What looks like meat, tastes like meat, smells like meat, sizzles on the grill like meat and even bleeds like meat? It’s not a riddle—it’s one of the latest food trends: A plant-based burger that closely resembles the look and taste of real beef. The blood? Vegetarians rest assured; it’s just plant-based blood imitator.
Burger substitutes are nothing new. Vegetarians have been pattying up all kinds of alternatives for years, ranging from tofu and seitan to black bean and grain-based burgers. And food companies have kept up by producing a wide variety of frozen veggie burgers.
But it wasn’t until more recently that these burgers imitated the real thing.
Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are two companies that have made it to the mainstream market. Impossible, which claims “you won’t believe your mouth,” is served at more than 5,000 restaurants in the US and Hong Kong, including such trendy specialty burger bars as Fatburger, Umami Burger, Hopdoddy, The Counter and B Spot. In addition, the fast-food chain White Castle added an Impossible Slider to 140 locations. Beyond Meat is available at more than 5,000 grocery stores nationwide and is served at food chains such as A&W and TGI Fridays, along with university dining halls and hotels.
Jeanne Tennis, a plant-based cooking consultant and private chef in Connecticut, was tasked by the hospital she works for to try an Impossible Burger to see if it would be a good nutritional fit for clients. She was skeptical. “I’m vegan and had no interest in ever trying it,” she recalls. “To me, anything from the lab is just disgusting, and advertised as bleeding like real meat was not attractive to me on any level.”
First, Tennis looked into the company and was impressed by their mission statement, which focuses on the environmental benefits. “They also detailed what it’s made out of, which was good,” she says. Then she took her first bite. “It was delicious,” she says. “My girlfriend was eating her regular burger and tried it, and we agreed it had a right-off-the-grill taste. It went down really well. I even went back with my husband a month later.”
But do vegetarians really crave a juicy hamburger, or are they disgusted by the thought of eating meat?
Rebekah Moses, senior manager of impact strategy for Impossible Foods, says the company is not necessarily targeting vegetarians. “It’s really important to our environmental mission that we’re not just creating new protein channels, but that we’re providing a product that meat eaters will choose instead of beef,” she says. “Consumer testing done in 2018 revealed that over 70% of people buying Impossible are omnivorous, so that’s been a great proof of concept and super-validating from a mission perspective. We expect that number to keep going up as we grow.”
Amy Goodson, a Dallas-based registered dietitian, explains that these types of alternatives can be a good choice for non-vegetarians who are cutting back on meat for other reasons. “Many people are switching to more of a plant-based diet to reduce inflammation and to help their cholesterol,” she says.
Tennis agrees that there’s a time and place for this sort of thing. “What I tell my clients is that it’s great in a social situation, such as at a barbecue,” she says. “But I’m a huge supporter of organic food and farming, so I try to steer them toward other options, using ingredients from their kitchens. If you can make something from scratch, it’s going to be much better for you.”
So for those who have quit meat, but still crave meat, the Beyond and Impossible burgers can be a win-win, a healthier option and a real-deal substitute.
Both plant-based meat companies claim that sustainability and environmental efficiency were driving forces behind the creation of their products. What if meat eaters could have all of the flavor benefits of beef and leave a much smaller carbon footprint? Another win-win.
It’s no secret that the environmental impact associated with beef production is substantial. A review published on the journal platform ScienceDirect.com states that these impacts “chiefly relate to the low efficiency of beef cattle in converting natural resources into edible products.
Water use, land use, biomass appropriation and greenhouse gas emissions are, for example, typically higher per unit of edible product in beef systems than in any other livestock systems, even when corrected for nutritional quality.” Some environmental experts have claimed that quitting meat can more greatly reduce one’s carbon footprint than getting rid of one’s car.
“Impossible Foods was founded with a mission to empower consumers to address climate change and the huge environmental impacts of the food system,” Moses says. “We started with a burger because it’s an iconic product in the US and globally. There’s a big market there, and as a result, there’s a big opportunity for us to achieve our goals of reducing the climate impact of meat consumption. Fifty percent of US beef consumption is in the form of ground beef, and beef is far and away the primary offender on climate, water and biodiversity loss all over the world.”
Impossible, according to its website, uses roughly 75% less water, generates 87% fewer greenhouse gases and requires 95% less land than conventional ground beef from cows.
Beyond cites a University of Michigan study that compares its product to a quarter-pound US beef burger. The results concluded that Beyond uses approximately 99% less water, 93% less land, 90% fewer greenhouse gas emissions and 46% less energy.
Goodson scanned the ingredients list for both companies and broke them down.
“For Beyond Burger, the first ingredient is pea protein, which is great for food sensitivities and food allergies,” she says, noting that studies have shown it can also help people feel more full and increase muscle growth as effectively as animal-based proteins. “For the Impossible Burger, the second ingredient is coconut oil, which is high in MCT [medium-chain triglycerides],” Goodson notes. These healthy fats are broken down and absorbed into the body more rapidly than unhealthy fats, making them a fast energy source that’s less likely to be stored as fat, she explains.
