When you go to a restaurant and order a hamburger, do you think to yourself, “Ah, yes, this meal will be so nutritious”? Or do you try to ignore the calorie count while thinking, “I want the greasy sandwich that will taste so good but make me feel so bad”? I’m guessing it’s closer to the latter. So why is it suddenly a big deal that plant-based burgers, designed to mimic the flavor and texture of beef hamburgers while potentially being better for the planet, aren’t that healthy?
You might have noticed that nutritionists and the meat industry are dunking on increasingly popular plant-based burgers, such as the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger, because they’re not healthier than beef burgers. But that’s not the point. If you’re wanting a nutritious, heart-healthy meal, you can and should eat vegetables and whole grains and fruits and all the other stuff that everyone knows they should be eating.
The goal of taking on a vegetarian or vegan diet, or even just eating less meat, is to support animal welfare and to choose foods whose production contributes less to global warming. A vegetarian diet is not necessarily healthier than an omnivorous diet, and that’s OK. The nutritional status of the Impossible Burger doesn’t matter, because, like a regular hamburger, it’s a treat. You shouldn’t eat an Impossible Burger every day, just like you shouldn’t eat a hamburger every day.
“Plant-based” food, a hip new name for vegan food (often venture capital-funded vegan food), is having a moment. Companies are attempting to mimic the flavor and texture of your favorite meat, milk, and egg-based products using plant-based fats and proteins. Among the most hyped of these plant-based foods is the Impossible Burger, a soy protein-based patty that’s pink on the inside thanks to an iron-containing, plant-derived molecule. Impossible Burger “meat” is available in many grocery stores as of today.
Some online pseudoscientists, animal rights activists, and the creators of the “What The Health” documentary have used various techniques to try to convince people that “plant-based” diets are innately healthier than diets that include meat. They can be healthier, but they are not innately healthier. A conscious diet that includes a diverse array of vegetables and whole grains with some dairy, eggs, chicken, fish, and even the occasional hamburger, while generally minimizing added sugar and processed foods, is much healthier than a vegan diet of super-processed veggie burgers, Oreos, and french fries. The point of a plant-based diet isn’t to live a healthy life, though of course you can live healthily as a vegan. The point is to reduce your impact on the environment, to fight the overuse of antibiotics in livestock raising, and to promote animal welfare more generally.
And indeed, if you read the Impossible Foods mission statement, you won’t find much about the innate healthfulness of the hamburger (other than the same word, “nutritious,” you might find on a box of sugary cereal)—because again, the burger’s nutrition is not the point. You’ll find plenty about their core goal: “To drastically reduce humanity’s destructive impact on the global environment by completely replacing the use of animals as a food production technology.” I’ll admit that the Beyond Burger includes some health food buzzwords in its marketing, but I also think that the Beyond Burger smells like cat piss. Livestock raising accounts for 15 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, more than half of which is due to cattle. We treat animals the same way we treat gasoline, and slaughter them in ways that plenty of people consider to be inhumane. These “plant-based meats” are meant to offset that.
Why are people trying to recreate hamburgers and chicken nuggets instead of just selling carrots and broccoli? I’ve hung out with enough Silicon Valley startup vegantrepreneurs to know that their overarching goal is to convert more people to plant-based lifestyles for animal rights and tenuously environmental purposes. They think that the way to do this is to recreate whatever Americans are already eating, often with a weird stereotype of a guy in a pickup truck from Alabama in mind as their target audience. I’m not sure if it actually works for converting people to alternative burgers.
But I can say that I personally have started to try out a vegetarian lifestyle (again, for animal rights and tenuously environmental reasons), and sometimes I just want to shove a greasy, salty, ketchup-slathered disk-on-a-bun into my pie hole and feel like a piece of shit all night. The Impossible and Beyond burgers let me do that. You should not be eating these burgers daily. The entire point of plant-based burgers is to let meat-avoiding people occasionally indulge in the same garbage as everyone else and to give a reasonable meat facsimile to folks interested in dabbling in vegetarianism. Or maybe you can love eating meat and also happen to love the taste of some of these alt-burgers. Regardless of your motivation, you know you should be eating a salad and you’re choosing to eat something decadent instead.
I’m not promoting the Impossible Burger. I don’t think venture capital-funded fake meat is the solution to the capitalist problem that giant agribusinesses would like to continue to make money at the expense of the environment. I think the solution is a radical rethinking of the entire food production system. But at least there are companies trying to do something.
So, no. The Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger are not healthier than hamburgers. This should not be a surprise and it should not dissuade you from trying one if you feel like it. Try to distance vegetarian and vegan diets from healthy lifestyles in your mind—if you want to be healthy, remove heavily processed foods and added sugar from your diet and spend 30 minutes a day exercising. But Earth is in the midst of an environmental catastrophe, and we should all be focusing on ways to lessen our impact through the decisions we make.