Plant-Based vs. Beef: What’s Really In Your Burger?

In the past year, I’ve watched the conversations around real meat and plant-based meat alternatives become one of the most talked about food trends of the year. True to media hype and Silicon Valley chatter, the headlines and the venture capital have become overblown. Once again, consumers are the ones left with massive confusion on what plant-based foods are and how they help them meet their nutritional goals. 

What you eat is a personal choice and you have a right to eat in a way that fits your lifestyle and beliefs. In your personal decisions, I hope you do your research as to what’s actually in plant-based meat alternatives if you choose to eat them. The best thing a person can do is to EAT REAL, WHOLE FOOD. Plant-based meat alternatives, compositionally and nutritionally, don’t qualify as a whole food or real food. You’re better off making your own veggie burgers at home if you don’t want to eat meat. 

Plant-based and faux meat alternatives (whether it be beef, chicken, or fish) are designed for and marketed towards plant-based food and wellness enthusiasts to boost what they spend at the grocery store. Food companies, food scientists, and smart marketing departments know what you are willing to spend on your healthy lifestyle and they’re targeting those values in order to get into your wallet. 

To start the new year, I’ve decided to write a three-part analysis on what’s happening in the plant-based food revolution. The first part of this series is the simplest and most linear –– I’m going to look at the nutritional value of real meat, homemade veggie burgers, and the two most popular plant-based meat alternatives from Impossible and Beyond. For those of you that don’t want to read the full article, here’s the short version of this long story that’s about to unfold:

What’s In Your Burger? 

A beef burger contains one ingredient –– beef –– it’s a single-source animal protein. 

A bean burger contains beans, grain and/or potato, some veggies, and usually olive oil, sea salt, and spice to set taste (in the case of my research, I used my favorite homemade black bean and sweet potato burger for the basis of this comparison).

Plant-based meat alternatives are a bit more complex than the two scenarios above. So let’s look at those:  

The ingredients found in a Beyond Burger patty are pea protein, expeller pressed canola oil, coconut oil, water, yeast extract, maltodextrin, natural flavors, gum arabic, sunflower oil, succinic acid, acetic acid, non-GMO modified food starch, bamboo cellulose, methylcellulose, potato starch, beet juice extract (for color), ascorbic acid, annatto extract, citrus fruit extract (preservation), vegetable glycerin, and annatto (for color). 

The ingredients found in an Impossible Burger patty are water, soy leghemoglobin, soy protein, coconut oil, sunflower oil, natural flavors and two percent or less of: potato protein, methylcellulose, yeast extract, cultured dextrose, modified food starch, soy leghemoglobin, salt, mixed tocopherols (vitamin E), zinc gluconate, thiamine hydrochloride (vitamin B2), sodium ascorbate (vitamin C), niacin, pyridoxine, hydrochlorate (vitamin B6), riboflavin (vitamin B2), and vitamin B12.

From a nutritional standpoint, plant-based meats can be classified as “healthy-ish,” processed foods. Plant-based meat alternatives, while they have a significant source of protein, are highly processed in order to make them edible. They are made predominantly from soy and corn that have been broken down and then put back together with less than healthy fats (oil), made palatable by additives to enhance taste, and infused with vitamins and minerals in order to meet minimal nutritional requirements. 

How Do I Read The Ingredients List?

A burger that’s made from meat and/or prepared from beans/grains/veggies doesn’t really need an explanation. The nutrition value and compositions are easily understood. When it comes to meat alternatives, it gets a little more complex.

Let’s start with the Beyond burger first; the ingredients that send up red flags are maltodextrin, non-GMO modified food starch, and canola oil. 

The first flag is maltodextrin. Maltodextrin is a highly-processed starchy powder used in foods as a thickener, filler, or preservative. It’s enzymatically derived from corn, rice, potato starch, or wheat. My first concern is that I don’t know what type of maltodextrin it is. For someone with a food sensitivity, this could be problematic. For someone with celiac disease or more severe allergies, it could be much worse. Maltodextrin spikes blood sugar (making it not ideal for diabetics), negatively impacts your gut flora, and although the USDA says it’s safe, it has no nutritional value. 

The second flag is non-GMO modified food starch. Modified food starches can be made from a variety of foods. In North America, the most common sources are modified corn, waxy maize, and potato. The fact that it’s labeled non-GMO leads me to believe it’s corn-based food starch as most nutritional labels tout non-GMO when it relates to corn and food manufacturers are only required to list the type of starch if it’s wheat-based. If you’ve got corn sensitivity or a wheat allergy, food starches are problematic.

The third flag on this label is the use of canola oil. Canola oil is refined and heavily processed; the separation process for canola oil uses chemical solvents. While Beyond says they’re using the safer, quality cold-pressed (expeller pressed or unprocessed) canola oil, it still worries me as canola (also known as rapeseed oil in most alternative dairy milks) is the main oil and then combined with coconut and sunflower oil. Higher quality, ready-to-eat products in the grocer case can often use one or two of these oils and forgo canola. This leads me to believe it’s a question of meeting cost.   

