I’m not a major hamburger lover but when I have one, I like it to be a really good one — thick, juicy, pink on the inside, and seared on the outside. The very best hamburgers I’ve had have been at our cabin in the mountains of West Virginia when our grandsons came to visit.
We would go to the store and buy a piece of chuck, come back and cut it up and the guys would put it through Grandma‘s old meat grinder. They make nice thick patties and slice up some summer squash and cook them either outside on a charcoal grill or inside over the wood coals in the fireplace. Just add some vine ripe tomatoes.
Now that’s a real burger.
But now, two companies, with more rapidly following, have developed a plant-based “beef” product that looks, tastes, smells, and feels like the real thing.
The two companies are Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat.
Impossible Foods uses organic genetically modified soy protein as the base substance. The soy contains leghemoglobin which a special yeast can convert to heme giving the red color to the “beef.”
The burger has 21 ingredients including also potato protein, coconut oil, sunflower oil, yeast extract, dextrose, food starch, methylcellulose and various flavorings. Initially containing wheat products, the current formulation does not.
One concern raised (in the Livestock News) is that the high concentration of soy product can have an estrogen-like effect but that is highly unlikely and the FDA has certified it as generally recognized as safe.
Beyond Meat bases its burger on a non-organic, non-GMO yellow pea protein isolate. Among other ingredients is expeller pressed canola oil, rice protein, refined coconut oil, cellulose from bamboo, methylcellulose, potato starch, maltodextrin, yeast extract, salt, sunflower oil, vegetable glycerin, gum Arabic, and citrus extract plus natural flavors.
The red color of beef is created by beet juice. A quote from Ethan Brown, the company’s founder, “[Meat] is essentially these five things. It’s amino acids, lipids, trace minerals, trace vitamins, and water…None of those are exclusive to the animal. They’re all present in the plant kingdom.”
Overall, both products are essentially processed foods with a very high number of ingredients albeit all from plants.
Beyond Meat was founded by Ethan Brown in 2009. He has a degree from the University of Maryland where his father is a former professor in the Agriculture School. Brown grew up, in part, on a farm. As to the process, the company has found a method of heating, cooling, pressing, and mixing plant products into what look and taste like burgers and other meats.
“What we’re doing, I don’t think about it as meat substitutes or meat alternatives,” Brown said in an interview. “We’re actually building a piece of meat directly from plants.”
Patrick Brown, no relative of Ethan, founded Impossible Foods. He is a biochemistry professor at Stanford who, frustrated that little was being done to reduce the environmental impact of animal agriculture, decided to develop a competitive plant-based product.
Comparing the two products side-by-side and to a traditional beef burger shows they each have similar nutritional value. They all have about the same number of calories, the same amount of fat including saturated fat, and, interestingly, plant-based burgers have little more fiber than beef burgers.
They have become very popular very quickly although their sales pale in comparison to the real thing. Beyond Meat has its burgers in TGI Fridays, Carl’s Jr., A&W, Subway, and Dunkin, among others. They’re also in many chain markets such as Whole Foods, Safeway, and Giant.
Impossible Foods has an arrangement with Burger King, White Castle, the Hard Rock Café, Cheesecake Factory, Little Caesars, and others and is in many supermarket chains.
The Whopper is the icon of Burger King. If you compare the beef Whopper to an Impossible Burger, the calories (630 vs 680) are about the same. The beef burger has a bit more fat (34g vs 40g) but both have about the same amount of saturated fat (11g vs 12g).
The Impossible Whopper has more sodium (1080 vs 980), both have about the same amount of protein (25g vs 28g) and the same amount of sugar (12g vs 11g). Neither have much fiber (4g vs 2g). So, the basic reason to choose one of these burgers is to avoid beef and its impact on the environment, not because this Whopper is healthy, especially when paired with a large fries and a large soda.
A University of Michigan study commissioned by Beyond Beef suggests that “a cradle to distribution” life cycle assessment of these 4 oz burgers “generate 90% fewer greenhouse gases, require 46% less energy, has >99% less impact on water scarcity, and 93% less impact of land use than a ¼ pound pattie of US beef.” Impossible Foods did a similar study via Quantis with similar results.
The concept here is that to produce beef, a cow has to eat a large amount of grasses (and corn and soybeans in the feedlots), much more than what it takes to produce one of these plant-based burgers. And the cow releases a large quantity of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere whereas plants consume carbon dioxide and release oxygen.
Both plant-based burgers taste good, have a good mouthfeel and in general, really do mimic a real beef burger. One of my physician friends says “I like them and I have one (the 4oz variety at stores) every few weeks at home. It’s a good meat substitute although I’m concerned it’s highly processed and I do worry about the high level of sodium. On the other hand, I do want to ‘save the planet’ and I think red meat, at least in excess, is potentially harmful.”
What’s next? Many countries like Germany and China are much more pork-oriented than beef. So, no surprise these companies are coming out with “pork” sausages, a stir-fried pork dish, and pork dumplings.
And of course, chicken is the mainstay in many fast-food restaurants so, again, no surprise that plant-based “chicken” bites are now available.
Although today these products are only a small fraction of the total meat market, there are those that believe that plant-based meat products could be a $450 billion dollar market within a few decades or less. Both companies are doing very well with increasing numbers of outlets for their products, so well that others have rapidly following suit.
Nestle’s, for example, introduced its “Awesome Burger” and as of Spring, 2021, has a greater market share than either Beyond or Impossible. Many others are pushing into the market.
One of the key questions is the balance between avoiding or reducing consumption of red meat and yet avoiding processed foods. John Mackey, the co-founder and chief executive officer of Whole Foods, one of the first chain organizations to market the Beyond Meat burger, made the following comment: these are “if you look at the ingredients, they are super highly processed foods.” “I don’t think eating highly processed foods is healthy. I think people thrive on eating whole foods.”
Mackey is a vegan and does believe in the concept of reducing animal protein in our diets if only to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Consistent with his “whole foods” concept he is willing to sell them but not endorse them.
I always like the advice of Michael Pollan who, in the first sentence of his book In Defense of Food, wrote “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” By “food” he meant real food, not processed or junk.
Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods burgers are not meat but they are not whole plant food either. My take is, as with most foods, all things in moderation, except vegetables which we should eat in abundance.
These burgers are made exclusively from plant products but are extensively processed. Certainly, they reduce meat consumption and probably are not harmful. So, a good choice but on occasion. If you do like beef but want to avoid it, then this is a good possibility.
The Beyond Meat and the Impossible Foods’ burgers do mimic the real thing rather closely and, although slightly more expensive, with time the price will probably come down to beef price levels.
As for me, I will stick with having real beef burgers but not very often and preferably fresh ground and grilled by our grandsons. And as a treat, maybe toast up a marshmallow for dessert.