Vegetarian tofu cheeseburger on a ceramic plate. Soy products. Focus on foreground.

Meatless Burgers. What’s The Deal?

Image credit: A & W

 

By now you’ve heard the expression “plant based” (insert noun or verb) _________.

 

Plant based diet, plant based eating, plant based athlete, plant based nutritionist/dietitian/health coach and, of course, plant based protein.

 

I mentioned that I didn’t like the term in my Canada’s Food Guide post.

 

It carries an air of superiority; better than the average diet and it suggests that if you’re not plant based, you should be.

 

Here’s the rub. The term doesn’t mean much. Not really. It’s like vegetarian. There are vegans (no-brainer), but then there are self-identified “vegetarians” who eat any and all of the following: eggs, dairy products [milk, yogurt and cheese], fish, and yes, even meat on occasion.

 

Huh?

 

Translation? Omnivore diet, albeit with fewer animal foods included.

 

To accommodate these, at worst contradictory, at best confusing classifications, someone came up with the term flexitarian. Don’t get me started. It’s up there with “mostly vegan”. If you think that’s as un-possible as being ‘almost pregnant’, you’d be right.

 

Cue meat analogues and meatless burgers. But first.

Plant based diets

The expressions plant based diet and plant based eating has really taken off. No one was really using them a few years ago but now it seems you can’t go on social media or turn on the TV without hearing the terms.

 

Take a look at the trends according to Google for the term “plant based” since 2004

A graph trending the term plant based

And the trend for “plant based diet”

A graph showing the trend of the term plant based deit

As mentioned, the terms are undefined and mean different things to different people. Helpful this is not.

 

I was recently at a food service event and saw a presentation on plant based protein and plant based eating. To help answer the question, “what does plant based” mean?, a snapshot from a dietitian’s Instagram account was shown. On her feed, she stated she had just returned from the inaugural Plant Based Nutrition Leadership Symposium and was curious to know what others thought about this.

 

The dietitian polled her followers and asked them what they thought ‘plant based’ meant:

  • 8% vegetarian
  • 14% vegan
  • 18% flexible (flexitarian)
  • 60% based on plants

This of course wasn’t a validated survey as it didn’t include a random selection of people from ‘all walks of life’, so the results can’t be representative of the general population. I have no way of knowing who those respondents are, or what their knowledge on nutrition or this topic is.

 

It was suggested that the results show that the term ‘plant based’ only means that plant foods are predominant in whatever way the term is used. For example ‘plant based athlete’ means an athlete who eats mostly plants, or  that ‘plant based cooking’ means, you got it, cooking with lots of plants etc.

 

I find this surprising, and to be honest, not accurate. It’s been my experience that those who specifically use these terms are either vegans or vegetarians themselves. Otherwise they would just be talking about general healthy eating (that includes lots of plants) like yours truly does. The need to qualify anything as “plant based” would be superfluous. That alone indicates that “plant based” DOESN’T just mean ‘based on plants’.

 

Even the agenda and program at the above mentioned symposium suggests that this term is about vegetarianism (with the largely acceptable allowance for dairy and eggs).

What’s in a phrase?

To underscore this point, Canada’s Food Guide, the Mediterranean Diet, the DASH diet, the MIND diet etc., are all truly plant based (most of the foods and calories come from plants). They simply focus on a variety of nutrient-dense, minimally-processed foods.

 

If plant based is ‘just a turn of phrase’ that means based mostly on plants and not vegetarian, then why are most plant based cookbooks/cooking/snacks/dietitians/athletes etc., for the most part, vegan or ‘vegetarian’. The term is used to differentiate.

 

A tofu and vegetable stir-fry will be referred to as plant based but a chicken stir-fry that’s mostly plants won’t be even though our Instgram poll results suggests that ‘plant based’ means ‘based on plants’ to most people.

