Cracking Down on Fake Meat: Are the Impossible and Beyond Burgers Healthier Than Real Beef?

Once offered only in supermarket freezer aisles or as an afterthought on meat-centric menus, veggie burgers have come a long way. Now, meat-free patties from Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat seem to be everywhere — and they're even converting carnivores.

The Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger are both processed, plant-based patties, yet provide a similar nutrition profile to real beef. (Image: agrobacter/E+/GettyImages)

The meat-mimicking eats have officially gone mainstream: Everywhere from Burger King to TGI Fridays to Dunkin' carries a version. But are they worth a try?

Maybe, but there are some considerations to keep in mind. While these plant-forward patties are, in fact, animal-free, they're also processed. Homemade veggie burgers often call for whole-food ingredients like beans, quinoa and, yes, actual vegetables. However, the processed burgers made by these brands exist in another category altogether.

Picking apart the ingredients in the Impossible Burger — aka the "veggie burger that bleeds" — is tougher. Why? For starters, meatless burgers like those sold at Burger King are made using proprietary, lab-made ingredients.

"There's definitely a place for both 'real' and plant-based burgers. Both should be eaten occasionally — but not as a main component of your diet."

— Frances Largeman-Roth, RD

To learn more about the popular meat-free products on the market, we unpacked what's really inside modern plant-based burgers, and spoke to experts to figure out whether options like the Beyond Burger and the Impossible Burger are actually healthy.

The New Burgers on the Block

The Impossible and Beyond burgers promise plant-based ingredients, a high protein content and a convincing meaty flavor. That may sound like a tall order, but both brands have created mock meat products that seriously taste like the real thing — thanks, in large part, to innovative formulations created by brand scientists (more on that later).

If you're a die-hard omnivore, you might be thinking: Will a soy- or pea-based burger really satisfy me as much as a traditional hamburger? Research suggests it just might.

A small study found that high-protein diets made of either animal protein or soy protein had similar effects on obese study participants' appetite control and weight loss, per August 2014 research published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Of course, unlike a good ol' traditional hamburger, these new plant-based burgers tend to contain a host of ingredients the average consumer can't quite decode. Let's take a closer look.

Impossible Burger Ingredients

The primary ingredient that lends the Impossible Burger its meaty profile is heme, an iron-containing molecule that naturally exists primarily in animals. Impossible Burger formulated its own lab-made, plant-based heme by fermenting soybeans, which contain something called soy leghemoglobin. Here's what this popular meat alternative is made out of:

  • Soy protein concentrate: This protein is derived from soybeans by removing fat and carbs from the legumes.

  • Coconut oil: Oil extracted from coconuts.

  • Sunflower oil: Oil that is pressed from the sunflower seeds. "It contains both mono and polyunsaturated fats, vitamin E, and thanks to the phytosterols, it can help lower cholesterol levels," Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN and author of Eating in Color, tells LIVESTRONG.com. One downside: "Some studies have shown that when sunflower oil is used in high-heat cooking, such as frying, it releases aldehydes, which are hazardous when inhaled."

  • Potato protein: This protein is derived from potatoes by removing the vegetable's starch.

  • Methylcellulose: "Methylcellulose is synthetically derived from cellulose, the most abundant plant fiber," Laura Katz, Adjunct Professor of Food Science and Technology at New York University, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "It is commonly used as a thickening agent and a gelling agent."
  • Yeast extract: Yeast extract, which is formed when the enzymes in yeast cells dissolve proteins, acts as a flavor enhancer.

  • Cultured dextrose: "Cultured dextrose is made by fermenting dextrose, which is glucose derived from corn, using bacteria that are typically found in dairy," says Katz. "It acts as an antimicrobial agent in foods."

  • Modified food starch: Starch that is usually derived from corn, wheat, potato or tapioca. It's commonly used in foods as a texture-stabilizing agent, thickener or anti-caking agent.

  • Soy leghemoglobin: Short for legume hemoglobin, this plant-derived oxygen carrier is similar to hemoglobin. "Just like hemoglobin, it has a distinct red color, and is approved by the FDA to be used as a coloring agent in foods," says Katz. "When the burger is heated, the leghemoglobin releases heme, producing a 'bleeding' effect."

