A lot of you have been messaging me about Beyond Meat and Impossible burgers and other plant-based meat alternatives, asking if they’re healthy.
My answer is always, ‘healthy’ compared to what? To meat? To other meatless items? To a steady diet of Big Macs?
‘Healthy’ is always relative, and it’s always subjective. I actually try not to use the word ‘healthy’ at all because of those reasons. Healthy to you might not be healthy to the next person. Who decides what ‘healthy’ is?
There’s one post that several people have sent me, written by a ‘certified nutrition consultant’ about how unhealthy Beyond Burgers are. I am not going to link to because it doesn’t deserve any more clicks. It claims that some of the ingredients are carcinogenic, and that grass-fed beef is a world better than this product. The author of this post doesn’t appear to understand much about nutrition, judging by the research she cites to ‘prove’ her point (and her quotes by ‘Dr.’ Mercola, always a dead giveaway). So if you come across her piece, click right on by. It’s 100% fear mongering trash.
I’m going to give you the real story here.
What is Beyond Meat?
Beyond Meat is a plant-based meat alternative.
Although these burgers are marketed to be ‘sustainable’ and ‘healthier’ than meat-based burgers, people are concerned that they’re ultra processed and not actually all that healthy or a better choice than meat. I like when my readers are skeptical of marketing, so good for everyone who has wondered or asked me about these products!
Plant-based diets seem to be on the upswing, unswayed by the undercurrent keto and carnivore diet trends. It seems as though people are really catching on that eating more plants – even if you’re not full vegan – has health benefits.
This is causing a full-on explosion of meat alternatives at the grocery store and questions about their ingredients and level of processing.
OF COURSE plant-based alternative burgers are going to have more ingredients and be more processed than burgers that contain plain beef, so let’s get past that right now and move on.
The more important question is, are these burgers a nourishing choice?
Ingredients in Beyond Meat’s Burgers
Beyond Meat burgers contain: Water, Pea Protein Isolate*, Expeller-Pressed Canola Oil, Refined Coconut Oil, Rice Protein, Natural Flavors, Cocoa Butter, Mung Bean Protein, Methylcellulose, Potato Starch, Apple Extract, Salt, Potassium Chloride, Vinegar, Lemon Juice Concentrate, Sunflower Lecithin, Pomegranate Fruit Powder, Beet Juice Extract (for color)
Impossible burgers are similar, but use soy protein instead of pea protein, along with a bit of soy protein isolate, dextrose, and Soy Leghemoglobin, a GMO soy product that gives the burgers a meaty flavour.
Let’s chat about a few of the more controversial ingredients:
Pea protein, soy protein, and mung bean protein are simply plant-based proteins made from legumes. All three protein types are fine in terms of nutrition, and no – soy protein isn’t going to give you cancer or make men grow boobs. Come on.
Canola oil has had a target on its ass for quite some time, due to its refining process and the current trend of vilifying ‘seed oils’ for their omega 6s. While canola oil does contain omega 6s, it also contains a fairly high amount of omega 3s. (read my post about the best cooking oils here) If you’re concerned about the canola oil in this product, keep in mind that it’s only one of the fat sources in the burgers. Honestly, compared to saturated fat-rich regular beef burgers, I wouldn’t worry about the canola oil in these.
Refined coconut oil is the virgin coconut oil that everyone’s eating because they think it’s a miracle food (it’s not), just refined. The difference in their nutrition profiles depends on the refining process, but needless to say, I find it a bit funny when people harp on about ‘processed food’ and how canola oil is so terrible, but are fine eating deodorized, refined coconut oil, which is also high in saturated fat.
Methylcellulose is a soluble fiber food stabilizer made from plant cellulose. The Food Babe made a huge deal about it a few years back, saying that methylcellulose is wood that’s added to food. As usual, she was being ridiculous. Also: I’m pretty sure you get methylcellulose in foods like ice cream, but nobody is freaking out about that.
Fun fact: Methylcellulose is also used to treat constipation.
So Is Beyond Meat Good? Or Is Beyond Meat Bad?
There are a couple of whole plant-based proteins, such as beans and lentils. The other ones: tempeh, tofu, and plant-based burgers etc. – are processed. And yeah – technically I’d consider these burgers to be ultra-processed, but they’re a hell of a lot more nourishing than many other foods in that category.
So yes, a food can be ultra-processed and still be a solid choice. I’d add these burgers into a diet that has plenty of less processed foods.
With the greater level of awareness about the benefits of plant-based diets, consumers want more choices beyond chickpeas. They want meatless burgers that cook, bleed, and taste like beef. They want meatless sausages that aren’t tofu.
There’s always the question of why vegans would even want to eat a ‘burger’ that replicates meat down to the bleeding, but actually, I don’t really give a crap because it’s none of my business. People want what they want, and I think providing more food alternatives to vegans and non-vegans is a good thing.
In terms of environmental impact, Beyond Meat was awarded the ‘Champion of the Earth’ honor by the UN Environment Organization in 2018. Producing pea protein uses a fraction of the water that beef requires. A Beyond Meat-commissioned study found that “The team discovered that the Beyond Burger generates 90% less greenhouse gas emissions, requires 46% less energy, and has 99% less impact on water scarcity and 93% less impact on land use than a quarter pound of U.S. beef.”
As someone who’s constantly trying to get people to eat more plants, I consider this a good thing. Sure, meat-alternative products are more processed than many of their meat-based counterparts, but how else are you going to get plants to taste like meat?
If you’re looking for some plant-based alternatives but are concerned with how processed these burgers are, consider your diet as a whole. Nobody eats one food in isolation, but unfortunately there’s this weird tunnel vision that happens where people focus on one single food as ‘evil’ or ‘miracle’ and don’t consider how that food fits into the entirety of their eating pattern. None of the ingredients in these burgers is scary, toxic, or carcinogenic – especially in these small amounts.
As a dietitian, I encourage people to eat a variety of foods, and plant-based alternatives like these are just one piece of the puzzle.