Plant-based burgers are suddenly hot, even among meat-eaters. But the ones getting the most attention aren't your typical black bean patties. Burgers like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger look, feel, smell, and even taste like actual beef and are sold at mainstream grocery stores and fast food chains like Burger King. They seem like a no-brainer, smarter choice—but are they?
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The answer isn't as simple as you might think, and as a dietitian, I have mixed feelings. Yes, eating less meat and more plants can be a healthy move if you end up eating more nutrient-loaded veggies and less saturated fat and cholesterol. Yet some of the newer meatless patties actually have as much saturated fat as beef burgers, and in some cases, even more thanks to oils (like coconut) that are used to make them. Some are also high in sodium, much higher than fresh ground beef. For instance, the Impossible Whopper at Burger King actually has more sodium, and a similar number of calories and grams of saturated fat, as the regular Whopper.
Another drawback: Because they're engineered to mimic meat, the ingredient list reads more like something from a food lab, not a kitchen. While homemade meatless burgers are usually made with whole foods like rice, beans, and mushrooms, these newer meatless burgers contain ingredients such as soy protein concentrate, food starch, and thickeners like methylcellulose—perfectly safe ingredients, but very processed.
But these burgers can help you eat a more sustainable diet, since plants typically require less land, water, and energy to produce than raising livestock. If you're trying to get your family to eat less meat overall, these products—which have the look and feel of the real deal—can make that a whole lot easier. My kids both love the vegan "chicken" patties on the market. But they're not huge fans of the from-scratch rice and bean burgers I've made at home. Plus, you can't beat the convenience of a ready-made patty.
For a second opinion, I reached out to Alex Caspero, a registered dietitian, mom, and co-founder of Plant Based Juniors, a community for parents who feed their kids a primarily plant-based diet.
"If someone is going to go to a fast-food restaurant to get a burger, I think it's better to get a plant-based burger," she says. "I'm a big fan of these products to reduce red meat consumption for omnivores." She notes that these burgers contain similar levels of iron and protein to ground beef—which is good for growing kids who need those nutrients—without the cholesterol of meat.
The Bottom Line
Meat alternatives should be in the "sometimes" category. "I look at the plant-based burgers the same way I look at beef burgers—not foods that I'd recommend on a daily basis, but an okay occasional choice," Caspero says. "I'd much rather advocate for a whole-foods, plant-based meal, but also believe that fun foods can be part of a healthy diet. I've given the Beyond Burger products to my toddler, and he loves it!"
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a Contributing Editor for Parents magazine and a registered dietitian who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The 101 Healthiest Foods For Kids and Cooking Light Dinnertime Survival Guide. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.