Plant-based burgers are having a moment. These new-fangled vegetarian patties are gaining fans among meat lovers. Vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike find plant-based meat alternatives - the type designed to mimic the taste and texture of meat - in fast food restaurants, other restaurants and mainstream supermarkets.
According to research by the International Food Information Council (IFIC), about half of Americans surveyed have tried this new breed of veggie meat. And most who did, liked it. Among the top praises were taste and similarity to meat. Forty percent responded that they liked everything about the meat alternative. Only 8% said they liked nothing about it.
In the same survey, nearly half of the respondents believed that plant-based meat alternatives are better for the environment than traditional animal meat. And four in six people viewed the plant-based meat alternative as more healthful even though it was higher in sodium, saturated fat and calories and lower in protein per serving.
These survey results beg the question: are plant-based meat alternatives wearing a health and sustainability halo because they deserve it or simply because the plant-based eating movement is skyrocketing?
While few people would argue that most Americans eat enough plants, we can’t assume that everything plant is better than everything animal. From the ingredients list, we know that eating a faux meat patty isn’t the same as eating a plate of lentils and veggies. The more healthful choice likely depends on who’s eating the burger and differences among cuts of meat and brands of plant patties. Scrutinizing food labels is the only way to make wise decisions. To limit your saturated fat intake, you’ll probably do better with a beef burger made of 90% lean ground beef than with a plant-based meat alternative. The same is true for sodium as long as you don’t salt your beef burger. But if your main goal is to eat more fiber, the faux meat wins. Its added fibers do have health benefits.
In general, a diet rich in plants is better for the environment than a diet heavily focused on meat and other animal products. That might be true when comparing beef and veggie patties too. But it’s difficult to generalize sustainability to specific products without knowing how each ingredient is sourced and processed; how much water was used; how the final product is packaged, shipped, stored and more.
Bottom line: There’s likely room in the diet for both traditional meat and plant-based meat alternatives. Read labels to make a good decision, and, no matter which burger you choose, fill the rest of your plate with lots of fruits and veggies. Regularly skip both the meat and the faux meat in favor of plant proteins like peas, beans, lentils and tofu.
By Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN, CDE, CHWC, FAND
Stephanie Ronco has been editing for Food and Health Communications since 2011. She graduated from Colorado College magna cum laude with distinction in Comparative Literature. She was elected a member of Phi Beta Kappa in 2008.