In case you hadn’t noticed, a meatless burger craze is underway.
They are on the menus at neighborhood restaurants, on the counters at local grocery stores, and are being served at burger joints ranging from Burger King to Burgatory. Even McDonald’s is rolling out a “P.L.T.,” which stands for plant, lettuce and tomato.
More and more people are switching to a plant-based lifestyle for health benefits, environmental concerns and animal welfare. Almost 40% of Americans say they are trying to eat more plant-based foods.
And consumers – vegetarians and carnivores alike – no longer have to settle for the bland, veggie-based patties that once masqueraded as a burger.
Pittsburgh resident Erin Kust, 23, said her family’s medical history spurred her to adopt a vegetarian diet.
“Heart disease runs in my family, so I try to avoid animal-based foods. I started eating (plant-based burgers) out of curiosity, and I like the taste of them. They’re very realistic and similar in taste to a burger. You don’t taste the earthiness of a lot of plant-based burgers,” said Kust, who visits eateries to try their meatless burgers and informally ranks them according to her favorite.
Fortuitea Cafe & Bakery in the Shoppes at Quail Acres in North Strabane Township is among the first restaurants in Washington County to carry the Impossible Burger, a plant-based burger that includes soy protein, potato protein and an ingredient called heme, which is responsible for its meat-like taste.
The cafe offers half a dozen variations of the quarter-pound burgers – including a Cashew Mac Attack, Surf and Turf and Gyro – and the plant-based patties are among the most popular items on the menu.
“More and more people just want to get away from eating meat,” said Jeff Hirsh, co-owner of Fortuitea.
Plant-based burgers, he said, are a good solution to reducing red meat consumption and introducing people to a plant-based diet.
“I do believe it’s a journey for everybody. It’s not an easy thing to give up, and it’s not easy to give up everything at once. If you don’t think you can, you shouldn’t,” said Hirsh.
He said customers order the burgers because they taste delicious – Fortuitea’s buns and sauces are made from scratch, and the ingredients are fresh – but also because eating meatless burgers is good for the planet.
“There’s a shift in the general population’s perception of things,” said Hirsh. “The things that we do in the factory farming industry – shooting animals up with antibiotics, and the horrible conditions they life in – are awful.”
Factory farming also contributes to pollution of air and water, produces greenhouse gas emissions and uses tremendous amounts of land and water.
Plant-based burgers aren’t going anywhere, said Kelsey Hutter, a dietitian at Allegheny Health Network.
“Basically, plant-based burgers have been around for decades, starting with the garden burger. Now, with the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat burgers, they’re here to stay,” she said.
But how much healthier are meatless burgers compared to their counterpart?
The Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat are nutritionally similar to beef.
Hutter noted a 4-ounce Impossible Burger patty, for example, contains 240 calories; 14 grams of total fat, including 6 grams of saturated fat; 270 mg of sodium, 9 grams of carbs, 3 grams of fiber and 19 grams of protein.
Impossible Burgers, made mostly of soy protein concentrate, coconut oil and sunflower oil, and Beyond Burgers, which consist of pea proteins, contain no cholesterol.
A similarly sized ground beef patty with 80% lean meat has around 290 calories.
Protein content is about the same, while other nutrients vary. The plant-based patties have more fiber than the regular beef burger, while the regular burger contains less sodium than the meatless burger.
The overall fat and saturated fat content is similar, and beef burgers contain trans fat.
For overall diet, what matters more might be how the patties are served, said Hutter.
At some restaurants, she noted, an Impossible burger with cheese and other fixings can top 1,000 calories.
“If you’re looking to lose weight, you have to be aware of that,” she said.
Plant-based diets – those rich in vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains and nuts – can be beneficial for weight management and heart health, and Hutter encouraged consumers to talk with a dietitian or physician about what will fit into their diet plans.
A lean turkey burger or regular burger remain good choices, said Hutter.
She warned, too, that just because a meat substitute is vegetarian, doesn’t mean it’s the healthiest option.
“I’d say you really have to try to be a good consumer, read the nutrition facts, what is in the product,” said Hutter.
For burgers, she recommends between 300 to 400 calories, with fixings, 3 grams or less of saturated fat, 5 grams or more of protein, 3 grams or more of fiber, and less than 350 grams of sodium.
Hirsh said plant-based burgers are a regular part of his diet – he’s even tried Burger King’s Impossible Whopper – but he encouraged moderation.
“Moderation is important in anything you do. Even when it comes to eating, anything you’re going to eat you should do in moderation. If you’re a meat eater, you shouldn’t eat a burger every day,” said Hirsh. “You don’t have to eat an Impossible Burger every day. There are so many other good foods out there.”