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Enter the veggie burger.
The first vegetarian burger ever to hit the market was created in 1982 by a macrobiotic restaurant owner in London. Called the VegeBurger, it was sold in dried food packets. The powder needed to be rehydrated, formed into a patty, and cooked. A frozen patty version of the VegeBurger was released in 1984.
GardenBurger, founded by a restaurant owner in Portland, OR, released its first veggie patty in 1992, with Boca Burger following a year after that. Nearly 3 decades later, plant-based burgers can now be found everywhere from Whole Foods to Burger King.
But are plant-based burgers nutritious? How do they taste? Is their environmental impact less than that of beef?
These are the questions that the dietitians at New Hope Network asked when they set out to research the landscape of plant-based burger alternatives. In an online webinar on February 19, 2020, New Hope presented the results of their meatless patty research project.
The New Hope Network Research Project
Based in Boulder, CO, New Hope Network supports research and events for the natural products industry. When they saw burger alternatives trending over 2019, they had a lot of questions. Questions about nutrition, taste, environmental impact, and sales.
To answer the question about nutrition, New Hope chose 23 of the top plant-based burger patties on the market. They analyzed each product for 34 nutrient data points, such as the main protein source, the total number of ingredients, sodium content, allergens, etc. Based on all of these data points, each product was assigned a nutrition grade, on a scale of A+ to D-.
Their research showed that plant-based patties varied greatly in their nutritional content. The total protein per patty ranged from 8 to 31 grams. Milligrams of sodium ranged from 270 to 784. Total number of ingredients per patty ranged from 10 to 27. More than half of the burgers contained a base of soy, and 82% contained at least one top allergen.
All of the plant-based patties scored a nutrition grade between B and C. The 5 products to top the list for nutrition were (not in rank order) the Alpha Burger, the Original Boca Burger, the Gardein Ultimate Beefless Burger, the Sol Cuisine Extreme Griller, and Trader Joe’s Hi-Protein Veggie Burger.
The 5 Healthiest Plant-Based Burgers
We saw the list of the 5 healthiest plant-based burgers from the New Hope Network and wanted to know more. Which of these burgers has soy? What about gluten? Preservatives? GMOs? Here’s what we found.
The Alpha Burger
The Alpha Burger is a beef-style patty that’s available in stores like Whole Foods Market, Wal-Mart, and Safeway. According to the Alpha Foods website, here are the ingredients:
Filtered Water, Soy Protein Concentrate, Structured Vegetable Protein (Isolated Soy Protein, Wheat Gluten, Wheat Starch), Onions, Onion Seasoning (Sea Salt Blend [Potassium Chloride, Sea Salt], Sugar, Tapioca Dextrin, Yeast Extract, Garlic Powder, Onion Powder, Dehydrated Onion, Grill Flavor [From Sunflower Oil], Spices [Including Celery Seed], Dehydrated Red And Green Bell Pepper, Salt, Tomato Powder, Molasses, Spice Extractive, Citric Acid), Soybean Oil, Wheat Gluten, Less Than 2% Soy Sauce (Water, Soybeans, Salt, Alcohol, Wheat), Methylcellulose, Yeast Extract, Malt Extract, Seasoning (Yeast Extract, Salt).
After seeing this list, it’s somewhat of a shock that the Alpha Burger made the list of top 5 healthiest plant-based burgers. Aside from water, the burger contains 23 ingredients.
The main protein source in this burger is soy. Although the label boasts “non-GMO,” the soy ingredients are not organic, and the product does not have Non-GMO Project Verification. One of the ingredients is structured vegetable protein, which is one of the most highly processed preparations of soy.
Other questionable ingredients in this burger include yeast extract and spice extractive, which could potentially be hidden sources of MSG. The Alpha Burger is not suitable for anybody with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, as it includes wheat and wheat gluten.
One Alpha Burger has 150 calories, 21 grams of protein, 0 grams of fiber, and 560 milligrams of sodium.
