Are Beyond Meat and the Impossible Burger Healthy?

Are Beyond Meat and the Impossible Burger Healthy?
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What happens when you compare the trans fats, saturated fat, sodium, and cholesterol levels in plant-based versus animal-based burgers?

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Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

Global meat production has skyrocketed over the last half century, with pork and poultry meat now exceeding 100 megatons a year––a hundred million tons––and this growing demand is unsustainable. The reduction of animal products is “…arguably [one of] the most impactful ways in which [individual] consumers can alter their diets to positively impact individual and societal well-being.” And, there’s definitely growing interest in plant-based diets and meat reduction. But even just something like meatless Mondays requires dietary change, and sadly “…neither sustainability or health approaches are likely to work with those who [love their meat].” But swapping in plant-based meat substitutes may help kind of disrupt the negativity about reducing meat––but for hardcore meat-eaters, it’s gotta taste like it and look like it.

It’s interesting; the more people consume meat substitutes, the less likely they are to care that it has a similar taste, texture, appearance, or smell of meat. But to appeal to those who really need them, the meatier the better. This has certainly been accomplished with the spate of new products on the market, with all studies agreeing that they’re healthier for the planet. But what about healthier for us?

Comparing labels of the burgers and looking at four of the worst components of the food supply—trans fats, saturated fat, sodium, and cholesterol—the plant-based burgers win hands down when it comes to trans fat and cholesterol. We all know trans fats as a serious potential risk factor for cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes, but it’s also been recently associated with symptoms of depression, lower testosterone in men—even at just 1 percent of calories—and dementia. Higher levels of trans fat in the blood is associated with up to a 50 percent higher risk of developing dementia, including Alzheimer’s.

Now that partially hydrogenated oils have been phased out of the food supply, the only major source of trans fats left will be from animal products.

What’s the tolerable upper daily intake level for trans fat? An upper limit was not set for trans fat by the Institute of Medicine, because any incremental increase in trans fat intake increases the risk of heart disease, the #1 killer of men and women––as in any intake above zero. Because trans fatty acids are unavoidable in diets that contain meat and dairy, consuming zero trans fat “…would require significant changes in patterns of dietary intake.” One of the authors of the report from Harvard’s nutrition department offered a memorable explanation for why the Institute of Medicine panel didn’t cap it at zero. “We can’t tell people to stop eating all meat and all dairy products,” he said. “Well, we could tell people to become vegetarians,” he added. “If we were truly basing this only on science we would, but it is a bit extreme.”

We wouldn’t want scientists to base anything on science now, would we? No…

But anyways, that’s a big advantage, and of course, no hormones, no antibiotics, hasn’t been designated as probably cancer-causing by the World Health Organization, and on and on.

Now, I’m not happy with the added salt, which is about a quarter of the American Heart Association’s 1500 mg daily upper sodium limit, or the saturated fat, thanks to added coconut oil, but these do seem to be outliers. In the largest study of the nutritional value of plant-based meats to date, saturated fat levels of similar products only average about 2 grams per serving––much better than the animal-based equivalents. Sodium remains a problem throughout the sector though, like nearly any other processed food out there.

How processed are these products? Well, if you look at the fiber content, for example. Yes, to see any fiber in a burger is a good thing, but compare that to a whole food. If you ate the same amount of protein from yellow peas, for example, the primary plant protein in Beyond Burger, there’d be almost no saturated fat or sodium, and a whopping 20 grams of fiber. So yes, processing plants, in a processing plant, can eliminate 90 percent of the fiber, but processing plants through animals eliminates 100 percent of the fiber.

So, of course, as the chair of Harvard’s nutrition department put it, “Nutrition policies and dietary guidelines should continue to emphasize a diet rich in [whole plant] foods such as nuts, seeds, and legumes or pulses, which are rich in protein and many other nutrients but require little industrial processing.” But we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Not everyone can go all kale and quinoa overnight. The choice on the Burger King menu isn’t between this and this, but between this and this, and in that case, it’s a no-brainer.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Video production by Glass Entertainment

Motion graphics by Avocado Video

Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

Global meat production has skyrocketed over the last half century, with pork and poultry meat now exceeding 100 megatons a year––a hundred million tons––and this growing demand is unsustainable. The reduction of animal products is “…arguably [one of] the most impactful ways in which [individual] consumers can alter their diets to positively impact individual and societal well-being.” And, there’s definitely growing interest in plant-based diets and meat reduction. But even just something like meatless Mondays requires dietary change, and sadly “…neither sustainability or health approaches are likely to work with those who [love their meat].” But swapping in plant-based meat substitutes may help kind of disrupt the negativity about reducing meat––but for hardcore meat-eaters, it’s gotta taste like it and look like it.

