The selection of plant-based burgers in the refrigerated meat case has grown quickly. There are now numerous brands to choose from, along with other cookout favorites like plant-based sausage links. Clever names and attractive packaging aside, what’s the story with these new meatless patties? Here are the basics so you can make an informed choice when you’re ready to get your grill on.
The different types of plant-based burgers
- Veggie burgers: these patties are probably familiar to you. They have been around a long time and can be usually found in the freezer section. Veggie burgers are relatively simple patties. They are predominantly made from legumes, grains, vegetables, seasonings, and a binder to hold it all together. Many of these burgers are vegan products.
- Plant-based burgers: these are the new burgers in the meat case. Sometimes referred to as meatless burgers, they were created to appeal to those who like the texture and taste of meat, but want alternative choices. Some options are vegetarian/vegan, others are not (they might have cheese or egg in them). The patties mimic meat by means of a slew of ingredients. This includes things like vegetable protein powders (such as from peas or soybeans), starches, coconut oil and/or other oils, and a variety of added vitamins, flavorings, coloring ingredients like beet juice extract, plus methylcellulose (a common food ingredient), or another binding agent.
Eating less red meat has known benefits for heart health, but does that hold true for plant-based “meats”? A recent, small study found that when participants swapped meatless products for 8 weeks, their LDL cholesterol levels improved compared to when they were eating the real meat counterparts. They also consumed less saturated fat and more fiber than during the real meat phase. Whether those findings translate directly into better heart health hasn’t been shown, as it was a short-term study. However, there are other beneficial nutrition qualities for meatless burgers to consider as well:
- Fewer calories per patty
- More fiber
- Less saturated fat than beef
- Higher levels of certain minerals like folate and niacin (also higher levels of iron, although it’s not as absorbable as the iron in real meat)
Potential nutritional drawbacks
One of the biggest marks against the new plant-based burgers is that they are comprised of a lot of ingredients in order to make them taste and look like real meat. And, unlike most traditional veggie burgers, “plant-based” in this case means only that their ingredient lists don’t contain meat. Don’t go looking for identifiable pieces of vegetables in them—these products rely on isolated parts of plants such as the starch or protein, and many additives (some are vitamins). Hence, they are highly processed, and a diet composed of lots of highly processed foods has been linked with higher heart disease risk. Other nutritional cons revealed in a recent study of plant-based burger’s nutritional qualities include:
- Less protein
- Iron from plants is not as efficiently absorbed and utilized as animal-based iron (consuming a vitamin C source alongside it helps improve absorption)
- Significantly higher levels of sodium compared to natural meat patties
- Lower levels of vitamin B12 (some brands add it, others don’t)
Plant-based burgers and Guiding Stars
Guiding Stars has evaluated all of the plant-based meat alternatives that are sold at participating supermarkets of the program. The Meat Alternatives category in our database that these products fall into includes veggie burgers, tofu-based products, and other things that are not exactly meatless fresh burger patties. It also includes frozen products, products sold in the deli section and the fresh meat selections. Out of all of these, just 43% earn Guiding Stars. Does that mean these products should be avoided? Not necessarily, as we believe in moderate eating that allows for all types of foods. But in this case, it means that the majority of these products did not meet the stringent nutritional criteria to earn at least 1 Guiding Star. After looking specifically at several of the well-known brands of meatless fresh burgers, it turns out that they don’t earn stars due to losing points for their sodium, saturated fat and—for some of them—added sugar content. You can check the Guiding Stars Food Finder before shopping to see what the star ratings reveal for the brands you are interested in trying.
Plant-based burger patties can be part of a healthy diet and may help broaden the appeal of plant-based eating to the wider audience of meat eaters. However, don’t expect them to necessarily be more healthful than lean meat (or poultry) burgers. We also recognize that there are other factors which might influencer your decision to purchase these products, like climate impact or animal welfare. Shop using Guiding Stars and pick the best choice for you and your family.