They’re the rising stars in meat alternatives, but are they actually any good? Dietitian Joel Feren explores the evidence so you can decide which protein is best for your burger.
Nutrition professionals are constantly lauding the benefits of plant foods. This is because they are a rich source of vitamins, minerals, fibre, polyphenols and antioxidants. And some are naturally high in protein, too. Think beans, chickpeas and lentils, just to name a few.
Research continues to show that Aussies drop the ball when it comes to eating enough plant foods. That’s disappointing, because according to the EAT-Lancet report published in 2019, “A diet rich in plant-based foods and with fewer animal source foods, confers both improved health and environmental benefits”.
But does that mean you should ditch your juicy hamburger for one made entirely from plants? And should your plant-based burger be made of alternative proteins? As with most things in nutrition, the answers are nuanced.
Let’s explore the evidence so you can decide which protein is best for your burger.
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What are plant-based proteins?
It is true that plant-based proteins or faux meats offer a different option for meat-eaters. These alternatives have risen to prominence in the past few years. There is a rise in veganism and vegetarianism, and the food industry is doing its part to cater to people following these dietary patterns. More recently a variety of plant-based seafood, vegan ice cream, yoghurt and milk alternatives have come onto the market.
When I was a youngster (FYI, I’m Gen Y), plant-based proteins included whole foods such as soy, beans, nuts and seeds, and to a lesser extent, whole grains. However, these days they refer to proteins from rice, mung beans, potatoes and peas. Extracting protein from peas seems an arduous task, kind of like milking an almond. But I digress.
These faux meats have come a long way in their design and taste over the years. But they are still heavily processed. Ingredient lists often contain a number of fillers and stabilisers, so the taste, texture and flavour profiles mirror that of meat. One popular variety contains refined coconut oil, cocoa butter, sunflower lecithin and a variety of extracts from beet juice, potato and apple. While most of these seem fairly innocuous, plant-based burgers are certainly not a naturally occurring food like chicken, beef or even chickpeas.
How to choose a healthy plant-based burger
For starters, compare ingredient lists. This will allow you to make an informed decision about which product is best for you. Commonly, longer ingredient lists are more likely to include fillers and preservatives indicative of highly processed foods. Secondly, keep an eye out for sodium. Australians are eating enough salt, aka sodium, to fill 760 Olympic-sized pools every year. The mind boggles. Research also shows that a high salt intake is the leading cause of all diet-related deaths globally. Opting for a low sodium burger will do more than just help your heart health.
Lastly, look for protein and fibre. After all, these are the kings of the nutrition jungle. Protein contents of plant-based meats vary widely so choose one with at least 10g per patty. As for fibre, plant burgers have a leg up over their meat-based counterparts given that meat is fibre-free. Fibre is the nutrient that truly loves your guts. So load up on the gut-loving stuff where you can.
Which burger reigns supreme in the nutrition stakes?
Plant-based burgers and meat burgers are quite similar in their energy and macronutrient make-up. They have comparable calorie numbers as well as protein and fat content. Plant-based burgers are higher in salt but have more fibre as well as longer ingredients lists than their meat-based counterparts.
Interestingly though, a comprehensive report released last year found that plant-based proteins are often nutritionally superior or comparable to similarly processed conventional meat products e.g. comparing a plant-based sausage to a meat sausage. But that’s still not an invitation to overindulge in these ultra-processed foods.
Go processed or stay natural?
Whole unprocessed foods are the cornerstone of a healthy diet. If you choose to eschew meat, then swapping it for tofu, tempeh, beans and pulses is the way to do it healthily. Studies continue to show that eating less meat in favour of plant foods can slash rates of heart disease, colon cancer and type 2 diabetes.
It’s enough to put you off your, well, hamburger.
But don’t despair; you can still enjoy meat in moderation if that’s your thing. After all, it is a great source of nutrition. It is high in protein, iron, B12 and zinc. A small, but regular intake of lean meat as part of a balanced and nutritious diet can help to promote health.
But there is definitely an opportunity for people to adopt a more flexible approach where vegetarian foods form the bulk of the diet. We don’t need to solely eat a plant-based diet, but we should be more plant-focused.
So how do we answer the vexing question of whether to go plant-based or to stick with an old-fashioned meat burger?
Here’s this dietitian’s view on which burger to choose. Go for whichever option you prefer. Now for the caveat. Just make it an occasional option because eating burgers regularly is not a hallmark of good health. But you can still top it with nutritious ingredients like cheese, lettuce, beetroot, tomato and grilled onions, and then squish it between a wholegrain bun #burgergoals.
And for a final thought. Try making your own plant-based burger at home. Chickpea and sweet potato burgers are guaranteed to delight. Chickpeas are packed full of protein, zinc and iron. Team them up with herbs, spices, a sprinkling of breadcrumbs and a binder (e.g. egg or tahini for a vegan option) plus sweet potato, which contains low GI carbs as well as beta-carotene – the precursor to vitamin A. They are not only delicious and nutritious, but I reckon even the most staunchest of carnivores will approve.
Joel Feren is an accredited practicing dietitian who applies the art and science of nutrition to help you better understand the relationship between health and food. For more, follow him here.