a planet-friendly solution to protein.
“At Beyond Meat, we believe there is a better way to feed the planet. Our mission is to create The Future of Protein® – delicious plant-based burgers, sausage, crumbles, and more– made directly from simple plant-based ingredients. By shifting from animal, to plant-based meat, we are creating one savory solution that solves four growing issues attributed to livestock production: human health, climate change, constraints on natural resources and animal welfare.” – Beyond Meat Mission Statement
There’s actually nothing “simple” about it…
Remember all of the news headlines earlier this year about how you should avoid ultra-processed food? I appreciate the transparency of Impossible Burger™. They clearly list the ingredients, and why they chose them to formulate a meat-like burger that “bleeds” like meat. I am intrigued by the technology that all of these companies are using to create new products, and their effort to educate consumers about why they chose the ingredients.
It’s interesting to me however that many of the same people who were touting “don’t eat anything you can’t pronounce!” ten years ago, are now running after these burgers that have methylcellulose and leghemoglobin in them.
- Impossible Burger™ Ingredients: 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.
Methylcellulose is a starch that helps hold ingredients together. It’s safe, and has been around a long time. Leghemoglobin from soy is a newer ingredient, and is responsible for the blood-like red in the product. (You may have heard of hemoglobin, in human blood, which is responsible for transporting oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body. It’s also what gives your blood its red color). Leghemoglobin is derived from soy, but they implant the soy gene responsible for creating it, into yeast, and use the yeast mixture in the burgers. It’s pretty high-tech, but overall I’m really not worried about the safety of the ingredients.
Beyond™ Burger markets itself as GMO-free and Gluten-free. The website isn’t as transparent as Impossible™ and I couldn’t find the ingredients there, but found them here and in other news stories.
- Water, Pea Protein Isolate, Expeller-Pressed Canola Oil, Refined Coconut Oil, Contains 2% or less of the following: Cellulose from Bamboo, Methylcellulose, Potato Starch, Natural Flavor, Maltodextrin, Yeast Extract, Salt, Sunflower Oil, Vegetable Glycerin, Dried Yeast, Gum Arabic, Citrus Extract (to protect quality), Ascorbic Acid (to maintain color), Beet Juice Extract (for color), Acetic Acid, Succinic Acid, Modified Food Starch, Annatto (for color).
It’s also interesting that many news stories complain about how processed soy protein is, when in fact soy protein isolate has been used to create vegetarian foods for almost 70 years. When I was in grade school in the 1970s, the National School Lunch Program used over 9 million pounds of textured protein per year. The soy is still used as an “extender” of ground beef (providing more cost-effective nutrition for tight budgets).
There have been several news stories about the impact processed food may have on health. Processed foods such as canned beans, canned fruits and vegetables, and many frozen foods, certainly have a place in a healthy diet. Too many processed and packaged foods however, aren’t a great fit for a healthy meal plan (those high in sodium, sugar, or saturated fat, and lower in other important nutrients). Plant-based products that “replace” other animal products, such as cheese, dips, meats, burgers, are often quite processed, and often require a lot more packaging too.
Nutrition and Processed Plant-based Products
Even if a plant-based burger ends up being good for the environment, does the final product stack up nutritionally? Should we throw nutrition to the wind in favor of potentially lowering greenhouse gas emissions in one small sector?
You should eat more plants, no question. But when I give that advice, especially in the context of the DASH diet, I mean – eat more whole fruits, grains, and vegetables, and use plant oils. While I like the idea of subbing a veggie burger into your diet once in a while instead of a beef burger, I personally prefer to choose the bean-type “garden” burger. Still processed, but not quite as much as Beyond™ and Impossible™.
Comparing a beef burger to both Impossible™ and Beyond™ doesn’t really add up to much difference nutritionally. While the plant-based burgers have higher iron counts, keep in mind that this is non-heme iron. Heme iron from beef is absorbed two to three times better than non-heme iron. The beef option is much lower in sodium (important if you have high blood pressure or kidney disease). Calorie-wise they are about the same so if weight management is of concern, replacing lean beef with plant-based burgers isn’t going to help you out.
“These nouveau plant based burgers are being marketed as a potential ‘solution to climate change’ (by reducing methane from cows), but they are heavily processed, and are competing among themselves for reasons that mostly have nothing to do with nutrition.”
