Are Plant-Based Pseudo Meats Really Healthier?
When I was in 2nd grade attending PS 52 in Brooklyn, I remember standing in the lunch line with my tray in hand and hearing the kids behind be saying “those burgers aren’t even meat. They’re made with soybeans.”
Meaning, they were substandard, imitation, fake meat, and shame on the school for even trying to feed this pseudoburger to us.
That was my first introduction to hearing about soy as a meat substitute. Back then, they were used as innocuous fillers to ’stretch’ the beef and cut down on cost. Soy is an inexpensive plant protein that doesn’t have a distinct flavor, so when you’re feeding hundreds of hundreds of thousands of NYC kids school lunch every day, it must have seemed like a good idea, and who would be the wiser? Not a bunch of hungry 2nd graders.
The idea of a plant-based burger wasn’t foreign to me, though. Being Egyptian, falafel made with fava beans were our mainstay food, an inexpensive form of protein that offers a full range of essential amino acids, the building blocks of life. In fact, so many developing countries around the world have their own version of a plant-based burger, made with ingredients like lentils, potato, black beans, chickpeas and rice.
When meat is out of your financial reach or hard to find, there are other ways to fill you belly.
And although indigenous cultures have enjoyed plant-based patties for eons, you would have thought the idea of a burger without meat was a new phenomenon by all the media hype. I mean, who could’ve imagined that the soy burger all the kids turned their noses up at back in the day would be backed by heavy hitters like Bill Gates. National commercials, huge chains touting their versions of a meaty non-meat burger, mega money being raised to fund these burgeoning brands, stocks skyrocketing and reach-in cases at the grocery store emblazoned with ‘faux meat’ signage. But is it really better for us?
Let’s break down the bull.
I’ll start by saying, there’s no question that eating more plant-based foods is a good thing. The undeniable merits of eating produce rich in phytonutrients is key to overall health, from lowering the risks of diabetes and heart disease. It’s better for the environment, too. Beef requires 20 times more land and emits 20 times more GHG emissions per gram of protein than common plant proteins. It takes 2,400 gallons of water to produce a pound of meat vs. 25 gallons for a pound of wheat. The EPA states animal agriculture is the number one cause of water pollution. It’s also said that every six seconds an acre of rainforest is burned to clear room for cattle. The list goes on and on but you get the picture.
Now, let’s break down the difference between a veggie protein and what I call ’pseudo meat’ where a lot of big business is thriving.
There are a laundry list of brands that have played in this plant-based sandbox for a while, including Gardein, Field Roast, Boca Burgers, Nightlife Foods, MorningStar Farms, Quorn, Tofurky, Yves Veggie Burgers, Dr. Praeger’s Veggie Burgers and many, many more. Just peruse your local natural foods store frozen food section. But the game is changing, and there are two big sheriffs in town duking it out for your dollar.
At the time of press, Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are the two mega players dominating the news, with Awesome Burger an up-and-comer. Their goal is to replicate the experience of meat with their products. Not surprisingly, there’s big money and big guns behind them, including NBA stars, A-list Hollywood actors and billionaire investors. In May, Beyond Meat had the best IPO so far in 2019 surging more than 163% on the day of its market debut and more than 500% since, in addition to making big deals with Carl’s Jr., Dunkin, Del Taco and TGI Friday’s to name a few. And Impossible Foods products are now in about 10,000 restaurants — including White Castle, Red Robin and Burger King, and soon, coming to a grocery store near you.
This is a big trend driver, and retailers are jumping on board. US retail sales of plant-based foods have grown 11% in the past year, according to a July report from trade group Plant Based Foods Association and the Good Food Institute. Barclays predicts the alternative meat sector could reach about $140 billion in sales over the next decade, capturing about 10% of the global meat industry.
So, the big question is, are these plant-based substitutes better for you?
Comparing the nutrition profiles of Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger yielded somewhat similar results, although Impossible has more saturated fat, less protein and more carbs than Beyond Burger.
