The Great Veggie Burger Debate: Are They Actually Good for You?

Well, it depends what you mean by "good."

These days, most people would probably agree that eating less meat is a good thing: for the environment, for our bodies, and for the 10 billion animals churned out annually through our factory farming industry. According to the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization, 14.5% of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions globally come from livestock. For all these reasons, then, plant-based companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have become appealing to more than just vegans.

Impossible Foods, which made headlines in 2016 for its bleeding burger, has been plugged heavily by superstar chefs like David Chang. His Momofuku restaurants were the first to offer the burger, and you can even buy an Impossible Spicy Ragu Rice Cakes kit on Goldbelly to "get a taste of the popular Momofuku Ssäm Bar menu at home." As of November 2021, the Silicon Valley-based company had amassed more than $2 billion in lifetime funding, as reported by Food Dive. It's backed by Bill Gates.

The question has been posed, however: Are there any downfalls to these cutting-edge plant-based products? Among vegan circles, there's a sort of pride in rejecting animal analogues: "I just don't crave those anymore," some will say.

Yet meat apologists and followers of the slow-food movement take issue with the processed nature of these products. "Why eat a super-processed burger instead of a piece of grass-fed steak?" the criticism goes. Well, for one, most Americans still reach for industrially farmed beef for their weekday suppers. Grass-fed beef is still prohibitively expensive for many. (To be fair, the price tag of Beyond Meat's plant-based burger is also relatively high: 8 ounces are priced at $5.99 in a city like Los Angeles, for example. However, the past couple years have seen plant-based meat price drops, and the hope is that, with scale, prices will eventually come down.) Price aside, grass-fed and pasture-raised beef haven't dispensed with the environmental and ethical concerns of the meat industry. So, it's worth a look at making plant-based alternatives work, even just as one-off substitutes for omnivores, à la The Omnivore's Dilemma.

That said, the concerns raised around some of these plant-based products are honest inquiries. The latest iteration of the Impossible Burger, for example, contains 1.5 grams of saturated fat per ounce, roughly the same amount as an 85% lean beef burger. (Neither Impossible nor category competitor Beyond Burger contain any cholesterol.) Impossible Burger also has nearly four times the amount of sodium as its 85/15 beef counterpart: 92.5 milligrams vs. 20.5 milligrams in beef; Beyond Burger rings in at 97.5 milligrams of sodium per ounce. It can be noted that Impossible did actively work to reduce both saturated fat and sodium in its burgers, which originally contained 3.6 grams and 145 milligrams per ounce, respectively.

beyond meat packaging overhead
Courtesy of Beyond Meat

And then there's the whole heme issue: It's received a lot of attention, as the FDA initially expressed concerns over Impossible Burger's inclusion of it. (Category rival Beyond Burger does not include heme, which is the product's chief differentiator.) Heme is a protein that occurs all the time in nature, both in animals and in plants. It's kind of like a molecular basket that carries iron, Dr. Kent Kirshenbaum explains. He's a chemistry professor at New York University, and appeared on a panel discussing veggie burgers at an annual industry conference hosted by International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP). In the interest of full disclosure, he says he's worked previously with Beyond Meat and retains a small interest in the company.

The debate around heme, he explains, is twofold — whether it's founded or not is another question. It's not so much that Impossible Burger contains the compound, but rather the quantities of it and also the way it's produced. The company wraps naturally occurring heme inside a larger molecule, called leghemoglobin, and puts that in their burger. Leghemoglobin also occurs naturally in soy root nodules, but, per the FDA, these are not "a commonly consumed human food." (When's the last time you had soy root nodules for dinner?) Their document, via The New York Times, went on to say that "there is no history or knowledge of human dietary exposure to soy leghemoglobin from roots." However, in 2019 the FDA did rule the additive as safe.

There are also concerns about how Impossible is producing heme. Instead of harvesting it from soy root nodules, where it is found in nature, the company is growing it artificially through yeast, making it a genetically modified food. "This is not necessarily problematic," Kirshenbaum says. "There are many GMOs in our food system, and these are often regarded as safe." The GMO issue is another one altogether, although it doesn't sit well with a lot of people.

And finally, there's the question about heme itself, even when it's not packaged up in leghemoglobin or genetically modified. "[T]here isn't much known about using heme proteins as additives, so it's difficult to be certain," says Kirshenbaum. "And like many nutrients, heme may be beneficial in small quantities, but hazardous in some forms or in large quantities."

There are many people who are vocally concerned about heme, and would prefer to avoid it if they can — especially because competitor product Beyond Burger doesn't have it at all. Why does Impossible Foods use heme then, if it's so contentious? Well, according to the company's research scientists, the molecule is singularly responsible for that beefy flavor in burgers — it's what makes "meat taste and behave like meat," former Impossible Foods Chief Communications Officer Rachel Konrad told us. She went on to address criticisms in an email to Food & Wine:

"We analyzed soy leghemoglobin to determine if it shared any meaningful similarity to known allergens; it does not. We performed numerous tests (including tests on digestion, heat sensitivity, and acid sensitivity) to make sure it was safe. And we conducted a comprehensive toxicology study in which rats were fed amounts of heme far in excess of what any human could consume in our burger, with absolutely no ill effects."

Excessive heme consumption has been linked to high levels of colon and prostate cancer, Jane Brody wrote in a New York Times blog post. For Kirshenbaum, "The critical question becomes what is 'excessive,' and does the amount in the Impossible Burger qualify as excessive. I don't have enough knowledge to have an opinion on this," he says.

The heme debate aside, there's the fact that both Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger are pretty highly processed foods. (Indeed, their technological prowess is part of these companies' appeal to the anti-hummus-and-sprouts crowd.) Are these burgers compromising nutritional quality in their quest to mimic meat? If we're comparing them to whole vegetables, the answer is probably yes. It would be very hard to make the case that these products are better for you than whole carrots and peas.

But, that's not really the point. Whether it's from plants or from animals, a burger is still a burger. "It's a fantastic amino acid and fat delivery system," Kirshenbaum said at the panel. And that's what makes it satisfying. If it were lower in fat, it likely wouldn't be as successful as a meat analogue. (Just for reference: the Impossible Burger has about 3.25 grams of fat per ounce, and the Beyond Burger rings in at 3.5 grams. That's a bit less than 85/15 ground beef, which has 4.24 grams.)

At the end of the day, plant-based burgers — at least the ones that most faithfully replicate meat — are going to fall into the same "indulgent" category as their animal-derived counterpart: For the health-conscious, they're probably not going to be a five-times-a-week meal, at least not right now.

In a prior interview with Food & Wine, Beyond Meat CEO Ethan Brown also addressed the processed nature of his company's burger. Yes, it's processed, he acknowledges. But it's still way, way better than industrial meat.

"We could go meet the farmer that grew your peas. We can show you how the protein was separated," he says. "We could also go see the farmer that raised the cow you consumed, and go see that slaughterhouse. You can't tell me that process is better than our process."

And maybe that's the real standard here. We're not comparing veggie burgers to the plants they come from. Of course whole foods are going to come out nutritionally ahead every time. The ultimate competitor here is traditional meat: in taste, price, and nutrition.

Venture capitalist-backed companies like Impossible Foods have grown so rapidly in the past decade, faster than their natural foods forefathers before them. And there's still a lot they're learning, optimizing for, and tweaking. Research is still being done. One thing is for sure: A rising tide floats all ships, and the fact that we can have this debate in the first place — contemplating the pros and cons of multi-million-dollar plant-based products — is a win for vegans, gourmands, and environmentalists alike.

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