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Choosing a Healthy Plant-Based Burger

Choosing a Healthy Plant-Based Burger

Plant-Based Burgers, which mimic the taste of a traditional beef burger, are increasing in popularity in the US.(1)  Whether you choose to eat plant-based meat for health, environmental, or animal welfare reasons, you have, no doubt, seen an increase in plant-based meat options at grocery stores and restaurants.

However, are plant based burgers actually a healthy choice? Almost all plant-based burgers are loaded with sodium and contain highly processed ingredients that may negatively impact your health. 

If you eat plant-based meat, even occasionally, it is important to know how to choose a healthy plant-based burger.

What is in plant based burgers?

Before evaluating whether a popular vegan burger is healthy, it is important to understand the ingredients in a plant-based burger.

The main components of a plant-based burgers are protein (usually soy or pea based), fat (saturated fats will enhance “meat” flavor), binder (to hold all ingredients together) and flavoring (to enhance meat-like flavor).

What to look for when choosing a healthy plant-based burger:

  • Avoid excess sodium
  • Are not made with GMO soy
  • Avoid caramel coloring
  • Avoid added sugar
  • Minimize highly processed gums or thickeners, and avoid starch

Most commercially available plant based meat alternatives have long ingredient lists.  And you will be hard-pressed to find a plant-based burger without any gums or thickeners, which are needed to bind the ingredients together.

This comprehensive guide will help you understand what is in your favorite vegan burger and if it is a healthy choice.

1. Minimize Excess Sodium

Healthy almond milk has minimal sodium

Sodium, from salt and other food additives, can be found in almost any processed food.  Plant-based burgers are no exception.

Salt is added to enhance the flavor of plant-based meat.  Additionally, gums and thickeners added to improve the texture of the plant-based meat contain sodium.

More than 90% of us consume too much sodium each day according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.(2)   Read more on the recommended daily intake of sodium and why you want to reduce your daily sodium intake.

2. Avoid GMO Soy

Healthy granola bars should not contain pesticide residues

The majority of soy (94% USA / 62% Canada) grown in North America is genetically modified to be herbicide (typically glyphosate, trade name Roundup®) tolerant.(3) 

This means that genetically engineered soy will likely contain glyphosate residue (read more about GMOs here).  The USDA tested crops for glyphosate residue once in 2011 and found that 90% of soy beans contained residual glyphosate.(4)

The safety of chronic, low-level exposure to glyphosate is not proven.  Therefore, it is advisable to consume non-GMO soy and conventional oats to minimize glyphosate residue intake.

3. Avoid Caramel Color

Healthy granola bars should not contain artificial colors, including caramel color

Caramel coloring is frequently used in beverages (especially colas) and processed foods.  

Caramel coloring is made by heating a sugar with a small amount of an acid, base or amine.  If amines are used in the manufacture of caramel coloring, there can be trace amounts of contaminants in the caramel coloring that are considered by the WHO as “possible carcinogens” to humans.(9)

Recommendation: Though only small amounts of caramel color are used in baked goods, it is advisable to avoid foods that contain any caramel coloring.

4. Avoid Added Sugar

Plant-based burgers can contain hidden added sugar. While it may not be much (in grams), small amounts do add up.

Read more on recommended daily intake of added sugar and why you want to minimize added sugar consumption.

Recommendation:  Choose one of the several plant-based burger brands that avoid added sugar.

5. Minimize Gums and Other Thickeners

healthy almond milk should avoid gums and thickeners

All plant-based burgers contain gums or other thickeners.

Methyl cellulose is the typical binder in plant based burgers. Also called methylcellulose, cellulose gum, and modified cellulose, it is an additive derived from cellulose, the main substance in the cell walls of plants.

Methyl cellulose is not digestible by the human body and is the main ingredient in bulk-forming laxatives. In vegan burgers, methyl cellulose binds the ingredients together to help mimic traditional ground meat. (5,6)

Recommendation: It is best to avoid foods that contain gums and other thickeners, as they are highly processed.  However, occasionally eating small amounts of these additives is probably fine, unless you experience gastrointestinal discomfort or are following a specific diet.