If you keep analyzing Beyond’s ingredient list, it kinda gets worse. For example, methylcellulose is a bulk-forming laxative used to treat constipation (it’s the fiber you find in Metamucil or Citrucel). Succinic acid is a neutralizing agent. Aside from pea protein, you can’t classify the ingredients found in the Beyond burger as whole foods. It’s composed of ingredients derived from once whole crops, turn into powders and chemical agents derived from plants, and then put back together to simulate meat. 

Now let’s move onto the Impossible Burger. Impossible is the second largest player in the plant-based meat alternative space. Unlike Beyond, Impossible leverages molecular engineering to create “bleeding” plant-based burgers that the company claims is nearly indistinguishable from meat. The company created a new type of soybean (based on heme, an iron-rich molecule found in every living plant and animal) that enabled them to create a “bleeding plant” and replicate the “meaty” flavor of real meat in its plant-based products. 

Before I even get into the ingredient list, I have to address Impossible’s molecular engineering of plants. To create faux meat that tastes like real meat, the company took the DNA from soy plants, inserted it into genetically engineered yeast, and fermented it. So it appears that “molecular engineering” is going to be one of the new ways to reference “GMOs” in regards to the advancements being made by cellular agriculture as it relates to plant-based foods. 

Impossible products are made from genetically modified plants and crops. So, if you’re someone that’s against the growing and eating of GMO crops, you’ll have to cross these off your list as the primary ingredient is genetically modified soy. Soy, while not listed as one of the top eight allergens, is considered by functional medicine to be a highly-inflammatory food for many people suffering from auto-immune disorders. 

The Impossible burger also has methylcellulose, food starch, and the additives and preservatives required to make the product viable in the grocery case. While its composition is different than the Beyond burger, it is also primarily a corn and soy-based product that has a series of vitamins and minerals added to it for nutritional value, but also marketing purposes. 

Organic, GMO or non-GMO,plant-based meat alternatives are made from two of the largest, most subsidized crops – Corn and Soy – in the U.S. 

I’ll let this picture summarize my opinion of whole foods versus plant-derived meat alternatives. Applying three simple questions based on those found in Micheal Pollan’s book, Food Rules, ask yourself:

  1. Are there more than five ingredients?
  2. Can a young child read this label? Can I read the label?
  3. Is it food or a foodlike substance?

It may also be beneficial to ask yourself:

 “What are the health benefits of this product and does it serve my own personal food values?” 

Personally, if I didn’t eat meat, I’d take the time to make my own veggie or bean burgers as they would be a healthier option compared to what’s available in the grocery case. And if you eat meat, you’re good. Just remember to look for high-quality meats and spend a bit more on the purchase. 

A Cautionary Note About Plant-Based Food Labeling

To end this article, I think it’s important to reference food labeling requirements for plant-derived products as they are critical in the meat and dairy industries. The conversations on the labeling requirements for plant-based products have just begun. The USDA and FDA currently don’t have formal requirements for labeling on plant-based products unless they fall under current disclosure requirements for ingredients these products contain. 

For example, Impossible uses genetically modified soy; they have to disclose that under the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Law. Another example is the FDA regulating the production and labeling of plant-based food under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA), that states all labels must be truthful and not misleading. State laws echo this requirement.

You may have started to see the Certified Plant-Based label on products as well. In order to use this label, companies pay a licensing fee and submit their products for approval in order to obtain it. In its early adoption stage, it’s important that you understand what that label means, so read up on it. It’s also important to note that products with this label must contain no animal products, but these foods are allowed to contain ingredients from non-plant derived and animal sources as long as it doesn’t exceed five percent of the formula. 

In light of the flood of innovative foods on the market, the FDA is currently in the process of a multiyear effort to modernize food standards as advancements (such as plant-based alternatives) in food and AgTech are moving so rapidly. In September 2019, the FDA held a public meeting to discuss the FDA’s efforts to modernize food standards and to provide information about changes the FDA could make to existing standards of identity. 

Labeling requirements are going to be a huge conversation in 2020. Hopefully special interest and personal preferences won’t get in the way of developing factual, understandable labels for consumers given the fact that labels are the single source of information for most of their purchases. 

Note: Please understand I’m not against GMOs, subsidized crops, and or farming at scale. I’ll be exploring the history and stories of all these topics and things moving forward with the goal of shedding some new light and encouraging new discussions. Anyone who farms in any manner should be commended for their work, and I applaud them. What I am for is a better understanding for the people that buy food products and I am a champion of eating mostly whole foods. While we need convenience, it should not be at the sake of our health. Thank you for reading. If you have topics, comments, or questions, please feel free to post them, as long as they are respectful. I’ll do my best to address them. 

Feature Photo by Oliver Sjöström from Pexels