The Plant-Based Food Craze
We've seen it at the store—at this point, most of us have likely eaten it. But what exactly are the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger? Are they healthy?
First off, both products are derived from plants, which everyone knows top the list for nutrition.
"Plant-based foods in general are a really healthy way to eat," says Rachel Swanson, a registered dietitian with the Community Health Center in Clinton.
Ideally, Swanson likes to see her patients on the Mediterranean diet. The diet focuses on vegetables, fruits, and healthy fats like nuts, with meat served as a side dish rather than the main event.
"We know it reduces heart disease risk, diabetes, some cancers, and even dementia and Alzheimer's—and certainly it helps with obesity," says Swanson.
However, eating an Impossible Burger or Beyond Burger isn't like eating a plate of vegetables. Both have about 20 ingredients. The Impossible Burger primarily consists of soy protein, coconut oil, and sunflower oil. The Beyond Burger is made of pea protein, canola oil, and coconut oil.
"They're really similar to beef," says Swanson. "Their calories are about the same, their protein, their saturated fat—which is what we try to avoid by going away from beef."
In other words, a meatless Monday with an Impossible Burger might not do much for your health.
"They want it to taste like meat: saturated fat is what makes meat taste like meat," Swanson notes. She also points out these products have a lot of sodium, which is linked to high blood pressure.
"It's going to have more additives in it to make it last longer, and one of those things is sodium."
But if you're going to eat fast food anyway, it certainly won't hurt to choose a plant-based burger over a meat patty. You'll get roughly the same calories—especially once you round out the meal with fries and a soda.
"You're still getting a fast food meal and you're still getting a lot of calories and fat," Swanson says. "These are a processed food. The goal for me as a registered dietitian is to get folks to eat less processed foods."
Basically, "If somebody wants to try them and they have a craving for a burger, try it," says Swanson. "But the words 'plant-based' don't always mean the healthiest choice in the world."
The Impossible Burger might evoke the word engineered more than processed: it's the burger that "bleeds" heme to mimic meat.
Their website explains it: "We started by extracting heme from the root nodules of soybean plants, but we knew there was a better way. So we took the DNA from these soy plants and inserted it into a genetically engineered yeast. We ferment this yeast to produce heme."
While the Impossible Burger is proud of what it's achieved through genetic engineering, Beyond Meat is equally proud to be GMO-free (its redness comes from beets)—highlighting an ongoing debate about whether GMO foods are healthy or not.
Our health isn't the only factor when it comes to choosing a Beyond Burger or Impossiblesible Burger over the real thing. The environmental impact of meat is extensive, from greenhouse gas production to groundwater depletion and deforestation. There's no doubt it's better for the planet when we choose a meat substitute. And it's definitely what a cow would prefer we eat: Beyond Meat was PETA's 2013 Company of the Year.
Based on a comparison of beef production versus Beyond Burger production by the Center for Sustainable Systems at University of Michigan, the plant-based product won hands-down over beef.
According to the study, "The Beyond Burger generates 90 percent less greenhouse gas emissions, requires 46 percent less energy, has 99 percent less impact on water scarcity, and 93 percent less impact on land use than a quarter pound of U.S. beef."
While products that mimic meat are center stage right now, Swanson hopes the craze will bring the public's eye back to products that vegans and vegetarians eat, like old school beans-and-rice veggie burgers.
Still need meat to satisfy? She also points out that a burger made of ground turkey has less fat than beef or its novel substitutes. Or you can always buy ground beef and make the patties yourself—you'll know exactly what's in it.
Swanson emphasizes that eating healthier can simply mean increasing the amount of vegetables you eat or switching to olive oil. From pasta made from beans to quinoa and edible flowers, there are countless options for introducing healthy variety into your diet.
"The more color the better: color means more nutrition," Swanson notes.
"It's really just finding a balance so you can enjoy your food, but still fill your body with what it needs and wants," Swanson says. "I want people to feel as if they can make small changes in how they're eating in really simple ways—for example, just adding more veggies to their diet, maybe one day going meatless, using beans in their cooking—without getting overwhelmed."
So, what about the last thing you might be wondering: do dietitians eat plant-based "meat"? Swanson admits to trying a Dunkin' breakfast sandwich with plant-based "sausage."
"I did it for research," Swanson says. "It tasted fine, but it was super salty."
Where to Find It
Find the Impossible Burger at Burger King locations in Branford, North Haven, and Old Saybrook; Chamard Vineyards Bistro in Clinton; and Penny Lane Pub in Old Saybrook.
Beyond Meat products are in the meat section of Fresh Market in Guilford, ShopRite in Clinton, and most Big Y and Super Stop & Shop locations. Try the Beyond Burger at Denny's in Westbrook.