Impossible Burger patty (4 oz):
- 240 calories
- 14 g fat (8 g saturated)
- 370 mg sodium
- 19 g protein
- 9 g carbohydrates
- 3 g fiber
- Less than 1 g sugar
Beyond Burger patty (4 oz):
- 250 calories
- 18 g fat (6 g saturated)
- 390 mg sodium
- 20 g protein
- 3 g carbohydrates
- 2 g fiber
- 0 g sugar
When comparing both of the plant-based giants to a ground beef patty, they don’t measure up. The ground beef patty has fewer calories, less saturated fat, way less sodium and tons more protein.
Ground beef patty (4 oz., 93% lean)
- 219 calories
- 10.13 g fat (4.2 g saturated)
- 75 mg sodium
- 29.72 g protein
- 0 g carbohydrates
- 0 g fiber
- 0 g sugar
According to Beyond Meat’s website, ingredients for its plant-based patties include water, pea protein isolate, expeller-pressed canola oil, refined coconut oil, rice protein and other natural flavors, including apple extract and beet juice extract (for color). Ingredients for Impossible Foods burger include water, soy protein concentrate, coconut oil, sunflower oil, potato protein, soy leghemoglobin (a group of protein found in animals and plants) and other natural flavors, according to its website.
Initially, there was a lot of concern around Impossible Burger’s secret sauce—soy leghemoglobin. Soy leghemoglobin is found naturally in the roots of soybean plants and contains heme, which gives the burger the beef-like aroma, taste, and characteristic “bleeding.” In animal products, heme is found in animal muscle.
Now, the whole burger uses GMO soy. Impossible Foods CEO and Founder, Pat Brown, is an outspoken advocate of genetically modified soy protein, saying due to “high demand” for the product, its plant-based patties will be made using GMO soy. This reformulation from a wheat protein base to soy came in early 2019 as they were ramping up for their national Burger King deal. But a lot of people are not happy about the formulation change, or the GMO soy propaganda.
GMO soy is a different animal. Impossible Burgers use soy isolates, where a processing step incorporating alcohol and other chemicals is used. It’s a different nutrient profile than whole, unprocessed soybeans used in products like tempeh, for example.
To add to that, A 2014 study comparing GMO and organic soybeans found significant differences in the nutritional quality: Organic soybeans showed the healthiest nutritional profile, significantly more total protein than both conventional and GM-soy. Organic soybeans also contained less total saturated fat and total omega-6 fatty acids, which can be inflammatory, than both conventional and GM-soy.
What’s also alarming is that the GM-soy contained high residues of pesticides, particularly glyphosate and AMPA. Conventional and organic soybean batches contained none of these agrochemicals.
Brown has also said that “careful analysis” has “conclusively shown” GMO soy is “better for the environment than the alternatives.”
I don’t know how that could be. Studies have shown links between glyphosate residue to devastating human and environmental destruction. Roundup is the most widely used herbicide in the world. It’s made by Monsanto and its key ingredient is glyphosate. It’s been linked to damaging vital organs like the liver and kidneys, damage to gut tissues and gut flora, immune system disruption, reproductive abnormalities and even cancer tumors. Glyphosate’s maker, Monsanto (Bayer) has recently been ordered to pay out billions in compensation to victims who developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma as a result of using the weedkiller. More cases are pending.
There’s also an impact on the environment.
In addition to creating superweeds, glyphosate-based herbicides damage microbial life in the soil, which makes crops more susceptible to diseases. They are toxic to a range of aquatic organisms and also kill beneficial “weeds” like milkweed, a major food source for the Monarch butterfly. While Roundup has allowed farmers to produce more food over the years, it has also had a devastating impact on the country’s bee population. A study done by The Journal of Experimental Biology in 2016 showed that Roundup is preventing many honeybees from finding food in fields, reports Glyphosate News, which is causing them to starve and die. The National Agricultural Statistic Service has also reported that the honeybee population has dwindled from 5 million bees down to 2.5 million during the last decade, and glyphosate may be at least partly to blame.
