Faux Burgers: Friend or Foe?

by Nancy Clark, MS, RD

Eating more plant-based protein appeals to many health-conscious runners who want to reduce their intake of saturated fat as well stand up for the environment and animal welfare concerns.  As a result, more and more runners (and other athletes) are trending towards a vegetarian diet.

Two types of non-meat eaters seem to be emerging:

  1. The traditional vegetarian, who gets protein from nuts, beans, and legumes (and perhaps milk, yogurt, cheese, eggs, and fish, depending on how the athlete defines his or her meatless diet).  Veggie burgers are their faux burger.
  2. The vegetarian who chooses ultra-processed almond milk, Beyond Burgers, and Impossible Burgers. Plant based foods, yes, but does ultra-processed really fit the essence of a vegetarian diet?

Just why would runners want to consume ultra-processed proteins that are right up there with Beefaroni and hot dogs? Likely because they taste good! The Beyond Burger and the Impossible Burger offer a way to enjoy a tasty plant-based burger without feeling denied or deprived of the real thing —often a cherished childhood favorite.

Yes, a veggie burger is another meat alternative, but it just doesn't have the same mouth-feel or "chew" that food scientists have figured out how to create using a combination of plant proteins. They add coconut oil (with questionable health attributes) to create marbling—and a juicy burger. With the help of beet juice (Beyond Burger) or synthetic heme made with yeast (Impossible Burger), these faux burgers "bleed," just like the real thing. As for taste and texture, people who don't like meat have been known to comment it tastes so real it "grosses them out." For reluctant vegetarians, needless to say, the faux burgers can be far more desirable than garden burgers and bean burgers.

To help make their new creation attractive, Beyond Burger uses a label with appealing buzz words—20 grams of protein, plant-based, soy free, gluten free, no GMOs. Their marketing campaign mentions climate change, conservation, health, and animal welfare. Voila! They have a winning product that is exceeding sales expectations —despite the higher price tag. At the supermarket, you'll need to pay twice as much for a 4-ounce ultra-processed burger.

Is this burger a step in a nutritionally positive direction in terms of the environment and our health?  Regarding environmental concerns, both the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger report an estimated 89% to 90% smaller carbon footprint than a burger made from beef. Faux meat production requires less land and water, and creates less methane and manure (sources of pollution).  Nutritionally speaking, faux meat is a reasonable match for real beef, but without the bioactive compounds that naturally occur in standard food. Natural foods contain known—and unknown—synergistic compounds, not be replicated in imitation products.

Protein is important to optimize athletic performance. You need it to build, repair, and maintain your body's muscles. For a 150-lb runner who trains hard, the recommended dose is about 20 grams of protein every four hours during the day (breakfast, early lunch, late lunch, dinner). A faux burger can do the job, as can a lean beef burger.

As for me, I'll stick with an occasional all-natural lean beef burger when desired, and choose plant-based foods more often than not.  While the Impossible Whopper pleases my palate, I can't help but wonder if Nature knows best?

Sports Nutritionist Nancy Clark, MS, RD counsels both casual and competitive athletes at her office in Newton, MA (617-795-1875). The updated 6th edition of her best selling Sports Nutrition Guidebook is available at NancyClarkRD.com. For her popular online workshop, see NutritionSportsExerciseCEUs.com.


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