Burger wars: Is a plant-based patty always better for you than beef?

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How to survive on a vegan diet
WATCH: The world of plant-based mock meat is quickly taking over the vegan market, but many health experts agree, faux-meats aren't as healthy as they sound. – Aug 25, 2018

Plant-based burger and sausage patties, ground “meat” and more are springing up in grocery aisles and fast food chains across Canada, often promising the texture and flavour of the meats they’re imitating.

And at a time when the Canada Food Guide is suggesting that Canadians emphasize plant protein in their diets, these can seem like tempting options.

But some experts, such as consulting dietitian Rosie Schwartz, warn against swapping real meats for the fake stuff, saying these plant-based options aren’t always as healthy as they’re made out to be:

Beyond Meat, a company whose burger and sausage patties have appeared all over Canada in recent months, says on its website that it uses plant proteins, fats and minerals to “rebuild meat from the ground up without sacrificing on taste and texture.”

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The ingredients list for its burger patty includes things like “pea protein isolate,” coconut oil, rice protein, methylcellulose, sunflower lecithin and potato starch, as well as beet juice extract for colour.

For these reasons, Schwartz calls the Beyond Burger and products like it “ultra-processed foods” — a kind of food that many recent studies have linked to various health problems.

Beyond Meat’s protein is heated, cooled and put under pressure to create the fibrous structure of meat, said Will Schafer, vice president of marketing for Beyond Meat in an emailed statement.

“We believe it is a tale of two processes between industrial livestock production and our approach of by-passing the animal to build burgers and sausage directly from plants, and ultimately it is up to the consumer which they are more comfortable with.”

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Click to play video: 'Canadian research team developing plant-based steak'
Canadian research team developing plant-based steak

Ultra-processed foods contain “little, if any, intact food,” said Amanda Nash, a registered dietitian with Heart & Stroke. They’re often ready-to-eat, and contain ingredients that would be hard to make in an ordinary kitchen — usually the result of multiple industrial processes.

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One recent clinical study offered people either a diet of ultra-processed foods or one that included more whole foods, and found that people on the ultra-processed diet ate around 500 more calories each day than the other group, gaining some weight in the process.

Another study published last week by Heart & Stroke found that a diet high in ultra-processed foods was associated with an increased likelihood of obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure.

“It is leading to hypertension, to cardiovascular diseases, to an increased risk of depression and also there is association with all causes of mortality,” said study author Jean-Claude Moubarac, an assistant professor of nutrition at the Université de Montréal.

“We know that they’re loaded with free sugar, sodium or saturated fat, and often it’s two or three of those. And they have little fibre, protein and minerals.”

Many people choose meat alternatives for ethical or environmental reasons, said Schwartz, and a reduced environmental footprint and improved animal welfare are two things that Beyond Meat emphasizes in its marketing.

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But, Schwartz said, “If you’re eating a lentil-based burger or wholegrain vegetable sort of burger, then you’re making a good choice in terms of health — both planetary and human health.”

Her issue with the plant-based artificial meat burgers is, “People think because they’re called plant-based, they must be healthy.”

When she examined the Beyond Meat burger being offered at A&W fast food restaurants, she found that it was very high in sodium, and the chain’s Mama Burger has fewer calories and less fat, though also less protein. According to Beyond Meat, its products are a “better-for-you” option that has more protein and iron than a beef burger with less fat.

While he agrees that there are benefits to a whole-foods diet, Schafer said, “That’s not the reality for how most consumers eat, so we want to meet them where they’re at in their journey and provide another option.”

Nearly half of Canadians’ daily calories currently come from ultra-processed foods, according to the Heart & Stroke study.

So what should you slap on the barbecue this long weekend?

If it’s just an occasional treat, Schwartz says a Beyond Burger or similar vegan imitation meat is fine. You could eat real meat, too — just a smaller portion, she said.

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“The problem in terms of the research with meat is not just eating meat, it’s the portion size of meat,” she said. The Canada Food Guide and a recent report from the American Institute of Cancer Research don’t say that you have to cut out red meat entirely, just limit the amount.

For a tasty barbecue option that still includes meat, Schwartz recommends kebabs with beef and vegetables.

Generally, she would rather people eat more whole foods, and if they are choosing a packaged food, that they examine the label for sodium content and to see whether it contains whole ingredients:

“When you’re cutting down on a food or a nutrient, pay attention to what you’re replacing it with.”

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