  • Soy protein isolate: This protein is derived from peas by removing fat and carbs from the legumes. "It's highly refined and more than 90 percent protein," Katz says. "Soy protein isolate is commonly used for its moisture retention properties and its ability to bind with fat."

Beyond Burger Ingredients

Unlike the Impossible Burger, the Beyond Burger is soy-free. Here's a rundown of what's inside the product:

  • Pea protein isolate: This protein is derived from peas by removing fat and carbs from the legumes. "Pea protein isolate may have better emulsifying properties than soy protein isolate," Katz says. People with severe allergies to legumes (think: peanuts) should be careful when consuming pea protein. Peas are also legumes and thus have the potential to cause an allergic reaction in certain individuals.

  • Expeller-pressed canola oil: "Expeller pressed" oils are physically squeezed out of seeds (in this case, rapeseed) by using friction and pressure instead of chemicals.

  • Refined coconut oil: Oil extracted from coconuts that is then filtered to kill microbes and remove remaining impurities and bacteria.

  • Rice protein: This protein is derived from rice by removing fat and carbs from the grain.

  • Natural flavors: Basically a catchall term for flavors derived from natural sources. While not synthetic, they can still undergo processing.

  • Cocoa butter: Fat extracted from cocoa beans.

  • Mung bean protein: This protein is derived from mung beans by removing fat and carbs from the beans.

  • Methylcellulose: A chemical compound derived from cellulose, a main structural component of plant cells. It is used as a thickener and gelling agent in food products.

  • Potato starch: This starch is extracted from potatoes and consists of long chains of glucose.

  • Potassium chloride: A mineral salt that can be used as a replacement for table salt.

  • Sunflower lecithin: A phospholipid naturally found in sunflower seeds that has emulsifying properties.

What About the Burgers' Nutritional Content?

Despite the differences in their ingredient lists, the [plant-based burgers] are quite similar in nutritional value to a beef burger in terms of calories, protein and saturated fat, says Sharon Palmer, RDN and author of The Plant-Powered Diet.

A 4-ounce serving of the Impossible Burger contains:

  • 240 calories
  • 14 grams of fat (8 grams of saturated fat)
  • 370 milligrams of sodium
  • 9 grams of carbs (3 grams of fiber, <1 gram of sugar)
  • 19 grams of protein

A 4-ounce serving of the Beyond Burger contains:

  • 250 calories
  • 18 grams of fat (6 grams of saturated fat)
  • 390 milligrams of sodium
  • 3 grams of carbs (2 grams of fiber, 0 grams of sugar)
  • 20 grams of protein

A 4-ounce serving of an 85 percent lean beef burger contains:

  • 240 calories
  • 17 grams of fat (7 grams of saturated fat)
  • 75 milligrams of sodium
  • 0 grams of carbs
  • 21 grams of protein

Some key differences: Whereas the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger both contain fiber, a beef burger does not. The same goes for dietary cholesterol. All three, however, provide saturated fat, which has been linked to adverse health outcomes like increased "bad" LDL cholesterol and weight gain, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

The Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger each contain nearly five times as much sodium as a beef burger, which isn't all that surprising. Store-bought veggie burgers are often high in salt. Another popular pick, Dr. Praeger's veggie burgers, for example, contain even more sodium, with 460 milligrams per serving.

Keep in mind, though, that these veggie-based patties are higher in sodium because they are already seasoned, says Palmer. If you salt your beef burger, as pretty much anyone would, it would likely serve up a similar amount of sodium.

"The total recommended sodium intake per day is 2,300 milligrams," adds Largeman-Roth. "If a burger is your main meal, along with a salad or possibly fries, then a sodium intake of no more than 450 milligrams or so [per burger] is reasonable." Of course, adding pickles, cheese and condiments to any type of burger can push this number up.

