Tempting the most loyal of carnivores, plant-based foods are spreading faster than wildfire as restaurant chains like Carl’s Jr., Del Taco, Burger King and White Castle have added alternative meats to their menus, providing vegans, vegetarians and non-meat eaters with popular food options like burgers and tacos. However, a lingering question remains— how healthy are they?

Studies Say

Many of us remember the infamous 2006 study revealing that livestock and meat production are generating more greenhouse gas emissions than transport. The report, released by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), was enough to make any carnivore rethink their meat consumption. At the time, Henning Steinfeld, Chief of FAO’s Livestock Information and Policy Branch and author of the report said, “Livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems. Urgent action is required to remedy the situation.” 

Related: Impossible Foods tests a fish-less fish protein

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization, released a statement classifying processed meat as a carcinogen in 2015. It also classified red meat as a probable carcinogen. It took a total of 22 experts from 10 countries and the review of over 800 studies to reach this conclusion. They found that consuming 50 grams of processed meat each day (the equivalent of about four strips of bacon or one hot dog) could increase the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%. When it came to red meat, the report found evidence of increased risk of colorectal, pancreatic and prostate cancers.

The Big Bucks

More and more people are making the switch to a plant-based diet, whether for the environment, personal health or love of animals. As the vegan and vegetarian lifestyles rise in numbers, corporations are taking notice and forming strategies to take livestock out of the equation. 

The plant-based meat market is already booming. According to the Good Food Institute, the sale of plant-based meat grew 10% from April 2018 to April 2019 and 37% over the past two years. Last year 11.9% of all U.S. households purchased plant-based meat, which may not sound like much, but that equates to about 15 million households. Plant-based food is currently a $4.5 billion industry and has grown 31% in the past two years.

Beyond and Impossible

The question of whether these plant-based meats are actually good for your health, however, still has experts debating. Unsurprisingly, the futuristic vegan burgers of two most popular plant-based meat companies in the nation have found themselves under the spotlight.

By 2016, Beyond Meat released the first plant-based burger sold in grocery stores (such as Whole Foods) internationally. Impossible Foods began selling their plant-based “bleeding” burgers to fast-food brands and gourmet spots such as Bareburger and Umami Burger in 2017.

The controversy first began in 2018 when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration expressed concern over soy leghemoglobin or “heme,” which is an essential ingredient in the Impossible Foods burger “meat.” The key ingredient creates the illusion of blood and aroma of real meat, and the company found a way to harvest it from plants creating a protein produced by genetically modified yeast cells. Soy is also a key ingredient in popular veggie meat patty brands, Morningstar Farms Garden Veggie Burgers and Kraft Heinz’s Boca Veggie Burgers. Beyond Meat uses beets for color and pea protein isolate, which is processed and is not considered a whole food.

The Ingredients

Beyond: 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).

Related: Cell-based meat could replicate and replace shrimp, lobster and crab

Impossible: Water, Soy Protein Concentrate, Coconut Oil, Sunflower Oil, Natural Flavors, 2% or less of: Potato Protein, Methylcellulose, Yeast Extract, Cultured Dextrose, Food Starch Modified, Soy Leghemoglobin, Salt, Soy Protein Isolate, Mixed Tocopherols (Vitamin E), Zinc Gluconate, Thiamine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B1), Sodium Ascorbate (Vitamin C), Niacin, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B6), Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Vitamin B12.

Things to Consider

While the protein content is similar to actual meat, the plant-based protein used to produce vegan meat is processed. Processed proteins should be eaten in moderation, so more isn’t necessarily better. The process isn’t nearly as synthetic or harmful as say, a twinkie, but it is still something to consider.

Both burgers include coconut oil (rich in saturated fat) as a main ingredient, which the American Heart Association has risen concerns about. There is a large amount of sodium in both burgers. Beyond has 390 milligrams of sodium and Impossible has 370 mg.

There is also the concerning fact that both Impossible and Beyond have yet to reveal how exactly their burgers are made. The companies consider production methods to be trade secrets, which is understandable in a business sense, but far more complicated than the cow = meat process we’ve all grown up with.

When compared to a 4-ounce beef burger with 20 percent fat content, both Beyond and Impossible burgers have fewer calories, fewer grams of fat and the same amount of (or slightly more) protein. Both plant-based burgers have no cholesterol and more fiber than a regular beef burger.

So, are these plant-based burgers actually healthier than the real thing? Well, it depends on the individual. High risk for colorectal cancer? Need to lay off the saturated fats or sodium? Your lifestyle, diet and personal health all need to be considered when making the switch to plant-based meats— and that’s between you and your doctor.

Images via Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat