If you swap a fast-food beef burger for a fast-food plant burger like Beyond or Impossible, are you “trading up”— getting something more healthful?
Not necessarily, was the answer proclaimed by many articles this past summer. The top ten of these, appearing in CNN, HuffPost, NBC News, Washington Post and other prominent outlets went into great detail to arrive at a throw-up-your-hands conclusion: Don’t bother switching.
We don’t have space to detail here all the spinning and unsubstantiated claims—for example, that vegetarian and vegan diets are “protein-scarce”—so instead, we’ll focus on this “trading up” question. Seeing what these articles do, and do not, contain shows that the “not necessarily” answer has been unfortunately rigged.
First, a quick overview: All ten pieces note that these new items are not the same as old-school hippie-friendly veggie burgers, acknowledged as healthier than meat. Many writers stress the number of ingredients in the new entries, often neglecting to mention how unhealthful a “one-ingredient” burger is.
As a direct comparison, most focus on comparing the Impossible Whopper (IW) to Burger King’s regular Whopper (RW), so let’s start there. Half of these articles mention that the saturated fat per “serving” (a fully dressed burger with bun) in the IW (11g) is close to that in the RW (12g). Critics of the IW tend to focus on its higher sodium content, ignoring that the difference is relatively minor, on par with other quantified nutrients (calories, total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and fiber) in which the IW happens to come out slightly ahead of RW. Based on these slight variations, at first glance, the burgers are nutritionally similar.
But the similarity ends there, we’re told, because the IW is processed; in fact, more processed than the ground-beef burger. This is a health liability of frankly unknown quantifiability, though IW critics are not hesitant to jump to an accusatory conclusion. “It doesn’t look promising” for the plant-based side, warned the Huffpost, while Canada’s National Post blared “it might be more harmful than good.”
In order to reach this conclusion, some facts have been ignored. For instance, while the RW contains 1.5g of trans fat, the IW has zero. Trans fats bring all the risks of saturated fats, and then some added risks that saturated fat does not. Their unhealthfulness is so notorious that they’re now omitted from many products, but can’t be eradicated from meat, where they occur naturally. So while the “sat fat” content of IW is one thing, the RW adds trans fats to that for even greater risk to your heart—easily matching, and likely exceeding, the assumed dangers of “highly processed” food. Oddly, zero out of ten writers mentioned the trans-fat numbers.
At this point, we might still charitably call the IW/RW comparison a wash. But let’s not forget that most ground beef contains fecal matter, which—if not cooked enough to kill the E. coli (or if it cross contaminates, say, buns or lettuce)—will sicken normal adults and can kill young children and the elderly. That’s a health risk worth noting, yet “E. coli” and “foodborne illness” are mentioned by none of the writers.
Another problem is antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” in meat, along with animal farming’s documented generation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. As 80% of all antibiotics are used in farmed animals, meat’s role in potentially rendering medically important drugs useless in perpetuity is a major health downside not factored in.
Still more: Red meat (ground beef) is strongly associated with cancer risk in hundreds of studies. Officially, it’s a class-2 carcinogen—it “probably” causes cancer. Beef consumption is also strongly correlated with heart disease, America’s number-one killer—seems like a pretty significant “healthiness” factor.
But no: Out of these 10 pieces, only two even mentioned heart disease, and it’s in passing. Only four mentioned red meat and cancer, and two of these expended much more attention on a less definite “processed foods” cancer connection. One writer expounded on the latter while completely ignoring red meat’s cancer liability. Likewise, diabetes was only mentioned once as a known meat problem (again in passing) while two other writers cite it only as a possible effect of processed-food consumption. The risk of growth hormones and sex hormones in beef was unconsidered throughout.
Mark Rifkin, a registered dietitian with a master’s degree, observes: “Yes, the sodium and saturated-fat content of the Impossible Whopper could be improved. But then again, it’s not trying to be a black-bean burger. It’s trying to replace the regular Whopper, and thus its nutrition numbers are deliberately similar.”
Relying solely upon critics’ nutrition analysis provides a limited picture at best. As Rifkin noted in correspondence, because animal products are higher up the food chain than any plant food, they contain high concentrations of agricultural chemicals and persistent organic pollutants (POPs), such as PCBs and dioxins from industrial emissions. With each step up the chain (plant to animal is one step, animal 1 to animal 2 is a second step, etc.), pollutant concentrations are biomagnified by a factor of about ten.
Thus, omnivorous humans may wind up with about 100 times the concentration of a given POP of the original plant. The routine disposal of slaughterhouse waste, dead pets, and food service waste fats in livestock feed may even push these concentrations drastically higher. So, eating lower on the food chain is likely to limit intakes of nearly all POPs.1 “While the Impossible Whopper and related products are not ‘healthy’ per se,” Rifkin says, “they are lower on the food chain, and thus are distinctly healthier than beef —by definition.”
But there’s still more: Polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs) are carcinogenic compounds formed when animal flesh is cooked at high
heat, especially over open-wood flames.2 Rifkin notes that “while PAHs may also form in some plant foods,” he says, “concentrations are generally higher in meats, and HCAs have not been found in any substantial amounts in plant foods. BK cooks all its burgers on open-wood flames, although they will prepare the IW in a microwave upon request”—yet another “healthfulness” distinction unmentioned in this set of articles.
Let’s get real: The benefits plant foods offer versus animal-based foods are so strong that the media-darling “processed” factor is far outweighed. Any plant-based item that replaces an animal item one-for-one is going to be either a little bit, or a lot, healthier than its nonvegan counterpart. In the case of burgers, our mouths may find the taste of the vegan options indistinguishable from the original ones. But it is trading up, no matter how many “objective” meat-eating journalists try to persuade you otherwise.
1 Walker P, et al. Public health implications of meat production and consumption. Public Health Nutr. 2005 Jun; 8(4):348-56.
“All About Cooking & Carcinogens,” by Ryan Andrews, RDN at https://www.precisionnutrition.com/all-about-cooking-carcinogens
2 “Chemicals in Meat Cooked at High Temperatures and Cancer Risk,” from National Cancer Institute at https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/diet/cooked-meats-fact-sheet
10 articles evaluated for this story:
* “Burger King has a Meatless ‘Impossible’ Whopper. Is it Healthier than the Original?” by Samantha Cassetty, RD; NBC News, 4/8/19
* “Think that “Bleeding” Vegan Burger is Super Healthy? Think Again” by Jillian Kramer; Yahoo! Cooking Light, 5/7/19
* “The Promise and Problem of Fake Meat” by Emily Atkin; New Republic, 6/7/19
* “Burger Wars: Is a plant-based patty always better for you than beef?” by Leslie Young; Global News, Canada, 6/30/19
* “Are Beyond Meat And Impossible Burgers Better For You? Nutritionists Weigh In.” by Erica Sweeney; HuffPost, 7/10/19
* “Vegan Beyond Meat burgers are just ultra-processed patties that can be bad for our health” by Bianca Bharti; National Post, Canada, 8/7/19
* “They might be better for the planet, but are plant-based burgers good for you?” by Lisa Drayer; CNN, 8/9/19
* “Whole Foods CEO on plant-based meat boom: Good for the environment but not for your health” by Jade Scipioni; CNBC, 8/21/19
* “Is Beyond Meat Healthy? Nutritionists say yes, on occasion” by Aria Bendix; Business Insider, 8/26/19
* “Is it really possible that plant-based foods such as the Impossible Whopper are healthful?” by Cara Rosenbloom; Washington Post, 9/9/19