Reports from the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, World Health Organization, and others emphasize the critical role of plant-based diets in creating a sustainable food future for all. Plant-based diets are also key for human nutrition, highlighted in diet guidelines the world over including US, Canada, and Brazil. Yet livestock remains essential to around one billion of the world’s indigent and the global demand for meat and dairy is expected to increase by 70% by 2050.
Meat production and consumption habits must shift, and solutions are sorely needed to feed the appetite for meat in the US and abroad.
Enter plant-based burgers, which exploded onto the food scene in the 2010s. While eaters love them, questions followed: Are they healthier? More sustainable? And are they even “real food?”
Opinions are heated, but what does the science show?
A Brave New Burger that’s Just Plain Better
Forget bland veggies burgers of yore that only appealed to die-hard vegetarians. Today’s food technology methods have brought consumers a beefy patty that sizzles—and they’re a game-changer.
Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods lead the plant-based burger market, and are quite similar in nutrient content and ingredients. A key difference is the use of genetic engineering, used in Impossible to create its umami punch from soy leghemoglobin. Not surprisingly, Impossible eaters care not at all about the tech that made it tasty—nor should they, given the copious evidence of its safety. (Beyond, conversely, boasts they’re “non-GMO.”) Major food companies also offer their own plant-based burgers using a variety of techniques and ingredients, now available in supermarkets alongside Beyond and Impossible.
Critics questioned wondered whether plant-based burgers would take off; the marketplace already offers myriad vegetarian choices, after all. Yet contemporary consumers are increasingly seeking ecoconscious options that supplant meat, while delivering the pleasure of eating meat—at least, some of the time. Ninety percent of plant-based meat and dairy consumers are omnivores, in fact, and Beyond reports that more than 70 percent of its consumers are meat-eaters seeking a more sustainable option. Importantly, Beyond and Impossible burgers are found on restaurant and fast food menus, a good thing since 49% of eaters globally dine at restaurants at least weekly, and most choose fast food fare.
Public health and environmental benefits of plant-based burgers are plentiful. Research funded by Beyond Meat and conducted by independent scientists at the University of Michigan found that its burger used 99 percent less water, 93 percent less land, and 46 percent less energy and produced 90 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions compared to a beef burger; similar results were found in a study of the Impossible Burger. While no peer-reviewed studies are yet available, a significant body of evidence—like this report of 40,000 farms in 119 countries and covering 40 food products that represent 90 percent of all that is eaten—shows significantly higher environmental impacts of meat production on land, water, and air compared to plants. While grass-fed beef can be more sustainable, it’s complicated—and hardly the panacea supporters claim it to be.
Whatever the individual motivation to select a plant-based burger, the secret sauce is clear: When food tech delivers taste and convenience, health and sustainability win.
Burger Bloviating: Push Back on Plant-Based Meat
As with many food tech innovations, some folks in nutrition and activist circles began disparaging plant burgers as yet another ultra-processed food that consumers don’t need. However, there is considerable variation in nutritional quality across the four-category NOVA classification (unprocessed and minimally processed foods, processed culinary ingredients, processed, ultra-processed). And numerous studies—including a report from several professional nutrition and food tech organizations—show that (ultra-) processed foods like bread and canned goods are nutritionally beneficial; it’s the whole diet that matters.
Plus, beef burgers don’t grow on trees; the industry employs an extensive set of ingredients consumers simply choose not to consider. A wide range of additives and preservatives and food processing methods were needed to get that cow ground up onto your bun, for instance, alongside atrocious conditions in industrial animal farming systems. And were you aware that meatpacking is among the most dangerous jobs in the world? The reality is that getting a burger to your table made from animals involves far more processing than one made with plants, facts its polystyrene package doesn’t provide.
But is plant-based meat “real food?” The concept was popularized by journalist Michael Pollan, whose other pithy yet patronizing advice includes “eat plants, not food made in plants.” Food writer Mark Bittman recently opined, “[w]e have to determine whether they’re actually ‘food,’ likening plant-based burgers to Cheetos. (Seriously?) Other foodies jumped on the bandwagon, creating nutrition confusion by preaching that meat from animals is inherently superior simply because it’s from an animal.
At the same time, some health professionals return to the dog-tired diet advice that consumers need to eat more vegetables and fruits, like fresh peas instead of burgers made from pea protein. Similarly, an ivory-tower academic called plant-based burgers “transitional” en route to a whole foods diet, ignoring evidence that burgers can be part of a healthy diet, in moderation—and are integral to American traditions.
Viewpoints like these reflect a lack of compassion for the realities most people face in just trying to get a meal on the table. They also undermine how difficult it is to change the way we eat, They also discount the vibrant role cuisine plays in culture and disregard the power of technology to meet food needs healthfully and sustainably.
For a Brighter Food Future, Vote With Your Fork
Addressing today’s complex food challenges requires all the tools we have to curb climate change, address unsustainable and unjust practices in agriculture, and reduce diet-related chronic diseases. Though novel food technologies will always have haters, it’s a brave new world with a new generation of eaters. Millennials and Gen Z are highly motivated by health and sustainability—and both are far more accepting of food technology than previous generations. Scientific innovations like plant-based burgers will always play a role in shaping human diets, as they always have—and often for the better.
But let’s not forget that a burger is a burger is a burger—and it’s especially tasty with all the fixin’s. (And fries. Obviously.) Most of us in high-income nations who strive to manage weight, stave off disease, and live longer are better off eating a vibrant salad loaded in fresh veggies, beans, and whole grains rather than a plant-based burger. At least, most of the time.
But you already know that, right?
So when that craving hits, grab a plant-based burger, and enjoy. Voting with your fork is a delicious way to support technologies that will help move forward the food revolution necessary to create a healthy and sustainable food future for all.