The Original Boca Burger
The Original Boca Burger is made by Kraft Foods and touted as the “All American Veggie Burger.” According to the Boca Burger website, here are the ingredients:
Water, Soy Protein Concentrate*, Reduced Fat Cheddar cheese (Pasteurized Part-Skim Milk, Cheese Culture, Salt, Enzymes, Annatto (color), Vitamin A Palmitate), Wheat Gluten, Corn Oil, Yeast Extract, Caramel Color, Modified Cellulose, Salt, Natural Flavor (Non-Meat), Dried Onion, Garlic Powder, Sesame Oil. *Made with soy protein from non-genetically engineered soybeans.
This list of ingredients is not much of an improvement over the Alpha Burger.
The main protein source in this burger is soy again. It’s in the form of soy protein concentrate, which is prepared by separating the carbohydrate and protein portions of defatted soy flakes. While soy protein concentrate may be slightly less processed than structured vegetable protein, it would be hard to pass as a “whole food.”
The Boca Burger also contains potential hidden sources of MSG (like yeast extract). It contains caramel color, which is a potential carcinogen. The Boca Burger is neither vegan nor gluten-free.
One Boca Burger has 110 calories, 13 grams of protein, 4 grams of fiber, and 460 milligrams of sodium.
The Gardein Ultimate Beefless Burger
The Gardein Ultimate Beefless Burger is made by Conagra Brands. According to the Gardein website, here are the ingredients:
Water, Textured Wheat Protein (Wheat Gluten*, Wheat Flour*, Malted Barley Extract), Vital Wheat Gluten*, Soy Protein Concentrate*, Onions, Expeller-Pressed Canola Oil, Soy Protein Isolate*, Organic Ancient Grain Flour (Organic KAMUT® Khorasan Wheat Flour, Organic Amaranth Flour, Organic Millet Flour, Organic Quinoa Flour), Modified Vegetable Gum, Yeast Extract, Dehydrated Garlic, Onion Powder, Malted Barley Extract, Organic Cane Sugar, Sea Salt, Natural Flavors, Potato Starch, Spices, Vinegar, Pea Protein, Carrot Fiber, Beetroot Fiber. *Made with non-genetically engineered soybeans and wheat.
This burger is certified vegan, Kosher, and Non-GMO Project Verified—all good things. But it is still highly processed with several dubious ingredients.
The main protein source in this burger is textured wheat protein. Textured wheat protein is made by the same high-pressure extrusion process as textured vegetable protein except that it is made from wheat instead of soy. It is a highly processed ingredient and problematic for anybody with a sensitivity to gluten.
The Gardein Burger also contains 2 forms of processed soy—soy protein concentrate and soy protein isolate. Like many of the other meatless burgers, it has potential hidden sources of MSG, like yeast extract, spices, and malted barley.
One Gardein Ultimate Beefless Burger has 130 calories, 16 grams of protein, 2 grams of fiber, and 320 milligrams of sodium.
The Sol Cuisine Extreme Griller
Sol Cuisine began as a manufacturer of tofu for Toronto restaurants in 1980. Their website now lists a total of 15 products, including 8 different versions of vegetarian burgers. According to the Sol Cuisine website, here are the ingredients in the Extreme Griller:
Filtered Water, Soy Protein, Onion, Expeller Pressed Sunflower Oil, Natural Flavour, Cellulose Gum, Potato Starch, Caramel Colour, Signature Superfoods Blend (Fava Bean Protein, Maca Powder*, Lucuma Powder*, Mesquite Powder*), Dried Garlic, Evaporated Cane Syrup, Onion Powder, Garlic Powder, Sea Salt, Yeast Extract, Spice. *Organic.
This burger is certified vegan and Kosher. The ingredient list is less offensive than some of the previous ones but still not entirely clean.
The main protein source in this burger is soy protein. Although the packaging says “non-GMO,” the soy is not organic. Also, the ingredient is listed only as “soy protein,” so it’s not entirely clear how the soy has been processed. One good thing about the protein source in this burger is that it’s not sourced from wheat or wheat gluten.
Like all the other burgers on the list, the Sol Cuisine Extreme Griller contains yeast extract and spice, which raises the question of hidden MSG. This burger also contains the potentially carcinogenic caramel color.