It’s interesting; the more people consume meat substitutes, the less likely they are to care that it has a similar taste, texture, appearance, or smell of meat. But to appeal to those who really need them, the meatier the better. This has certainly been accomplished with the spate of new products on the market, with all studies agreeing that they’re healthier for the planet. But what about healthier for us?

Comparing labels of the burgers and looking at four of the worst components of the food supply—trans fats, saturated fat, sodium, and cholesterol—the plant-based burgers win hands down when it comes to trans fat and cholesterol. We all know trans fats as a serious potential risk factor for cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes, but it’s also been recently associated with symptoms of depression, lower testosterone in men—even at just 1 percent of calories—and dementia. Higher levels of trans fat in the blood is associated with up to a 50 percent higher risk of developing dementia, including Alzheimer’s.

Now that partially hydrogenated oils have been phased out of the food supply, the only major source of trans fats left will be from animal products.

What’s the tolerable upper daily intake level for trans fat? An upper limit was not set for trans fat by the Institute of Medicine, because any incremental increase in trans fat intake increases the risk of heart disease, the #1 killer of men and women––as in any intake above zero. Because trans fatty acids are unavoidable in diets that contain meat and dairy, consuming zero trans fat “…would require significant changes in patterns of dietary intake.” One of the authors of the report from Harvard’s nutrition department offered a memorable explanation for why the Institute of Medicine panel didn’t cap it at zero. “We can’t tell people to stop eating all meat and all dairy products,” he said. “Well, we could tell people to become vegetarians,” he added. “If we were truly basing this only on science we would, but it is a bit extreme.”

We wouldn’t want scientists to base anything on science now, would we? No…

But anyways, that’s a big advantage, and of course, no hormones, no antibiotics, hasn’t been designated as probably cancer-causing by the World Health Organization, and on and on.

Now, I’m not happy with the added salt, which is about a quarter of the American Heart Association’s 1500 mg daily upper sodium limit, or the saturated fat, thanks to added coconut oil, but these do seem to be outliers. In the largest study of the nutritional value of plant-based meats to date, saturated fat levels of similar products only average about 2 grams per serving––much better than the animal-based equivalents. Sodium remains a problem throughout the sector though, like nearly any other processed food out there.

How processed are these products? Well, if you look at the fiber content, for example. Yes, to see any fiber in a burger is a good thing, but compare that to a whole food. If you ate the same amount of protein from yellow peas, for example, the primary plant protein in Beyond Burger, there’d be almost no saturated fat or sodium, and a whopping 20 grams of fiber. So yes, processing plants, in a processing plant, can eliminate 90 percent of the fiber, but processing plants through animals eliminates 100 percent of the fiber.

So, of course, as the chair of Harvard’s nutrition department put it, “Nutrition policies and dietary guidelines should continue to emphasize a diet rich in [whole plant] foods such as nuts, seeds, and legumes or pulses, which are rich in protein and many other nutrients but require little industrial processing.” But we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Not everyone can go all kale and quinoa overnight. The choice on the Burger King menu isn’t between this and this, but between this and this, and in that case, it’s a no-brainer.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Video production by Glass Entertainment

Motion graphics by Avocado Video

Doctor's Note

If you missed the first video in this series on plant-based meats, check out The Environmental Impacts of Plant-Based Meat Substitutes.

Stay tuned for:

If you don’t want to wait for all nine of the videos in this series to roll out on NutritionFacts.org, you can get them right now in a digital download from my webinar a few months ago.

For a healthful, whole-food veggie burger, check out my recipe for Black Bean Burgers from my first cookbook.

If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

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