6. Avoid Added Starch

Our bodies rapidly convert starch into sugar during digestion. As such, all forms of food starch are high on the Glycemic Index (GI). 

Eating predominantly high-GI foods is associated with chronic disease and strongly associated with heart disease. (7,8)

Types of rapidly digestible starch found plant-based burgers include: modified food starch, potato starch, tapioca starch, and cultured corn starch.

Recommendation: It is best to avoid plant-based meat that contains any added starch.

Which plant based burgers are healthy?

We evaluated popular plant-based based burgers on the following criteria. (10-20)

Only refrigerated vegan burgers that mimic a traditional burger are included in this evaluation. We did not evaluate more traditional veggie burgers based on beans and grains.

Criteria used to evaluate vegan burgers

score card evaluating what plant based burgers are healthy

All information below is for a 4 oz (113 mg) serving, the size of a typical plant-based burger patty.

  • Ingredients that are important to avoid are in bold.
  • Types of added sugar and sweeteners are listed in red
  • Starches are listed in red italics
  • Gums and thickeners are italicized

No vegan burgers are truly healthy choices

Unfortunately, none of the plant based burgers we evaluated could be considered a truly healthy choice. They are highly processed foods with long ingredient lists and often loaded with sodium.

Does this mean that you should avoid all plant-based meat replacements? No. You can incorporated some of these vegan burgers into an overall healthy diet, just enjoy them as an occasional meal and not a daily staple.

Some Plant-Based Burgers are okay to eat occasionally

Most of the vegan burgers we evaluated fall into the “okay” category.  These plant based meats are okay to eat occasionally, but you don’t want to eat them every day.

However, if you are following a particular diet which avoids gums or thickeners, you will want to avoid these vegan burgers.

Beyond Burger

Nutrition information for Beyond Burger

Beyond Meat’s Beyond Burger Ingredients:

Water, pea protein, expeller-pressed canola oil, refined coconut oil, rice protein, natural flavors, cocoa butter, mung bean protein, methylcellulose, potato starch, apple extract, pomegranate extract, salt, potassium chloride, vinegar, lemon juice concentrate, sunflower lecithin, beet juice extract (for color).

Reasons why you shouldn’t eat the Beyond Burger too often:

  • Contains with potato starch. Starches rapidly convert to glucose during digestion
  • Thickened with methylcellulose, a highly processed gum

Trader Joe’s Protein Patties

Nutrition information for Trader Joe's Protein Patties

Trader Joe’s Protein Patty Ingredients:

Water, pea protein, pea fiber, sunflower oil, beets, natural flavors, methyl cellulose, oat fiber, fruit juice (color), onion powder, sea salt, vegetable juice (color)

Reasons why you shouldn’t eat Trader Joe’s Protein Patties too often:

  • Thickened with methylcellulose, a highly processed gum
  • Each 4 oz patty contains 450 mg of sodium, 30% of the AHA’s recommended daily maximum

Incogmeato Burger

Nutrition information for Incogmeato Plant Protein Burger Patties by MorningStar Farms

Morning Star Farm’s Incogmeato Burger Ingredients:

Water, soy protein concentrate, canola oil, palm oil, methylcellulose, potato starch, dextrose, salt, cultured dextrose, apple juice powder, yeast extract, cornstarch, sunflower lecithin, vegetable juice concentrate, vegetable juice, pectin, citric acid, vitamin B1, vitamin B12, ascorbic acid

Reasons why you shouldn’t eat the Incogmeato Burger too often:

  • Contains dextrose and cultured dextrose, types of added sugar
  • Made with potato starch and cornstarch. Starches rapidly convert to glucose during digestion
  • Thickened with modified cellulose, a highly processed gum

Awesome Burger

Nutrition information for Sweet Earth Awesome Burger by Nestle

Nestle’s Sweet Earth Awesome Burger Ingredients:

Water, textured pea protein, coconut oil, wheat gluten, canola oil, methylcellulose, natural flavors, distilled vinegar, fruit and vegetable juice concentrate (color), dried malted barley extract, dried vinegar, cultured corn starch, sea salt, salt, ascorbic acid, vitamin B1, potassium chloride.