 

The other consideration in this brave new world is how the term plant based has usurped any dialogue around healthy eating, including the promotion of plant foods. Why are we calling fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds etc ‘plant based foods’. They ARE plants. How is an apple a plant based food? It simply IS an apple; it’s not based on anything (no, I’m not splitting hairs).

 

Where the expression does, and has made sense, is in the way my profession has historically used it. If we’re focusing on particular nutrients where those nutrients are found in a variety of foods, highlighting sources as needed is helpful. Take iron for example, if you’re a vegetarian and wanted to ensure you’re getting enough iron, then using the term ‘plant based sources of iron’ makes sense.

Meat analogues

A so-called meat analogue (meat substitute, faux meat or mock meat) is a food product that approximates the aesthetic qualities and/or culinary characteristics of certain types of meat.

 

I’ve been at this nutrition thing for 20 years and back in the early days, we had veggie ground round, deli meats and wieners. The brand I first remember was Yves Veggie Cuisine. I’ve made spaghetti and Shepherd’s Pie using the mock ground beef.

 

But there’s no making faux meatballs with this stuff. It wouldn’t hold together. In fact, the ground fake meat had a distinctive rubbery texture but I was able to eat it. They’ve since discovered a way to bind the texturized soy protein together to prevent it from falling apart. You can now get pre-made veggie ‘meatballs’.

 

Various vegetarian products, raw tofu, marinated tofu, ground and ball soy protein.

Tofu and soy-based meat analogues

Meatless burgers

As mentioned, plant based eating is not a new idea. Ever since the appearance of Canada’s Official Food Rules in 1942, we’ve been encouraged to eat plants (and no, that doesn’t just mean fruits and vegetables). Plant based eating however, is a new phrase (see Google trends above).

 

The Food Rules, and the following versions of the Food Guides, have always promoted ‘meats and alternatives’. In the name of inclusivity, the word ‘meat’ has been removed because it was seen as being more important, or rather the preferred choice, with ‘alternatives’ as runner up. This is why we now have a ‘protein’ food group that includes foods higher in protein (dairy, meats, poultry, fish. legumes, nuts and seeds).

 

Where am I going with this? Plant based eating is now being leveraged as a new trend and/or lifestyle when it’s really a change in language to try and get people to eat less animal based protein.

 

It’s for this reason that huge amounts of money has/is poured into the reformulation of traditionally animal-based foods like hamburgers. The demand for these products is not coming from vegans but rather so-called flexitarians; folks who eat meat but who opt for meatless meals at least 2x/week. It’s not clear if meatless meals also means no fish or chicken/turkey etc.

 

Plant based eating is really code for eating less animal foods like meat (beef, pork), and poultry (chicken, turkey). Fish has largely been spared. Because it’s been deemed easier to get people to continue to eat what they’re used to rather than incorporating new recipes and dishes (e.g. legume-based meals), meat analogues and meatless burgers are the easy fix.

 

But does that automatically translate to better quality diets or health? The benefits of eating more plants kicks in long before one goes vegan or vegetarian. Is simply swapping out ground beef or pork, or buying soy based wieners or deli meat the magic bullet?

 

Original vegetarian burgers used to be made from more whole ingredients such as legumes (black beans, or soybeans) usually blended with rice or later quinoa. The reality is, they were unmistakably vegetarian and not widely adopted by the masses. The first rule to eating is taste and acceptability, so in order to get the ‘plant based’ movement off the ground, something had to change.

 

Vegetarian tofu cheeseburger on a ceramic plate. Soy products. Focus on foreground.

 

Vegan protein and burgers

Beef is naturally rich in vitamins B3 (niacin) and B12, choline, iron, selenium, and zinc. Because many of these meatless burgers are derived from soy or legume-based ingredients, typically using protein isolates, they’ve been fortified with nutrients to approximate beef’s nutritional profile.

 

Curiously, neither the Beyond Meat Burger, nor the Impossible Burger are fortified with iron; arguably one of the more important nutrients found in red meat. The Good Veggie Burger by Yves Cuisine has added iron. Phew.

