California-based Beyond Meat calls its Beyond Burger and other vegan ‘meat’ products the future of protein.
Recent research and development in food processing has helped make these meat substitutes more and more meat-like, just as consumer demand for plant-based protein is taking off.
We asked registered dietitian Gail Hammond of UBC’s faculty of land and food systems about the nutrition consumers are getting from the Beyond Burger and its competitors.
What is Beyond Meat?
The Beyond Meat burger is a plant-based product that has been developed to look, taste, feel and cook like beef. The primary ingredients are a yellow pea protein base and canola and coconut oils. There are other ingredients as well, but those are the main ones. Its primary competitor is the Impossible Burger, which has a soy protein base, coconut and safflower oils, and uses leghemoglobin to impart a ‘meat’ taste.
Why do you think it’s catching on?
More and more consumers are tuning into making healthy food choices in their day-to-day lives. A primary reason for this trend is to support individual health, but supporting the health of the environment is on the minds of consumers, too. People are looking for ways to minimize the impact of their food choices on greenhouse gas emissions, energy inputs, water use and land use, which are higher for the production of animal-based versus plant-based foods.
National dietary guidance provided in the new Canada’s Food Guide released earlier in 2019, emphasizes consuming a plant-based diet for these very reasons. People are becoming more informed, and more open to adopting vegetarian meals. A recent study out of Dalhousie University in Halifax points to an increasing trend of Canadians who self-classify as vegetarians and vegans, particularly among those under 35. If the trend continues as this population raises families, there will be more Canadians with plant foods comprising a greater part of their diets.
Another consideration is the upswing in a ‘flexitarian’-style of eating. Flexitarians focus on adding variety to their diet rather than excluding foods. So for many of these people, Beyond Meat is an alternative to consuming red meat some of the time, but not exclusively.
Technology has come a long way in terms of manufacturing different foods with different characteristics, different mouthfeel, different flavour profile and different ingredients. It has brought Beyond and Impossible burgers to a different place than what we’ve seen in the past with Yves Veggie burgers, for example, which have been in the marketplace for over two decades and are soy-based and contain gluten — two ingredients people have some concerns around today. But what really sets these new products apart is that they more closely mimic beef in appearance, taste and texture than other vegetarian patties.
Video: Take a look inside Beyond Meat’s Innovation Centre
Is Beyond Meat healthy?
What healthy actually means is up for discussion. It’s a bit of a tricky concept. As a registered dietitian, I am much more concerned about people adopting a healthy pattern of eating rather than including a single so-called healthy food. When thinking about Beyond Meat products, we have to keep in mind they are processed foods. While processed foods can fit into a healthy diet, I would encourage consumers to emphasize whole and minimally processed foods in their diets whenever possible, primarily to reduce their fat, sodium and calorie intake.
I would also encourage people to make their own meatless burgers from scratch. Without too much effort, you know all the ingredients that are going into it and pretty much control the calories and sodium. A homemade veggie burger will be lower in saturated fat, calories, and sodium, which are nutrients of concern to the general public. The saturated fat used in Beyond Burger comes primarily from coconut oil, canola oil, and cocoa butter, which have relatively weak associations with heart disease for healthy individuals. However, people with existing high blood cholesterol levels will want to limit their saturated fat intake, and those with high blood pressure watch their sodium intake.
That said, if people don’t have the time, Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger are convenient choices. They’re ready to go. You can add your own spices, add sauces, and cook it up in an instant. They’re a little pricey, but what you’re paying for is convenience.
Can you tell us how to make meatless burgers at home?
You can find plenty of recipes online. Basically, you decide what your base is: Is it going to be tofu? Grains? Beans? If it is beans, you can use black beans, pinto beans, chickpeas—there’s a wide variety of beans you could use. And you have a lot of flexibility in what you can add to the base. Are you going to add lots of veggies, or will it be mostly the base and few veggies? If you want to add oil, what kind of oil? Coconut oil? Olive oil? Canola oil? Avocado oil? The possibilities are endless. Making your own takes a bit more time than cooking a Beyond Burger—but probably not much more—and you can customize your recipe to meet the taste preferences of your family.
Vegan substitutes for meat are important to many people. Would all plant-based meat products qualify as vegan, or only some?
You would need to read the ingredient list, but all the ingredient lists for plant-based ‘meat’ products that I’ve come across were entirely plant-based, which would mean they are vegan-friendly. As long as all the ingredients have been derived from plant sources, then the product would be considered vegan.
One area of possible concern for vegans is cross-contamination with other foods during food preparation. For example, if a restaurant prepared one of these plant-based burgers on the same grill as a beef burger, there could be some cross-contamination. Also, condiments you put on the burger may or may not be vegan. Mayonnaise is often egg-based, and similarly some of the sauces you might use could have animal products in them. So you just need to be cautious, and it always comes down to reading the ingredient list on the food label.
Video: Introducing the Impossible Burger
Veggie burgers have improved as meat substitutes in terms of taste and texture. How has their nutritional value changed?
Nowadays there is a greater diversity of plant proteins used to make veggie burgers than in the past when soy was the typical staple base of veggie burgers. Nowadays, you can purchase veggie burgers made from a base of quinoa, chickpeas, black beans, lentils, etc. Although these burgers do not mimic beef, they do add variety to your diet.
