Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Are meatless “burgers” really a healthy alternative? | Opinion

We often assume “veggie” means healthy even when it doesn’t.

The Beyond Burger at BurgerFi features a faux-meat patty made from pea protein and has a brighter, more reddish appearance than the standard burger (right). Marketing campaigns suggest plant-based meat is a healthier alternative, but is it really?
The Beyond Burger at BurgerFi features a faux-meat patty made from pea protein and has a brighter, more reddish appearance than the standard burger (right). Marketing campaigns suggest plant-based meat is a healthier alternative, but is it really?Read moreMichael Mayo / MCT

Summer is the perfect time to get together with family and friends while cooking burgers on the grill, but this year there may be a new offering on the party menu: fake meat.

Once derided as discs that taste like cardboard, veggie burgers have seen a recent resurgence. A number of national chains are testing plant-based offerings amid consumer interest. The fake meat manufacturer Beyond Meat had a successful launch on the New York Stock Exchange last month.

The growth in fake meat has many primed to write about the success story. But will they also be writing its obituary? Fake meat’s formula for success — mimicking the taste and mouthfeel of real meat — is based on chemical formulas that many health-conscious consumers may find hard to stomach.

Menu labels tell customers how many calories food has, but they don’t tell you what’s in it. In the case of a burger from a cow, the ingredient is pretty obvious: beef. But in the case of the Impossible Burger, offered at major restaurants including Burger King and White Castle, the ingredient list is 21 items long.

Processed meats like bacon have their share of health concerns. They contain additives, namely nitrate — but that’s a chemical we already get primarily from leafy greens, like arugula and spinach. In recent years, the World Health Organization has noted a link between processed meat and cancer. But of course, what matters is the relative lifetime risk and how much you consume. By the WHO’s own standards, a person’s risk for colon cancer increases by 6% per 50 grams of processed meat consumed daily—meaning if you eat four slices of bacon a day.

The problem with meat alternatives is that we’re less aware of the risks, and we often assume “veggie” means healthy even when it doesn’t. Consider: The Beyond Burger has 380mg of sodium, far higher than its ground beef counterpart. Excess sodium can negatively impact the heart. In other words, those who make the switch to fake meat out of concern for their heart are jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.

According to Beyond Meat, the company’s manufacturers “just take the amino acids and the fats from another source and recreate those” with plants to mimic meat.

That sounds all natural. But the company’s fake chicken strips have 21 ingredients, including titanium dioxide. A frozen chicken imitation from a competitor has a whopping 56 ingredients.

Remember how Subway was slammed a few years ago for having a chemical in its bread, azodicarbonamide, that was also found in yoga mats? Consider that various fake meat products also contain propylene glycol (the primary ingredient in antifreeze), magnesium carbonate (used in flooring), and ferric orthophosphate (used as a pesticide for slugs).

For shoppers who believe “you are what you eat,” that’s not welcome news. While consumers are interested in trying out meat mimics, they also want to eat less processed foods.

According to market research firm Mintel, about 60 percent of consumers believe the fewer ingredients a food product has, the healthier it is. And another recent survey found that “no artificial ingredients” and “no preservatives” were two of the top three claims driving food sales.

Contrast that with this: 39 percent of faux meat consumers say they eat the stuff to avoid processed foods.

Clearly, there’s a bridge between what consumers know and what they’re told by misleading marketing and media narratives pushing fake meats as healthier alternatives to real meat.

Fake meat companies are stuck — there’s no way currently to make veggie mash-up taste like beef without added chemicals. Some newer start-ups are trying to grow meat from animal cells, but their efforts are also likely to run into consumers balking at the idea of “lab-grown Franken-meat.”

If “natural” ingredients drive your product choices, you can’t go wrong with natural steak, pork chops, or chicken. You can still satisfy your vegetarian friends with grilled corn and asparagus or a nice veggie kebab. Summer cookouts are for celebrating — not fretting over the contents of mystery (fake) meat.

Will Coggin is managing director for the Center for Consumer Freedom, which lobbies on behalf of the fast food, meat, alcohol and tobacco industries.