Here's What You Really Need to Know About the Faux Meat Burger Trend, According to Dietitians
The "fake" meat trend is everywhere: at restaurants, in grocery stores, and even at fast-food chains. Here, healthy food pros break down what's really in these patties and what you should know about eating one.
Mock meat is becoming really popular. Late last year, Whole Foods Market predicted this as one of the biggest food trends of 2019, and they were spot on: Sales of meat alternatives jumped by a whopping 268 percent from mid-2018 to mid-2019, according to a report from the restaurant industry group Dining Alliance. (Compare this to a 22 percent increase the year before.)
So why are people spending so much money on these meat imposters? And what are they actually made from, if not beef, chicken, fish, or pork? Here, take a closer look at what's on these nutrition labels and hear what registered dietitians have to say.
The Latest Faux Meat Trend
"'Meatless' meats have been on the market for quite some time," says Rania Batayneh, M.P.H., owner of Essential Nutrition For You and author of The One One One Diet: The Simple 1:1:1 Formula for Fast and Sustained Weight Loss. "The difference in the past year or two involves a greater push for a higher protein product as well as the consumer's increased demand for something that tastes and has a texture that's as good as the real thing." (Related: The 10 Best Faux Meat Products)
Faux meats of the past (think: crumbly, bland veggie burgers of the 90s) could not really be mistaken for ground beef in either taste or texture, says Lauren Harris-Pincus, M.S., R.D.N., founder of NutritionStarringYOU.com and author of The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club. But the current crop of meat-like alternatives includes ingredients that mimic the "rare" look and juiciness of beef. There's even tender faux chicken and flaky faux fish now, too.
This could be due to manufacturers using more "variety of vegetarian protein sources instead of just soy- and bean-based products, as were popular in the past," says Jenna A. Werner, R.D., creator of Happy Slim Healthy. "Brands are using pea and rice for protein, plus fruit and veggie extracts added for color."
Why Faux Meat Is Trending Now
The rise in popularity of the flexitarian diet—aka a flexible, semi-vegetarian lifestyle—may be linked to increased interest in meat-like meatless products. Another possible driver is a slew of recent studies that have connected meat production with earth-shattering environmental impacts. In fact, more sustainable eating patterns, erring more toward veganism and vegetarianism, could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 70 percent and water use by 50 percent, according to a report in the journal PLOS One.
To put meat's H2O impact into perspective, the average American's shower uses about 17 gallons of water. According to the United States Geological Survey, it takes…
5 gallons of water to produce a pound of potatoes
10 gallons of water to produce a pound of chicken
150 gallons of water to produce the beef for a four-ounce (quarter-pound) hamburger
And the Impossible Burger, for example, boasts the fact that it utilizes 87 percent less water than beef.
"This is purely my opinion, but I don't believe these products are being made for vegans," says Werner. "I have spoken with quite a few vegans who personally will not go near something like the Impossible Burger because it resembles the look and flavor of real animal meat too much. I believe these are designed for flexitarians, vegetarians or anyone looking to try something new or add in more plant-based foods into their diet—which seems to be a lot of people these days." (More: What's the Difference Between a Plant-Based Diet and a Vegan Diet?)
The Top Meat-Like Meats On the Market
KFC's Beyond Fried Chicken was tested in Atlanta in late August 2019 and sold out in just five hours. So it's clear the demand is strong. Several other large restaurant chains, including Cheesecake Factory, McDonald's Canada (which just launched a P.L.T. sandwich, or a plant, lettuce, and tomato burger made with Beyond Meat), Burger King, White Castle, Qdoba, TGIFridays, Applebee's, and Qdoba all offer meatless "meats."
Many more are testing or considering adding a faux-meat option to their menus, and only Arby's has released an official comment against all things meatless since their motto promises they "have the meats." (Check out one writer's quest to find the best veggie burger and meat alternatives money can buy.)
Beyond what you can purchase already cooked, the following options (with more being added seemingly by the day) can now be found—or will soon be available—at nationwide retailers.
- Impossible Burger from Impossible Foods. Impossible's main protein comes from soy, soy protein concentrate, specifically, which is soy flour with the soluble fiber taken out for more protein per ounce. Coconut oil pumps up the fat content, which is why it's so juicy. Soy leghemoglobin (aka heme) is the key ingredient that makes it impossibly "rare" and meat-like in color and texture.
- Beyond Burger, Beef Crumbles and Sausage all by Beyond Meat. Pea protein isolate, canola oil, and coconut oil team up for a beef-like product that gets its "bloody" consistency from beet extract.