One Sol Cuisine Extreme Griller has 90 calories, 10 grams of protein, 4 grams of fiber, and 240 milligrams of sodium.
Trader Joe’s Hi-Protein Veggie Burger
Trader Joe’s boasts a reputation for providing healthy yet convenient food products. According to the food app, Fooducate’s website, here are the ingredients in Trader Joe’s Hi-Protein Veggie Burger:
Pea Protein Blend (Water, Pea Protein, Black Beans), Expeller Pressed Canola Oil, Onions, Brown Rice Flour, Natural Flavors, Arrowroot Powder, Garlic Puree (Garlic, Citric Acid), Sea Salt, Caramel Color, Black Pepper.
This burger has only 10 ingredients—the lowest number of all 23 burgers evaluated in the New Hope Network Research Project. The burger is also both vegan and gluten-free.
The main protein source in this burger is pea protein. Pea protein is a good option for vegans as well as anybody with food sensitivities to more commonly used proteins, like soy or wheat.
Of the 5 burgers deemed to be the healthiest according to the New Hope Network, Trader Joe’s Hi-Protein Veggie Burger is the only one without yeast extract. However, it does contain “natural flavors,” which could mean almost anything and might be a potential hidden source of MSG. Like the Boca Burger and Sol Cuisine Extreme Griller, the Trader Joe burger also contains caramel color.
One Trader Joe’s Hi-Protein Veggie Burger has 260 calories, 26 grams of protein, 4 grams of fiber, and 480 milligrams of sodium.
What About Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger?
The Beyond Meat Burger and the Impossible Burger didn’t make the top 5 list of healthiest plant-based burgers in the New Hope Network Study. But they are the 2 latest and most popular trends in meatless patties. Both can be found in grocery stores and restaurants across the US.
According to the Impossible website, here are the ingredients in the Impossible Burger:
Water, Soy Protein Concentrate, Coconut Oil, Sunflower Oil, Natural Flavors, 2% or less of: Potato Protein, Methylcellulose, Yeast Extract, Cultured Dextrose, Food Starch Modified, Soy Leghemoglobin, Salt, Soy Protein Isolate, Mixed Tocopherols (Vitamin E), Zinc Gluconate, Thiamine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B1), Sodium Ascorbate (Vitamin C), Niacin, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B6), Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Vitamin B12.
Impossible claims that the key ingredient in their burger is heme—the tiny molecule that makes meat taste like meat. It’s listed in the ingredients as “leghemoglobin” and is made by inserting DNA from soy plants into genetically engineered yeast.
According to the Beyond Meat website, here are the ingredients in Beyond Burger:
Water, Pea Protein, Expeller-Pressed Canola Oil, Refined Coconut Oil, Rice Protein, Natural Flavors, Cocoa Butter, Mung Bean Protein, Methylcellulose, Potato Starch, Apple Extract, Pomegranate Extract, Salt, Potassium Chloride, Vinegar, Lemon Juice Concentrate, Sunflower Lecithin, Beet Juice Extract (for color).
The Beyond Burger is Non-GMO Project Verified, Kosher, and gluten-free. Of all the plant-based burgers reviewed in this article, its list of ingredients seems to be the least offensive.
What Should I Order?
Most vegetarian burger alternatives contain highly processed sources of protein and potential hidden sources of MSG. Several contain caramel color. Many contain wheat and gluten. Of the 7 burger alternatives that we reviewed for this article, only the Beyond Burger escapes these issues.
If you’re going to order a plant-based burger for health reasons, you might want to think twice. In response to questions about plant-based burgers, the CEO of Whole Foods said, “I don’t think eating highly processed foods is healthy.” We teach the same sentiment here at the Nutrition Therapy Institute.
Note: The ingredient lists in this article are subject to change at the manufacturer’s discretion. The information provided here was accessed from the referenced websites on February 19, 2020.
Interested in learning more about plant-based meats? Read Plant-Based Meats: Potential or Problematic? for more information.
About the Author
Sarah Cook, ND, is an instructor at the Nutrition Therapy Institute. She is also the owner of ND Pen, providing branding, copywriting, and website design services for integrative healthcare practitioners. Connect with Sarah at www.ndpen.com.
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