The change in nutritional profile of veggie burgers really depends on which nutrient you’re talking about. With protein, Yves Veggie Burgers have roughly 13 grams of protein per 75-gram burger patty, comparable to Beyond Burger which has 20 grams of protein in a 113-gram patty. Impossible Burger has 19 grams of protein per 113-gram patty. But I want to provide some context to that, because most people in North America don’t realize they consume too much protein relative to human requirements. Even getting 13 grams from one small patty is plenty, given that you will be consuming more protein in the rest of the day. You really don’t need 20 grams in a single serving of food. It’s unnecessary, yet there’s this belief out there in the consumer world that you need to eat more protein. For most people, that is not true.
Then there’s the fat aspect of these products, which quickly adds calories. For comparison, Yves burgers provide 3-4 grams of fat per burger, whereas Beyond Burger provides 18 grams of fat and Impossible Burger provides 14 grams.
When you say we eat too much protein, what is the downside of that?
It’s not particularly harmful, it’s just that we don’t need to be consuming a large amount of protein. We don’t store protein in the body, so we do need to get rid of the unnecessary nitrogen that comes in through the protein. If you come from a family that has a history of liver or kidney disease, then you may be putting undue stress on those organs—first the liver to detoxify the nitrogen, and then the kidneys to filter the nitrogen out of the blood.
I’d say if you’re a healthy individual, you’re probably OK with these higher protein intakes, at least in the short term. But if you have a family history of renal or liver disease, then I suggest you be on the safe side and consult with your primary health care provider or a dietitian before increasing the protein in your diet.
What are the nutritional benefits of plant-based protein over animal-based?
What distinguishes plant proteins from animal proteins is their amino acid profile—the type and quantity of certain amino acids they contain. When looking at the Beyond Burger ingredients, you’ll see they combine pea, mung bean and rice proteins together to provide a source of ‘complete’ protein. Complete proteins provide all of the essential amino acids that humans need for normal metabolic processes such as growth, maintenance and repair of body tissue.
But just as importantly, a plant-based diet offers other nutritional benefits that include fibre, lower levels of saturated fats, no dietary cholesterol, and increased amounts of phytochemicals. It could be argued that animal foods naturally provide a wider range of micronutrients—vitamins and minerals—but plant-based foods such as the Beyond and Impossible burgers are often fortified with certain vitamins and minerals to a level that is close to the animal counterpart. There are notable exceptions, however, including calcium and vitamin D, which are nutrients of concern for vegans.
If people are substituting plant-based proteins like the Beyond and Impossible burgers for a meat-based meal on occasion, then what they are doing is actually adding variety to their diet. They aren’t stepping away from eating meat, they are simply eating it less frequently. As a dietitian, I believe it is beneficial when someone increases the variety of foods in their diet. So from that angle I do view the inclusion of plant-based protein foods as a positive addition to a healthy diet.
If somebody isn’t ready for ‘meatless meat’, what are some other examples of accessible and affordable plant-based protein sources?
Other plant-based foods such as lentils, beans, peas, nuts and seeds are also sources of protein. Categorically, the legumes give you the greatest proportion of calories as protein, typically ranging between 20 and 30 per cent. They also provide fibre and contain very little fat.
For nuts and seeds you have to be careful with allergies, and they are higher in fat than legumes. Barring allergies, you can also choose fortified plant-based beverages, like almond milk or soy milk—as long as they’re fortified, otherwise they provide protein and often contain added sugar but are limited in other nutrients. You have to read the label! Most fortified plant-based beverages provide the key micronutrients that are found in cow’s milk, and in similar quantities.
So plant-based foods are trending upward. If they take over and replace meat completely, will our diets be missing any important nutrients?
Animal-based meats are highly bioavailable sources of vitamins and minerals, whereas plant-based foods contain fibre and other naturally occurring substances that reduce bioavailability, which refers to the proportion of vitamins and minerals we absorb from the total amount that is in the foods we eat. It’s a trade-off: most of us could benefit by increasing the fibre in our diets while ensuring we get enough vitamins and minerals from a variety of foods.
There are a few nutrients such as vitamin B12, calcium and vitamin D that vegans need to ensure they consume enough of in their diets. But with many fortified plant-based foods in the marketplace today, vegans who are nutrition-savvy and make wise food choices should have little concern regarding their intake of these nutrients.
How do you see ‘meatless meat’ changing over the next decade or so?
That’s a good question for food processors. I believe the consumer demand for plant-based products will continue to increase in response to people’s concern about human health, climate change, and environmental factors.
I think the more familiar consumers become with these foods as they are distributed through restaurants and grocery stores, and the more food manufacturers can provide what people want, the more ‘meatless meats’ are going to take off.
If you put that against the backdrop of people trying to eat healthier, and the national food messaging from Health Canada to eat more plant-based proteins, I only see this segment of the food marketplace growing well into the future.
Gail Hammond, PhD, RD, is an instructor in the food, nutrition and health unit at the University of British Columbia’s faculty of land and food systems. She is available for media interviews, which can be arranged by calling 604-822-6397 or emailing email@example.com.