Comparing Plant-Based Burger Brands

by Katherine Sacks

5/29/20

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, and customers are eating them up. But should they be?

The coronavirus has caused serious disruptions to the industrial meat industry. 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 diminished, some grocers began limiting the amount of meat customers could purchase. The reduced supply 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 have 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. But for those of you who care about the environment and the foodprint of what you eat, should these products be on your plate?

The Pros and Cons of Plant-Based Burgers

There are many reasons why 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 inhumane conditions and death for animals, the overuse of antibiotics, the dangerous working conditions in slaughterhouses and packing plants, and the 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.”

Also at play is the negative impact — on soil, biodiversity and water —of the industrial agricultural system that produces the soy and pea plants used in many plant-based burgers on the market. And while companies like Impossible and Beyond tout the benefits found by their life cycle assessments, it’s also important to note that, so far, most of the existing environmental research on plant-based meats has been funded or commissioned by the companies making and selling the products, or organizations developed to promote them.

When it comes to health, 90 percent of customers purchasing plant-based products are meat-eaters who believe the products are more healthful and better for the environment, but unfortunately, 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, but they are considerably higher in sodium and contain lower amounts of protein than traditional beef patties.

They are also made entirely of processed ingredients; these elevated levels of fat and sodium are common in processed foods because they make them more palatable. Given that they contain few “whole foods” and use many isolated proteins and fats, all of the soy, pea and heme-based brands qualify as ultra-processed, which studies have linked to the development of cancer. Some ultra-processed foods can be made with healthy ingredients, so they aren’t unhealthy by definition, but nutritionists agree that minimally processed foods should make up the bulk of our diets. In keeping with this advice, it’s best to eat these products only in moderation.

One other key point to keep in mind: the sustainability claims driving plant-based burger sales are based on comparisons to industrially produced beef. If you are a meat eater looking for a more environmentally friendly option than industrial beef, beef produced on a regenerative farm is an option, and one with a lot of benefits. When practiced properly, regenerative agriculture has the ability to increase biodiversity, improve soil quality, and reduce the impacts of greenhouse gases.

A Comparison of Plant-Based Burger Brands

While there are some commonalities amongst them, not all of these plant-based meat products are made of the same ingredients or produced in the same way. 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 (in the news recently (yet again) for mistreatment of the workers at their meat processing plants), as well as new offerings from old school veggie burger producers. To help you decide which, if any, plant-based burger is right for you, 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, which would qualify for the label “ultra-processed.”

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.

While one of the main criticisms of the Impossible Burger is its use of heme from GMO yeast, it also uses soybeans that have been genetically modified to resist the herbicide glyphosate. The use of glyphosate-resistant GMO crops has led to a nearly 20-fold increase in the amount of glyphosate since the 1990s. The overuse of glyphosate speeds the evolution of herbicide-resistant “superweeds” that threaten both crops and wildland. It also has been labeled a “probable human carcinogen” by the International Agency on Cancer Research; Bayer-Monsanto, the herbicide’s manufacturer, has agreed to pay billions to settle thousands of glyphosate-linked cancer lawsuits, mostly among people who used it in their gardens. 

While independent testing has revealed glyphosate residues in the Impossible Burger, the levels detected — 11 parts per billion — are well below stringent benchmark levels set by organizations like the Environmental Working Group. Even if these residues don’t pose any direct risks to consumers, the use of glyphosate in the production of the Impossible Burger perpetuates the other problems of high glyphosate use in the food system. 

Other Soy-Based Burgers

Ingredients: Leghemoglobin may be a new and 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 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) are also capitalizing on soy protein. At 23 ingredients, Pure Farmlands’ Simply Seasoned burgers has the highest number of ingredients of 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. For those concerned about health, a burger made with 20+ ingredients, one of which is sugar, qualifies as ultra-processed food.

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. In steps in the right direction, 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 (not to mention animal welfare and workforce issues).

Advocates argue that having big names like Tyson, Hormel and Smithfield produce plant-based meat brings vegetarianism and reduced meat consumption to the mainstream. But these companies have done little to nothing to earn consumer trust, leaving us to fear they 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: Some plant-based burgers are made using pea protein as the base ingredient, instead of soy. Beyond Meat’s Beyond Burger is 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. However, all are produced with non-GMO pea protein; when grown properly, pea plants can actually improve the sustainability of large scale cereal farms when added into the rotation of environmentally taxing crops such as soy and corn. “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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