- Awesome Burger made by Sweet Earth Foods. Textured pea protein, coconut oil, and wheat gluten make up the majority of each patty, while fruit and veggie juice concentrates lend a beefy hue.
- Nashville Hot Chick'n Tenders, Beefless Burger, Meatless Meatballs, and Crabless Cakes all by gardein. Most of these no-meat "meats" are built around a base of enriched wheat flour, canola oil, pea protein concentrate, and vital wheat gluten. (Note for anyone with Celiac disease: This flour is essentially all gluten and next to no starch, so steer clear.)
- Plant-Based Burger, Smart Dogs, Plant-Based Sausage, and Deli Slices from Lightlife. Pea protein, extracted from yellow peas, plus canola oil, modified corn starch, and modified cellulose star in Lightlife's lifelike meatless meats.
- Loma Linda Taco Filling from Atlantic Natural Foods. With texture and flavor remarkably similar to ground beef taco meat, textured soy protein, soybean oil, and yeast extract (which adds savory flavor) are the key ingredients in this Mexican-inspired product.
But we know what you're wondering: What's the difference between the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Meat Burger? After all, these two are taking up the lion's share of restaurant partnerships and customer base.
Harris-Pincus says shes tried both.
"Both are impressive meat substitutes in color and texture," she says. "I ordered a Beyond Meat burger at a popular chain restaurant and it was pretty tasty. However, I do find them rather greasy. These substitutes are higher in fat than I'd like, but I did find them to be impressive meat imposters," she says. (Related: High-Protein Burgers That Aren't Beef)
Batayneh recently grilled up one of the brand-new Awesome Burgers, topped it with hummus, and sandwiched in with a bun. The verdict? "It's all about texture, ingredients, and flavor," she says. "It has veggie and fruit extracts, which provide a vibrant color that transforms while cooking. Plus, I think the Awesome Burger tastes 'clean' and that's what matters to me. The [6 grams of] fiber was also really appealing. If it's plant-based, then it should have fiber, right?"
Is Faux-Meat Healthier Than Real Meat?
Comparing the nutrition of an Impossible Burger to a beef burger, for example, isn't really that black and white, says Werner. There are too many factors to consider and different ways to compare them, such as the length of the ingredient list, amount of sodium or the protein, and manufacturing process. One thing that stands out, though: All of these faux meats contain zero cholesterol since that only exists in meat products. If and when you choose to eat real meat, Harris-Pincus recommends that you "think of meat as an accent to the meal instead of the star of the plate" for a better balance of macros and more vitamins. (Try these high-protein vegetarian lunch ideas you can easily tote to work.)
"Strictly from a calorie and fat standpoint, most of the burger alternatives compare similarly to a higher fat cut of meat, such as 80/20 ground beef," says Harris-Pincus. However, she personally recommends most of her clients cook with leaner meats, which are lower in calories and fat. "However, portions can be altered, and there's always room for a higher-caloric protein in some meals as well," she adds.
It's these stats that you need to take a closer look at when considering your overall diet and how these faux-burgers might fit into it. When in doubt, never just hop on a "healthy food" trend because, well, it's trending, says Harris-Pincus.
"Sometimes people believe that meatless means lower calories, and that's not the case here," she says. "Choosing these faux-meat burgers will not help with weight loss compared to traditional lean beef burgers. Honestly, I would rather someone choose a grass-fed lean ground beef burger that's higher in omega-3 fats than a coconut oil-laden meatless burger that's high in saturated fat. Overall, our diets should be plant-forward with many more fruits and veggies, whole grains, nuts, beans and seeds and smaller portions of animal products." (Related: Everything You Need to Know About Omega-3s and Omega-6s)
And those with dietary restrictions, such as lactose intolerance or Celiac disease, need to be careful and read the ingredient labels. Some of these faux meats contain wheat gluten.
"Every person is different and every person's needs are different, but remember: There is room in your diet to try things like this—especially if you're interested in integrating more plant-based options," says Werner. "Switching up your sources of protein is so good for you and helps prevent boredom. Plus, if you're currently eating a lot of red meat and interested in cutting back, this could be a good way to start." (Related: 10 High-Protein Plant-Based Foods That Are Easy to Digest)
The Bottom Line On Plant Burgers and More
While these meat-like faux meats are not necessarily better for your body than their animal-based counterparts, they do have less of an impact on the environment. Plus, they allow for alternative protein sources to hit your quota for the day. (BTW: This is what eating the right amount of protein every day looks like.) Opting for mock meat every so often is "an easy way for meat-eaters to decrease their intake of animal products, yet still score a similar flavor and texture of the real thing," says Harris-Pincus. That sounds like a delicious win-win.