Reasons why you shouldn’t eat the Awesome Burger too often:

  • Each 4 oz Awesome burger contains 400 mg of sodium, 27% of the AHA’s sodium intake for an entire day
  • Contains dried malted barley extract, a type of added sugar
  • Made with corn starch. Starches rapidly convert to glucose during digestion
  • Thickened with methylcellulose, a highly processed gum

Better Than Beef Burger

Nutrition information for Don Lee Farms Better Than Beef Burger

Don Lee Farm’s Better Than Beef Burger Ingredients:

Water, soy protein concentrate, canola oil,  soy flour, natural flavors (with yeast extract, maltodextrin and safflower/ sunflower oils), isolated soy protein, modified cellulose, beet powder, tapioca starch, salt, spice, natural smoke flavor.

Reasons why you shouldn’t eat the Better Than Beef Burger too often:

  • Each 4 oz Meatless Farm burger contains 480 mg of sodium, 32% of the AHA’s sodium intake for an entire day
  • Contains maltodextrin, a type of added sugar
  • Made with tapioca starch. Starches rapidly convert to glucose during digestion
  • Thickened with modified cellulose, a highly processed gum

Avoid these Plant-Based Burgers:

Many vegan burgers contain ingredients that are not part of in a healthy diet. It is best to avoid the following plant-based burgers.

Impossible Burger

Nutrition information for Impossible Burger

Impossible Food’s Impossible Burger Ingredients:

Water, soy protein concentrate, coconut oil, sunflower oil, natural flavors, potato protein, methylcellulose, yeast extract, cultured dextrose, food starch modifiedsoy leghemoglobin, salt, soy protein isolate, vitamin E, zinc gluconate, vitamin B1, vitamin C, niacin, vitamin B6, vitamin B2, vitamin B12.

Reasons why you should avoid eating the Impossible Burger:

  • Made with GMO soy, which most likely has residual glyphosate pesticide residue
  • Contains genetically a engineered heme, soy leghemoglobin, to provide a meat-like taste and characteristic red juices of a burger
  • Contains dextrose, a type of added sugar
  • Made with modified food starch. Starches rapidly convert to glucose during digestion
  • Contains methylcellulose, a highly processed gum

Pure Farmland Burger

Nutrition information for Pure Farmland Plant Based Burger Patties

Smithfield Foods Pure Farmland Simply Seasoned Burger Patties Ingredients:

Water, soy protein concentrate, coconut oil, canola oil, isolated soy protein, spice, natural flavorings, roasted garlic powder, dehydrated garlic, onion powder, salt, sunflower oil, soy fiber, sugar, red beet juice concentrate (color), paprika oleoresin (color), yeast extract, cultured dextrose, maltodextrin, methylcellulose, citric acid, soy lecithin. 

Reasons why you should avoid Pure Farmland Burger Patties:

  • Made with GMO soy, which most likely has residual glyphosate pesticide residue
  • Each 4 oz Pure Farmland Patty contains 580 mg of sodium, 39% of the American Heart Association’s recommended daily maximum
  • Contains sugar, cultured dextrose, and maltodextrin, all types of added sugar
  • Thickened with methylcellulose, a highly processed gum

Happy Little Plants

Nutrition information for Happy Little Plants Plant-Based Ground by Hormel

Hormel’s Happy Little Plants Unseasoned Plant-Based Ground Ingredients:

Water, soy protein concentrate, soybean oil, isolated soy protein, methylcellulose, caramel color, hydrolyzed soy protein, yeast extract, natural flavor, beet root powder, onion powder, salt, spices

Reasons why you should avoid Happy Little Plants Unseasoned Plant-Based Ground:

  • Contains caramel color, a possible carcinogen
  • Thickened with methylcellulose, a highly processed gum
  • Each 4 oz patty contains 400 mg of sodium, 27% of the AHA’s recommended daily maximum

Uncut Burger

Nutrition information for Uncut Plant-Based Burger by Beyond the Butcher

Beyond the Butcher’s Uncut Burger Ingredients:

Water, soy protein concentrate, expeller pressed canola oil, refined coconut oil, isolated soy protein, soy flour, yeast extract, methylcellulose, caramel color, natural flavor (yeast extract, maltodextrin, salt, natural flavors, medium chain triglycerides, acetic acid, grill flavor, smoke flavor), beet powder, natural red color (beet juice, annatto, glycerin), citric acid.

