Comparing Plant-Based Burger Brands

by Katherine Sacks


Grilling season officially opened Memorial Day weekend, but you may have a tougher time this season finding ground beef for your patties. The meat case, however, is filled with plant-based burger brands aplenty.

Like other areas of the food industry before it, the coronavirus has caused serious disruptions to the industrial meat industry in the past month. As laborers became sick with COVID-19, animal processing plants shut down, causing a bottleneck in production; beef, pork and other red meat production is down 28 percent, and as supply diminishes, some grocers are limiting the amount customers can purchase. The reduced supply has also pushed prices up — retail beef prices hit the highest monthly price on record in April — making meat a less attractive grocery store item.

These disruptions were frustrating for Big Meat companies and Memorial Day grillers, but they’ve been a boon to the plant-based meats industry. Sales in the plant-based meat category jumped a record 264 percent since the lockdown began, according to Nielsen data, with companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meats reporting record sales. While industrially produced meat still accounts for 99 percent of the US market, the food supply disruptions are motivating plant-based companies and consumers even more than before.

The Pros and Cons of Plant-Based Burgers

There are many reasons people choose plant-based burgers. If you are concerned about the animal welfare, labor issues and public health problems caused by industrial animal agriculture, plant-based meat alternatives provide an option — one that may taste remarkably like traditional beef — that eliminates the need for factory farming. That means avoiding the overuse of antibiotics, dangerous working conditions in slaughterhouses and packing plants, and public health and nuisance issues caused by the industry.

Plant-based burger brands like Impossible Foods and Beyond Burger have leaned hard on these benefits in marketing materials, as well as life cycle assessment studies that find their products have lower carbon footprints than industrially produced beef. “The use of animals in food production is by far the most destructive technology on earth,” Impossible Foods’ founder and CEO Pat Brown told The New Yorker last year. “We see our mission as the last chance to save the planet from environmental catastrophe.”

However, producing these products still has a footprint, and one that doesn’t exactly match the sustainable image the companies’ marketing relies on. “While their processed products have about half the carbon footprint that chicken does, they also have five times more of a footprint than a bean patty,” Marco Springmann, a senior environmental researcher at the University of Oxford told CNBC last year. “So Beyond and Impossible go somewhere towards reducing your carbon footprint, but saying it’s the most climate friendly thing to do — that’s a false promise.”

Another issue at play is the industrial agricultural system producing the soy and pea plants used in many of the plant-based burgers on the market, which has negative impacts on soil, biodiversity and the environment. And despite the fact that 90 percent of customers purchasing plant-based products are meat-eaters who believe the products are more healthful and better for the environment, most of these plant-based burgers are not necessarily healthy. Compared to an uncooked beef patty, Impossible, Beyond and other burgers have similar amounts of calories and saturated fat, no cholesterol and the added plus of fiber. However, they are made entirely of processed ingredients, are considerably higher in sodium, and contain lower amounts of protein than traditional beef patties.

A Comparison of Plant-Based Burger Brands

Despite these concerns, plant-based meats aren’t going anywhere. If you’re one of the consumers jumping onto the plant-meat based train, how do you know which product to buy? While Impossible and Beyond brought a lot of attention to the plant-based burger market last year, numerous others have come onto the scene since, including options from Big Meat brands like Tyson and Smithfield, as well as new offerings from old school veggie burger producers. To help you decide, we’ve taken a closer look at several of the most popular plant-based burger brands.

Heme-Based Burgers

Ingredients: Using a proprietary leghemoglobin “heme” soy protein to imitate the bloodiness of a traditional beef burger, the Impossible Burger is produced to look and taste just like a beef burger. Environmental groups express concern about heme because it is derived from genetically modified yeast, which they worry has the potential to escape the factory and disrupt microorganisms in nature. Additionally, Impossible Foods has brought their burger and other products to market with minimal oversight from the FDA, despite the fact that leghemoglobin is a new product whose impact on the environment and human health we don’t yet properly understand. In total, it takes 21 ingredients to produce the Impossible Burger, including leghemoglobin, coconut oil, sunflower oil, natural flavors, yeast extract, and various vitamins and minerals such as riboflavin and zinc gluconate.

Healthiness: Like other plant-based burgers, the Impossible Burger is high in calories, saturated fat and sodium. (Its 240 calories and 8 grams fat is similar to a beef patty, while its 370 milligrams of sodium is much higher than beef’s roughly 90 milligrams.)

