Consumers are no longer willing to make do with a sad, desiccated bean burger at the family barbecue. With the plant-based meat sector up 45% last year to $1.4 billion (according to Good Food Institute), the meatless burger wars are serious business. Companies have honed their offerings, making them ever more meat-like. Last month, Beyond Meat released its latest burger upgrade to 28,000 U.S. retail locations and 80 countries. In the name of hands-on journalism, I tried the new burger and compared it with the latest burger iteration from another industry leader, Impossible Foods. Here’s what I found.
Plant-based burger shopping
When I went to my local Fred Meyer store, which is owned by Kroger, I quickly learned that this new era of plant-based burgers is not aimed at vegans like me. Scanning the plant-based refrigerated case and coming up empty, I asked a worker where to find the elusive burgers. “Meat aisle,” she said. “Gross!” I blurted unprofessionally before pulling myself together and venturing into the land of carcasses. The placement of the faux burgers beside the real thing is designed to pull in carnivores, who might feel they should cut down on meat for health, ethical or environmental reasons.
Fred Meyer was selling both brands at lower-than-average costs. The Beyond two-pack cost $4.49 — I later discovered my local store still had the older product for sale, so I had to do this twice — although Google tells me many stores sell it for $5.99. Beyond’s new patties are also available in a four-pack. The Impossible Burgers were on sale $3.99 for a two-pack, with the usual price also listed as $5.99.
Cooking the vegan burgers
Initially, the most striking difference between the two burgers is that Impossible is pink and Beyond is brown with white flecks. Both are packaged in the types of trays butchers usually put meat in, and both types of patty are very moist and squishy to the touch.
Impossible cooks faster than Beyond, with the instructions calling for two minutes on each side, while Beyond says four. Impossible browns on the sides while remaining pink inside. It turns out that when you slice into Beyond, it’s reddish on the inside, too. So both will get realism points with carnivores.
Unlike vegan burgers I’ve cooked in the past, these required no oil. Beyond, especially, sizzled away in its own little fatty pool. I topped one burger with faux cheese for me and one with regular cheese for my vegetarian husband.
Taste and texture
I’ve been vegetarian since childhood and mostly vegan for many years, so I am easy to fool with faux burgers. I’ve had both Beyond and Impossible before in restaurants, where I got anxious and asked the servers at least three times if they were sure my burger was veg. My husband has only been vegetarian for about six years, so his meat memory is sharper. He said Beyond was more convincing as far as the taste and texture of a real burger. We both preferred Impossible, which had a texture a bit more like grain and slightly less like meat. But that may well be because we don’t want total realism. For those who love eating meat but want to cut back for health, environmental, ethical or other reasons, I highly recommend Beyond. I suspect omnivores could easily mistake it for real meat.
I fixed both burgers in a traditional way, on buns with lettuce, tomato and mustard. Both provided the satisfaction you get from a meal with plenty of protein and other high-quality nutrients.
Nutritional analysis of Beyond and Impossible burgers
The two burgers are similar in calorie content — Beyond contains 230 calories per patty (30 calories down from its former version), while Impossible has 240. They also have a similar protein content, with 20 grams in Beyond and 19 in Impossible. But the protein source differs. Beyond mainly uses pea protein, supplemented with mung bean protein. Impossible is soy-based.
Both patties contain a significant amount of saturated fat, thanks to coconut oil. Beyond contains 5 grams of saturated fat, or 25% of the average daily value. Impossible contains a whopping 40%.
Beyond gives you 20% of your daily iron and 8% of calcium. Impossible has built more nutrients into its burgers, including 15% of the daily value for calcium, 30% of riboflavin, 130% of B12, 25% of B6, 50% of zinc, 30% of folate and, for some reason, an incredible 2350% of thiamin.
According to a study by Consumer Lab, “Overall, the Impossible Burger provides as much or more of nearly every vitamin and mineral found in appreciable amounts in a beef burger, aside from choline and selenium.” The nutritional differences between the burgers suggest that Impossible may be going more for the vegan crowd, with members who are notoriously low on B vitamins, while Beyond is more focused on attracting the carnivorous market share.
The future of plant-based burgers
Based on past performance, environmental crises and the heightened awareness of consumers, the plant-based meat sector will likely keep increasing. In 2018, plant-based meat reaped $811 million in sales, then $962 million in 2019 before rocketing to $1.4 billion last year.
According to the Good Food Institute, plant-based buyers skew younger, well-educated and from higher income brackets. Parents and people of color are especially apt to buy plant-based foods. “While all people of color over-indexed for plant-based purchasing, Asian consumers in particular had high interaction,” the institute concluded. “A younger consumer base is a positive sign for the continued success of the plant-based food industry.”
Many faux products are still more expensive than the real thing. But as demand increases and production of plant-based meats scale up, the price should drop, and all income brackets should have better access to plant-based products. The more mainstream plant-based products become, the better for the planet. As Impossible points out on its label, every time a consumer eats an Impossible Burger, they’re using 87% less water, 89% less emissions and 96% less land than it would take to produce a cow burger. And 100% less slaughter.
Images via Teresa Bergen / Inhabitat