Recently, I heard a marketing director for Impossible Burger speak at a Women in Green Conference and she was very clear in saying it’s not a health food, but it was a better alternative to meat because it’s plant-based. When I stood up and asked how they felt it could be healthier using GMO soy, she answered that GMO soy was “100% safe.” The gasps across the room ensued. I could not understand how that kind of statement could be made in front of an audience of people whose common thread is to champion the environment.
In an article by CNBC, interviewing Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, he was quoted as saying he’s not a big fan of the processed plant based burgers. And he’s been a vegan for over 20 years.
The bottom line is, you don’t have to ask ‘where’s the beef.’ The real question to ask is ‘where’s the health.’ For both us as individuals, our collective health, and the environment.
You can start by making educated choices about better for you alternatives and vote with our dollar, because that’s where we can have the biggest impact on helping our own health and the environment.
Here’s where we can start:
1) Grass-Fed Rules: Cutting down on your meat consumption is a step in the right direction. Choosing humanely and sustainably-raised options is an important decision, too. Remember, the higher up the food chain you go, the more important it is to consider what the animal is eating, because it changes its nutritional makeup. When cattle eats grass, it is eating what nature intended. Opt for grass-fed beef and bison, which is higher in good Omega 3’s, protein and minerals. ButcherBox offers a great monthly delivery service, which also includes chicken and seafood. Follow this link and you’ll get free ground beef for life.
2) Go Meatless More: If you’re not quite ready to bag your beef burger, we can all let go of a couplde days of carnivore life. I have a ton of vegan and vegetarian recipes on my website at eatcleaner.com, in my new book, Eat Like You Give a Fork: The Real Dish on Eating to Thrive where I teach about the merits of going plant-based coupled with an intermittent fast. You won’t feel deprived because the key is to get your full array of essential amino acids (protein) and I teach you how.
3) Learn Labelese: You might be fluent in a spoken language but knowing how to decipher a food label is another story. Even when a product seems to be ‘healthy,’ it’s important to look at saturated fat, sodium, sugar and ingredients in particular. If its void of healthy nutrients or has a laundry list of ingredients you can’t pronounce, think again. Also, if it contains wheat, corn or soy, look for the non-GMO or organic label. Otherwise, it’s likely going to be highly sprayed with pesticides.
4) DIY Plant-based Burgers: You can enjoy your own plant-based patties, croquettes and balls with as few as 5 ingredients. I make a super tasty falafel with whole green fava beans, parsley, cilantro, garbanzo bean flour and olive oil, with seasonings like cumin, coriander, sea salt and pepper. I also love to combine ground almonds, cauliflower, beets and flax meal for my version of beetballs – and the beets make it look like meat! You can check out the recipes in this article.
5) Eat Real Food: Instead of grabbing for a fast-food plant-based burger with fries, consider doing a little meal preparation where you have lots of fresh veggies, lean protein, plant-based fats and good quality, slow burning carbohydrates to round out your plate. That way, you won’t feel the need to succomb to a quick fix where you are not in control of the nutrition. I teach you how to wash your produce in advance and help it last longer, too. Just text CLEANSE to 22828 for your free starter plan.
Now that’s a betta’ meatta-ball! The ingredients of these Beetballs are all WHOLE FOODS…including fresh almond flour, cauliflower to ensure we are getting a good amount of vegetables in, ground flax meal, beets, and some fresh herbs for lotsa’ flavor.
- 3/4 cup unsalted whole almonds
- 1 cup cauliflower, cooked until fork tender
- 1/2 cup cooked beets, pureed
- 1/4 cup ground flax meal
- 1 tablespoon smoked paprika
- 1 tsp ground oregano
- 1/2 teaspoon smoked sea salt
- 1/2 teaspoon white pepper
- Nonstick olive oil or coconut oil spray
- 2 cups of your favorite homemade or prepared marinara sauce
- Optional: 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
- Preheat oven to 375 F. Wash all fresh produce with Eat Cleaner Triple Action Fruit + Veggie Wash first.
- In a food processor, pulse whole almonds until you achieve a meal-like consistency. Add cauliflower, beets, flax meal, paprika, oregano, sea salt and white pepper and pulse until you reach a dough-like texture. Mixture should hold together and be easy to shape.
- Shape mixture into 12-14 balls using a tablespoon or small cookie scoop. Place balls on a baking sheet or in a small muffin tin and mist with non-stick oil spray. Bake for approx. 15-18 minutes or until golden and firm.
- In the meantime, simmer prepared marinara and heat throughout.
- Remove beet balls from the oven; top with warm sauce.
- Top with chopped fresh parsley and enjoy!
Baked Falafel with The Works
Whether you’re vegan or looking to adopt more of a plant-based diet, these will keep you fala-FULL! You can make your own bean-powered patties at home like a champ, especially when they’re made like this, without the deep-frying.
1 cup dried fava beans
¾ cups dried garbanzo beans
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 small onion, quartered
1 tablespoon cumin
Scant teaspoon cayenne, or to taste
1 cup chopped fresh parsley or cilantro
1½ teaspoons salt, plus more to taste
½ teaspoon black pepper, plus more to taste
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
4 tablespoons olive oil
½ cup tahini paste
½ cup water
- Put the dried beans in a large bowl and cover with water by 3 or 4 inches—the beans will triple in volume as they soak. Soak for 12 to 24 hours, checking once or twice to see if you need to add more water to keep the beans submerged. (If the soaking time is inconvenient for you, just leave them in the water until they’re ready; you should be able to break them apart between your fingers.)
- Heat the oven to 375°F. Drain the dried beans and transfer them to a food processor with the garlic, onion, cumin, cayenne, herb, 1 teaspoon of salt, pepper, baking soda, and lemon juice. Pulse until everything is minced but not pureed, stopping the machine and scraping down the sides if necessary; add water tablespoon by tablespoon if necessary to allow the machine to do its work, but keep the mixture as dry as possible. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding more salt, pepper, or cayenne as needed.
- Grease a large rimmed baking sheet with 2 tablespoons of the oil. Roll the bean mixture into 20 balls, about 1½ inches each, then flatten them into thick patties. Put the falafel on the prepared pan and brush the tops with the remaining 2 tablespoons oil. Bake until golden all over, 10 to 15 minutes on each side.
- Meanwhile, whisk the tahini and remaining salt with ½ cup water in a small bowl until smooth. Taste and adjust the seasoning and serve the falafel drizzled with the tahini sauce and veggies like tomatoes, lettuce and onion. Omit the pita bread and go entree style.
Here are some tasty add-ons:
- Shredded lettuce Diced or sliced tomatoes
- Israeli salad
- Dill pickles
- Cucumber slices
- Roasted peppers
- Roasted eggplant slices
- Sunflower seeds
- Feta cheese
Bison Kofta Burgers
While bison is a red meat, it has a similar nutrition profile to white meat when it comes to fat and calories. And it’s always grass-fed and pasture-raised so you know it’s eating what it’s supposed to, which leads to a better, more sustainable product.
3 garlic cloves, minced
3 tablespoons finely minced red onion
2 tablespoons finely minced fresh cilantro
2 tablespoons coconut amino acids or tamari
1 pound ground bison or grass-fed beef
1 tablespoon ground coriander
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon smoked sea salt
1⁄2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1⁄2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1) Heat a grill to medium.
2) In a large bowl, stir together the garlic, onion, cilantro, and coconut aminos. Add the ground bison and mix with clean hands to combine. Add the coriander, cumin, salt, cayenne, and black pepper and mix until evenly distributed.
3) Form the meat mixture into 31⁄2- to 4-inch patties, about
1⁄2 inch thick. Grill for 6 to 7 minutes on each side for a medium- well burger, or to your desired doneness.
4) Serve with the toppings of your choice. I like to serve the toppings set up in a little salad bar so everyone can customize their own burger.