Reasons why you should avoid the Uncut Burger:

  • Contains caramel color, a possible carcinogen
  • Thickened with methylcellulose, a highly processed gum
  • Contains maltodextrin, a type of added sugar

The Meatless Farm Plant-Based Burger

Nutrition information for The Meatless Farm Co Plant Based Burger

The Meatless Farm’s Fresh Plant-Based Burger Ingredients:

Water, pea protein, canola oil, shea oil, methylcellulose, coconut oil, rice protein, pea fiber, yeast extracts, caramelized carrot concentrate, fruit and vegetable extracts for color (beetroot, radish, tomato), natural flavors, potato fiber, potato starch, salt, ground black pepper, carrot concentrate, ascorbic acid

Reasons why you should avoid The Meatless Farm’s Plant-Based Burger:

  • Each 4 oz Meatless Farm vegan burger contains 620 mg of sodium, 41% of the AHA’s sodium intake for an entire day
  • Made with potato starch. Starches rapidly convert to glucose during digestion
  • Contains the highly processed thickeners methylcellulose

Lightlife Plant-Based Burger

Nutrition information for Lightlife Plant-Based Burger

Lightlife Plant-Based Burger Ingredients:

Water, pea protein, expeller pressed canola oil, modified corn starch, modified cellulose, yeast extract, virgin coconut oil, sea salt, natural flavor, beet powder (color), ascorbic acid, onion extract, onion powder, garlic powder.

Reasons why you should avoid Lightlife Plant-Based Burgers:

  • Each 4 oz Lightlife Burger contains 540 mg of sodium, 36% of the American Heart Association’s recommended daily maximum
  • Made with modified corn starch. Starches rapidly convert to glucose during digestion
  • Contains modified cellulose, a highly processed gum

Conclusions about choosing a healthy vegan burger

When it comes to finding a healthy plant based burger, simple clean ingredients are best.  However, all vegan burgers designed to mimic beef contain highly processed ingredients as well as high levels of sodium. 

Some plant-based burgers are fine for occasional enjoyment. Though it is best to not eat them too frequently.

Check out these other product evaluations:

References:

  1. Plant-based meat to rise in popularity as big food firms edge into market, Consulting.us Website, Jan 2020 (link)
  2. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020, Eighth Ed.  (link)
  3. Non-GMO Project, GMO acreage in 2018: Soy (link)
  4. USDA PDP Special Projects, Glyphosate, 2011 (link)
  5. Methyl cellulose, Wikipedia Website (link)
  6. Beyond Burger needs multiple ingredients to mimic meat, Food Business News Website (link)
  7. Whole Grains and Fiber, American Heart Association Website (link)
  8. Always Hungry? Conquer Cravings, Retrain Your Fat Cells & Lose Weight Permanently, David Ludwig, MD, PhD (link)
  9. Center for Science in the Public Interest. Chemical Cuisine: Caramel Color (link)
  10. Beyond Burger, Beyond Meat Website (link)
  11. Trader Joe’s Protein Patties, Trader Joe’s Website (link)
  12. Incogmeato Burger Patties, Morningstar Farms Website (link)
  13. Awesome Burger, Sweet Earth Foods Website (link)
  14. Better Than Beef Burger, Don Lee Farms Website (link)
  15. Impossible Burger, Impossible Foods Website (link)
  16. Pure Farmland Simply Seasoned Burger Patties, Pure Farmland Website (link)
  17. Happy Little Plants Unseasoned Plant-Based Ground, Happy Little Plants Website (link)
  18. Uncut Burger, Before the Butcher Foods Website (link)
  19. The Meatless Farm Plant Based Burger, The Meatless Farm Website (link)
  20. Lightlife Plant Based Burger, Lightlife Website (link)
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