Impossible meat is based on a compound the company calls “heme,” derived from soy leghemoglobin. “It’s a small, iron-carrying molecule found in every living thing, and it’s superabundant in animals like cattle, sheep, even tuna, in the form of hemoglobin,” says Moses. “We had to figure out how to get that critical molecule from plants. Instead of digging up soy roots, we figured out how to make heme via fermentation, very similar to the way Belgian beer or rennet for hard cheese is produced.
“When the heme in the Impossible Burger is combined with other elements found in meat, like vitamins and amino acids, then heated up, it generates flavors and aromas that our taste buds and brain recognize as meat,” Moses explains. With 13 grams of fat per serving, along with 3 milligrams of iron and 20 grams of protein, this product lists a number of other nutrients, including vitamin B12, thiamin, niacin and zinc.
Beyond Meat is based on proteins derived from peas and soy, and includes the addition of beet juice to resemble blood. Although the Beyond Burger contains 20 grams of protein and a good amount of iron per 4-ounce patty, it also contains 20 grams of fat and 270 calories. “This calorie amount [in both] is equal to or more than a beef burger, depending on your cut of beef or ground meat,” Goodson says. “Similar to turkey burgers, most non-beef patties often contain more fat to help the patty hold together. But to think you are getting lower fat and less calories eating a veggie burger or the Beyond Burger patty is likely not true.” Beyond Burgers are also free of GMOs, soy and gluten.
Although both products have more protein than most veggie burgers, they contain no vegetables, and therefore none of the associated benefits. “So if your goal is protein, this might be your choice, but if you are trying to get veggies in with it, then a veggie burger might be the better option,” Goodson says. “The Beyond Burger is not touted for veggies, but for its meatlike appearance, texture and taste.”
The overall takeaway? The meatless burgers have similar profiles to average beef burgers, but without the cholesterol, hormones, antibiotics and environmental impact of beef. The future of these plant-based options depends on the willingness of consumers to give it a whirl.
“We have made strong inroads into meat consumption by rolling out what is frankly a really good product that can compete with the animal-based ground beef,” Moses says. “Of course it should be mentioned that we’re still super-small compared to the US beef industry—the average American eats the beef equivalent of 3 burgers per week. We’re going to continue to commit to environmental standards that exceed the animal product, and nutrition that meets or surpasses the animal product.”
Morgan Family Game Day Chilli
3 tbsp grape seed or avocado oil
1 red onion (small dice)
1 red bell pepper (small dice)
1 stalk celery (4–5 sticks, small dice)
6-8 cloves garlic (minced)
2 packs Beyond Burger Patties
(4 patties total)
2-3 tbsp chili powder
1 tbsp paprika (can use smoked paprika)
1⁄2 tsp cayenne
1 tbsp cumin
1 tsp onion powder
1 tsp cinnamon
1⁄2 tsp ginger
1 tsp Italian seasoning
2 bay leaves
2 chipotle chiles (in adobo); use 1 tbsp of the adobo
1 can of beer of your choice
1 pound of kidney beans, soaked overnight and slow-cooked,
or 2 (29 oz) cans kidney beans
1 can (29 oz) black beans
1 small can tomato paste
2 cans (15 oz) diced tomatoes
pink Himalayan salt, to taste
black pepper, to taste
1 bunch cilantro (tops and slight stems); save some for garnish
1 bunch green onions (green & white part); save some for garnish
2 limes (garnish)
vegan sour cream
hummus or nut-based dips
shredded vegan cheese
crushed tortilla chips
1. Heat oil in a large hot pot, such as a Dutch oven. Then add onion, bell pepper and celery, and sauté until slightly translucent.
2. Add garlic and sauté until garlic becomes fragrant.
3. Add Beyond Burger Patties; break up with a spatula into crumbles. Sauté until slightly brown.
4. Add the seasonings, chipotle pepper with adobo sauce and the beer. Then add the kidney and black beans, and simmer for 10 minutes.
5. Add the tomato paste and tomatoes. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding salt and pepper as needed.
6. Add the cilantro and green onions. Simmer on low for at least 30 minutes to allow flavors to meld.
7. Serve hot with optional garnishes.
Note: This recipe can also be made in a slow cooker.
*Seasoning can be altered by your taste of spice; in my chili, I am a lil heavy on the cumin, and chili powder & smoked paprika. Chili is supposed to have a kick!
*For less kick only add 1 chipotle chili
*To increase the serving size; add another pack of Beyond Meat Burger Patties and 1 additional can of both beans.
*For a very thick chili add 1 extra can of tomato paste
*For a thinner chili add 1-2 cups of vegetable broth.
Serves 6; Prep time: 10 minutes; Cook time: 40 minutes
CREDIT: BEYOND MEAT (WWW.BEYONDMEAT.COM)