 

The mother of invention

You’ve heard the expression that necessity is the mother of invention? It’s true.

 

While humans have always eaten plant based diets (save a couple of notable cultures), and Health Canada has always unwittingly promoted plant based eating as well, the term didn’t exist until recently. Before then we just had vegan and vegetarian. BUT, anyone working in media, marketing and advertising and public relations know that using the right language is key to getting buy-in.

 

I’m old enough to remember how unpopular vegetarian diets were in the olden days. Back in the 70s we had tofu, soy grits, plain unflavoured soy protein powder, soy flour and not much else. Pulses, or legumes of course, such as kidney beans, chickpeas etc were around but damn it, you had to prepare them.

 

Historically, veganism and vegetarianism was about restriction. Restricting what one ate (no eggs, no beef, no pork, no chicken, no foods that have a face) and restriction of choice. There were few vegetarian prepared foods on the market and few vegetarian restaurants.

 

Research has shown that certain words and wording, are seen negatively:

  • vegan
  • vegetarian
  • meat-free

A fix was needed. Something had to change. It was necessary to invent a new catch phrase and buzzword. The public needed something with gravitas and status.

 

Move over superfood, there’s a new player in town and its name is ‘plant based’.

 

Back to burgers. They are crashing onto the scene big time. Of course, to make them appealing to their market, food manufacturers had to go to great lengths to make them smell, look, taste and feel like the real McCoy.

 

For some nutrition professionals, there are two main concerns about these kinds of foods (hamburgers are just the beginning). Firstly, they’re highly processed and use plant based derived protein with the necessary binders, additives and fillers, with added nutrients to mimic beef. Secondly, is the health halo effect that goes with them given the virtues of the term ‘plant based’. Remember, consumers say that one of the reasons to go plant based is to improve their health.

Beyond Meat Burger Patty by A & W

Beyond burger ingredients

  • Water, pea protein isolate, expeller-pressed canola oil, refined coconut oil, rice protein, mung bean protein, natural flavors, methylcellulose, potato starch, sunflower oil, salt, potassium chloride, apple extract, vinegar, lemon juice concentrate, colour blend (vegetable glycerine, maltodextrin, ascorbic acid, beet juice extract), sunflower lecithin, pomegranate fruit powder, lycopene (for colour), dried yeast. May contain soy.
  • Vitamins and minerals:
    • Niacin (vitamin B3)
    • Pyridoxine hydrochloride (vitamin B6)
    • Thiamin hydrochloride (vitamin B1)
    • Riboflavin (vitamin B2)
    • Folic acid (vitamin B9)
    • Cyanocobalamin (vitamin B12)
    • d-calcium pantothenate (vitamin B5)
    • Biotin
    • Zinc sulfate (zinc)

Impossible Burger by Burger King

Impossible burger ingredients

  • Water, soy protein concentrate, coconut oil, sunflower oil, natural flavors, 2% or less of: potato protein, pethylcellulose, yeast extract, cultured dextrose, food starch modified, soy leghemoglobin, salt, soy protein isolate, mixed tocopherols (vitamin E) as a preservative,
  • Vitamins and minerals
    • Zinc Gluconate (zinc)
    • Thiamine Hydrochloride (vitamin B1)
    • Sodium Ascorbate (vitamin C)
    • Niacin [vitamin B3]
    • Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (vitamin B6)
    • Riboflavin (vitamin B2)
    • Cyanocobalamin (vitamin B12)

 

They are referring to the above ingredient list as the Impossible Burger 2.0 because they changed the ingredients (listed below). The main change was the source of protein. Where the older formulation used wheat (gluten) as the protein source, they’ve switched to soy. There was some protein from potato but potato doesn’t have an impressive amino acid profile so it wasn’t contributing much.

 

Original ingredients

Water, textured wheat protein, coconut oil, potato protein, natural flavors, 2% or less of: leghemoglobin (soy), yeast extract, salt, konjac gum, xanthan gum, soy protein isolate, vitamin E, vitamin C, thiamin (vitamin B1), zinc, niacin (vitamin B3), pyridoxine (vitamin B6), riboflavin (vitamin B2), cyanocobalamin (vitamin B12).

