July 3, 2019

Meatless burgers: Are they better for you than beef?

We are deep into grilling season and meatless burgers are vying for space on the barbecue.

Meatless burgers are touted as healthier, environmentally friendly options. And they may have staying power — stocks are rising for companies making them, and some fast-food restaurants have added them to their menus.

To better understand their nutritional value, we asked Linda Shiue, MD, an internist and professionally trained chef who is also director of Culinary Medicine at Kaiser Permanente in San Francisco. Because many of her patients are wondering about them, she was ready with answers.

1. What is a meatless burger?

While this term could be used to describe any burger that does not contain actual meat, “meatless burger” these days usually refers to the recently introduced products that have been designed to look and taste like meat. Even though they are plant-based, rather than using whole vegetables and grains, these new meatless burgers use highly processed ingredients derived from plant-based products, such as soy or pea protein.

2. What’s the difference between a veggie burger and a meatless burger?

Veggie burger can also be used as an umbrella term for any burger that doesn’t contain meat, but I consider veggie burgers to be those made out of whole, plant-based ingredients. They include legumes and grains, often with added vegetables, and are not intended to taste like meat. They have the nutritional benefits of eating plants in their whole form, which includes things found only in plants — fiber, antioxidants and phytonutrients. They are usually lower in calories and fat than meat. 

Meatless burgers are intended to substitute for meat in flavor and appearance (one product is marketed as being able to “bleed” just like real meat), and contain processed protein that is derived from plants, but stripped of their fiber and other nutrients. Meatless burgers have fiber and vitamins in the form of additives rather than as whole vegetables and grains, so you don’t receive the same benefit as you would if they were eaten in their original form. 

3. Is a meatless burger better than eating meat?

Reducing intake of animal protein, especially conventionally grown red meat, has benefits for the environment as well as health. If meatless burgers can help reduce red meat consumption, there may be benefits. However, I am not sure if we know enough yet about meatless burgers, despite their recent popularity, since they are highly processed.

Compared to burgers made with beef, they are about equal in saturated fat and calories, and higher in sodium and carbohydrates. They do contain more fiber, but most of that is in the form of added fiber, like a fiber supplement, as opposed to fiber from legumes or grains in their whole form. And while we can’t measure phytonutrients — the plant-based antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals that are present in plants — it is likely that meatless burgers won’t contain these beneficial nutrients due to processing. Recent studies have shown the connection between eating processed food and negative health outcomes, including weight gain, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and early death.

I know we love our burgers, especially this time of year, and meatless burgers offer an alternative — but not necessarily a healthier one. Whole and unprocessed foods are better choices. In addition, the American Institute for Cancer Research recently issued a warning about grilling red meat, including ways to reduce your risk. So, as you fire up the grill this summer, why not try one of these healthier options:

Contributor: Linda Shiue, MD