Warning

To keep your salt intake in check, prepare your own patty at home, where you can control how much salt is added to the dish. If you’re buying meatless burgers at the supermarket, Palmer suggests opting for those that provide less than 20 percent of your Daily Value (denoted as DV on nutrition labels) of sodium per serving.

Yes, You Should Choose a Plant-Based Burger

There's no question about it: A well-planned plant-based diet trumps the standard American diet (aptly abbreviated to SAD) when it comes to your overall health.

In fact, sticking to a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet (aka one that includes eggs and dairy) helped reduce participants' LDL cholesterol levels even more significantly than a Mediterranean diet did, according to a March 2018 study published in Circulation.

What's more, a comprehensive review of 96 studies that found that following a vegetarian diet was linked to a 25 percent lower risk of getting or dying from heart disease while a vegan diet was associated with a 15 percent reduced risk of cancer incidence, per November 2017 research in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition.

Plain and simple: "Science shows that you can reduce your risks of obesity and chronic diseases with a plant-based diet, and also significantly cut your eco-footprint," says Palmer. After all, livestock production accounts for 14.5 percent of all anthropogenic, or human-generated, greenhouse gas emissions, according to The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). So there's that.

In terms of the safety of the processed ingredients in meatless burgers like those made by Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, there is still plenty more research to be done. However, little evidence currently exists to suggest that processed ingredients like soy protein isolate, for example, can compromise your health in the long term.

In fact, soy protein isolate is linked to regulating hormones and even reducing risks of breast cancer, heart disease and osteoporosis, according to the National Institutes of Health.

While some worry that the isoflavones in soy protein isolate, specifically, can raise cancer risk, The American Institute for Cancer Research maintains that soy protein isolate, as well as textured soy protein, don't contain more isoflavones than an equal serving of roasted soybeans.

Warning

One word of caution: If you have a personal or family history of certain cancers or thyroid issues, avoid taking soy or isoflavone supplements because the supplements may contain higher levels of isoflavones, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Should You Go For the Impossible or Beyond Burgers?

There's good and bad on both sides of the burger aisle. Processed plant-based burgers made to taste like meat typically contain many ingredients. Still, Palmer doesn't consider the Beyond Burger or the Impossible Burger to be "ultra-processed" products.

Ultra-processed foods are those that have been modified significantly (usually via industrial techniques) and contain added sugars, oils, fats, flavors and preservatives. They're typically convenient and highly palatable.

"While some of the characteristics of [the Impossible and Beyond] burgers seem to fit in here, they do provide important nutrients, like protein and fiber, and are a big step above ultra-processed foods, like sodas and chips," notes Palmer.

If you're thinking, Wait, aren't hamburgers processed, too? You're right. Beef also undergoes multiple stages of processing, including cleaning, grinding, and combining (McDonald's has confirmed that just one of its burgers can contain meat from over 100 cows). Of course, unlike their plant-based peers, beef burgers also serve up dietary cholesterol and contribute significantly to environmental damage.

While Palmer does not consider the new plant-based burgers to be ultra-processed, she does think they "probably are more processed" than a traditional beef burger when you consider how many ingredients they contain and the extent to which those ingredients have been manipulated. "It's not something you or I could make at home with ingredients we can buy at a grocery store," Largeman-Roth says.

Even so, choosing the meatless burgers over a beef patty may be the way to go: "Their ingredients are not linked to the same negative health and environmental consequences that beef is linked to," says Palmer. "Many studies have found that beef has a very high environmental footprint and that high red meat intake is linked with health risks." Among those is an increased chance of heart disease, as well as an elevated risk of colorectal cancer, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research.

The Bottom Line

If you're craving a burger (of any kind), go ahead and enjoy it once in a while! "There's definitely a place for both 'real' and plant-based burgers," says Largeman-Roth. "Both should be eaten occasionally — but not as the main component of your diet."

The best choice of all? Make your own veggie burgers at home using nutrient-dense ingredients like beans, lentils, whole grains, veggies, herbs, seeds and nuts, says Palmer. Doing so allows you to control the sodium content of the dish and add your favorite flavors to the dish. No chemistry degree required.

Additional reporting by Kate Bratskeir.

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