The Good Veggie Burger Yves Veggie Cuisine

Photo credit: Yves Veggie Cuisine

 

The Good Veggie Burger by Yves Veggie Cuisine

The Good Veggie Burger ingredients

  • Water, textured soy protein, Vital wheat gluten, expeller pressed canola oil, onions, natural flavors (contains yeast extract), cornstarch, and less than 2% each of: fruit powder (pear, apple, plum), modified cellulose, malt extract, salt blend (sea salt, potassium chloride, magnesium chloride & sulfate), evaporated cane sugar, carrageenan, dehydrated onion, spice. Contains soy and wheat
  • Vitamins & Minerals
    • Ferrous fumarate (iron)
    • Zinc oxide (zinc)
    • Thiamine Hydrochloride (vitamin B1)
    • Sodium Ascorbate (vitamin C)
    • Nicacinamide [vitamin B3]
    • Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (vitamin B6)
    • Riboflavin (vitamin B2)
    • Cyanocobalamin (vitamin B12)
    • Calcium Pantothenate (vitamin B5)

Meatless burger nutrition

So many want to know if these things are nutritious? They’re all essentially the same when it comes to things people typically think about; what I referred to as “two-dimensional nutrition”. This includes macronutrients (fat, protein and carbs) and the usual suspects such as sodium, fiber, sugar etc. But of course, good nutrition is more nuanced and these numbers don’t speak to nutritional quality.

 

These burgers basically have:

  • 240-270 calories
  • 14-20 g fat
  • 285-380 mg of sodium
  • 5-9 g of carbs
  • 3 g fiber
  • 20 g protein

From a quality perspective, there’s nothing to sing about when it comes to these burgers. From a base nutritional perspective, and let’s be honest, it all comes down to protein, they do provide a decent amount. Many of the highly processed proteins used, such as pea protein isolate, soy protein isolate and concentrate, do contain all essential amino acids. Mung bean protein does not which mostly why its paired with pea protein in the A & W burger.

In closing

Vegetarian burgers have been around for decades. But because they never had wide appeal, a suitable hamburger alternative had to be created and food scientists have managed to do just that.

 

The meatless burgers, and other animal protein substitutes that will follow, are ultimately highly processed foods. They all start as highly nutritious plants that are tweaked and changed in order to replicate something they’re not, muscle protein.

 

These burgers, and other foods like them, are being confusingly positioned within a new framework called ‘plant based diets/eating’. Confusing because healthy diets and dietary patterns have always been plant based where the majority of calories and foods come from plants. A review of one example is Canada’s Food Guide. As mentioned, I’m no fan of the term and to me it’s more about what people think it conveys and is potentially divisive.

 

To most, plant based diets and plan based eating is vegetarian, if not vegan. There’s no denying that. But using language like plant based eating in the context of health is doing the public a disservice. It will lead people to think that a diet based on a variety of foods won’t cut. They’ll likely be led to believe that good health and environmental responsibility can only happen by going ‘meatless’.

 

Of course that couldn’t be further from the truth. The reality is most of the calories people get come from plants: refined white flour, sugar, and vegetable oils. An absurd point maybe but the issues is one of food quality, a point which is lost in this whole discussion.

 

But the genie is out of the bottle. Plant based is here to stay and I get it, it’s because research shows that across social media and beyond, “vegan” is more likely to be viewed negatively than “plant based” (which shouldn’t the case if plant based is indeed not synonymous with vegan – I know, I know, I shouldn’t be confusing you with the facts).

 

In the end, my real concern is that phrase plant based will detract from conversations about healthy eating where the focus is on minimally-processed, nutrient-dense foods regardless if those foods are animal or plant. Lord knows that simply swapping about a hamburger for a vegan one is no guarantee of better health.

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