Reducing Fast Food Demands on Beef
No matter how many people step onto their soapbox to announce “Fast Food is bad for you!”, people are going to continue to desire it. Some people eat it daily, occasionally, to celebrate or gather with friends. Others may eat it when on the road or traveling. When you have to be at the airport at 6am, or when you are on a 12 hour drive, it’s pretty nice to be able to drive-through for a bathroom break and quick snack or lunch without losing much time.
So here’s a thought: Maybe quick service restaurants are the best place for these plant-based burgers? We don’t have to bash the beef industry to have both choices. Having a vegetarian alternative could help reduce the demand for beef (saving the best beef for the supermarket and higher end restaurants and steakhouses), and offer a vegetarian option, which is a win-win.
Trend or Lifestyle?
One advantage to having been a registered dietitian for over thirty years, is that I’ve had the opportunity to observe a lot of food and dietary trends. Often these trends are in response to an issue of concern. For the past several decades food choices were driven by health concerns. The food market responds to the concerns of the day. In the 1980s and 90s, diet and heart disease became a public issue. In response, “fat free food” was trending in the 80s and 90s. It was later blamed as a factor in the current obesity epidemic. Flash forward to the early 21st century, and carbohydrates are taking that rap.
The plant-based food movement has pivoted from a focus on health to a focus on the health of the planet, at a time when climate change is top of mind. This focus isn’t completely new. When I read Diet for a Small Planet in 1983 (the book was first published in 1971) it was uncommon to be thinking about food in the context of the planet, versus human health (and only food and nutrition students or “health nuts” read such books then). The time has come for solutions to climate change, because we have more technology and human innovations to solve problems than we had in the 1970s.
The theory that beef production has a larger carbon footprint than soy or wheat production is partly what is driving the creation of these burgers. But beef isn’t the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emission. “Sustainability” is the word of the decade, and it means a lot of different things to different people. Time will tell if these new foods really appeal to enough people. You are not going to choose an Impossible Whopper® very often if you are concerned about your health, and vegans aren’t likely to either. The market of a “bleeding burger” seems to be for people who like meat. So how does that help the planet? If these foods aren’t going to help the planet, how are these climate-fueled lifestyle choices going to impact public health?
“If your goal is to cut back on red meat, it would seem the best solution from a health standpoint is to reduce portions and frequency, choose lean cuts, and eat more plants.”
I’m not convinced that plant-based burgers will have a positive impact on climate. Just as fat-free foods and low carb diets have not reduced the prevalence of obesity.
A multi-factor approach, that includes advances in the transportation industry, and innovations in agriculture is likely the best strategy (agriculture has been quietly innovating for decades). It’s true that beef, and other ruminant animals, require more feed per pound of consumable meat, than pigs and poultry. Greenhouse gas emission (GHG) data is another story. Frankly, it’s difficult to get firm GHG emission numbers. Various resources provide everything from beef contributing 3% to 14% of all GHG emissions*.
Big issues like climate change often spur quick solutions that temper emotions, more than solve real problems (example – even though plastic straws contribute less than 1% of plastic pollution, you may feel better not using them). It’s easy to make statements such as “beef requires twenty times more land per pound than other protein sources such as beans”, while in reality, the land used for cattle grazing is not always transferrable to growing plants.
For burgers, the final call will be consumer taste buds, affordability and availability. If consumers accept these plant-based alternatives, and they are environmentally efficient, great. There are still many other factors to consider. For instance, animal foods also provide nutrition and are important to the diets of developing countries. Is it realistic that replacing beef burgers with plant-based options is the best solution to feeding everyone?
Understanding why consumers choose the food they choose is key. So I beg to ask – which is it? Do you want healthy options or do you want packaged processed food that might be sustainable for the health of the earth? Do we want to feed the whole planet, or focus on reducing GHG with changes in food production instead of energy (the greatest contributor)? Is the extra packaging planet-friendly or is fresh better? And what about choice and developing nations? Take cows away, and you remove livelihoods and a lot of nutrition around the globe.
There’s a lot to think about isn’t there? If choosing a plant-based burger makes you feel better, fine. I don’t, however, think a simple change in your burger habit (eliminating beef from the food supply, and the livelihoods of farmers) will reduce greenhouse gas emission significantly, nor will it be a realistic solution to climate change.
What do you think?
Blog was republished with permission. The original post can be found here.