Environmental Impact: Impossible Foods commissioned a 2019 life cycle assessment (LCA) report by the sustainability firm Quantis, which found production of their burger uses 96 percent less land, 87 percent less water and 89 percent less fossil fuel emissions than a quarter pound of regular ground beef. While the results sound promising, critics say the company needs to do regular LCAs as their production increases and products change to back up their claims. Although no other company is currently using leghemoglobin to produce plant-based meats, we can assume similar results if future companies use this process.

Other Soy-Based Burgers

Ingredients: Leghemoglobin may be a proprietary ingredient, but the use of soy protein as the base for veggie burgers has been done for years. (Remember Boca Burgers? The soy-based brand was founded in 1979.) Today, plant-based burger brands are also capitalizing on soy protein including Pure Farmland (a spin-off from mega meat company Smithfield Foods), Whole Foods 365 Plant Based Burgers, and Happy Little Plant (a newly launched plant-based company from Hormel). At 23 ingredients, Pure Farmlands’ Simply Seasoned burgers has the highest number of ingredients in the burgers we looked at, including soy protein concentrate, coconut and sunflower oil, yeast extract, red beet juice concentrate and roasted garlic and onion powders. Along with the 365 Burger, they are also the only burger we researched that includes sugar in the ingredients.

Healthiness: At 240 calories, a Pure Farmland patty has the highest amount of sodium and saturated fat on this list, 580 milligrams and 13 grams respectively, making it one of the least healthy plant-based burgers we researched.

Environmental Impact: Big Meat companies like Smithfield Foods and Hormel have a history of environmental, animal welfare, labor and public health issues, and it’s unclear how operations at Pure Farmland or Happy Little Plant will differ in terms of sustainability and environmental impact. On the plus side, Happy Little Plants is made with non GMO ingredients, and Pure Farmland products are packaged in trays made with 50 percent recycled materials. Smithfield also partnered with American Farmland Trust on this initiative, donating the cost of protecting one square foot of farmland for every package sold. However, as noted on their website, this amounts to 2.1 cents per package, a fairly meager cost compared to the environmental damage Smithfield operations have caused.

Advocates argue that having big names like Tyson, Hormel and Smithfield produce plant-based meat brings vegetarianism to the mainstream. But critics fear the larger companies will either absorb smaller start-ups (as many have already done) or will use their entry into the market as a greenwashing tactic.

Pea Protein-Based Burgers

Ingredients: Rather than soy, some plant-based burgers are made using pea protein as the base ingredient, Beyond Meat’s Beyond Burger being the most popular of the bunch. Along with non GMO pea protein, Beyond Burger is made using 19 ingredients, including canola oil, rice and mung bean protein, potato starch, natural flavors, and apple, pomegranate and beet extracts (for coloring). Other pea protein burger brands include Lightlife, Trader Joe’s Protein Patties and Sweet Earth’s Awesome Burger, all of which are also non GMO and made with similar ingredients to Beyond Burger.

Healthiness: Nutrition-wise, these burgers are all relatively similar, ranging from 250 to 290 calories, 2.5 to 6 grams of saturated fat and 390 to 530 milligrams sodium.

Environmental Impact: An LCA done in 2018 by University of Michigan’s Center for Sustainable Systems found that the Beyond Burger generates 90 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions, requires 46 percent less non-renewable energy, has more than 99 percent less impact on water scarcity and 93 percent less impact on land use than a quarter pound of US beef.
There is no life cycle assessment information about the other burgers listed above, so determining their environmental impact is a challenge. On the positive side, all are produced with non GMO pea protein, which, when grown properly, can improve the sustainability of large scale cereal farms. “It’s a win-win situation. Peas build nitrogen in the soil, they require no fertilizer, they increase yields for farmers, they’re a clean crop and healthy for human and animal consumption,” Cropping Systems Agronomist Dr. Chengci Chen told Civil Eats in 2018. “I can’t think of any negative impact to growing peas.”

However, both Lightlife and Sweet Earth are umbrellaed under big brand operations — Lightlife (along with plant-based brand Field Roast) is owned by Canadian pork and poultry company Maple Leaf and Nestle acquired Sweet Earth in 2017, helping to push out their line of Awesome Burger and Awesome Ground products. While Sweet Earth, at least, is said to be running independently of its parent company, it’s unclear what influence these industrial companies will have on the overall impacts of their plant-based projects.

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