Beyond Meat burgers have defied expectations of carnivores and herbivores alike. The patty has duped meat-eaters and brought variety to the sometimes protein-scarce diets of vegetarians and vegans. It’s now even launched in Tim Hortons — Canada’s quintessential coffee chain — after a long promotional run in A&W restaurants.
As this meat alternative seemingly makes its way into our everyday lives — it’s also available for purchase in grocery stores — some health experts question whether plant-based burgers are actually good for us.
While some people are switching to Beyond Meat for environmental and ethical reasons, dietitians like Amanda Lapidus and Abby Langer say there is cause for worry about the “health halo” being placed on these meat alternatives.
“The Beyond Meat burger is technically a processed food. We know that diets higher in processed foods are linked to the development of disease,” Lapidus said.
When people eat more processed foods, they are likely to consume more calories and gain weight, a study by the National Institutes of Health found. With added weight gain can come such complications as kidney disease, diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol and heart disease.
Just because a product is plant-based doesn’t mean it’s automatically healthy. “French fries are plant-based,” Langer pointed out.
In fact, Aroma’s vegan burger (made with a Beyond Meat patty) and salad will set you back 990 calories, 63.9 grams of fat and 1,530 milligrams of sodium.
Beyond Meat, which positions itself as a food product that can directly compete with meat in taste, texture and nutrition, has found relative mainstream success in Canada, and other producers have started making their own versions of plant-based proteins. Quebec-based Vegeat, Maple Leaf Foods and President’s Choice have all launched a pea protein burger.
Langer said plant-based burgers create more variety for those seeking meat alternatives; instead of relying on tofu and legumes, vegetarians and vegans can consume Beyond Meat as an occasional treat. “Would I eat it every day? No. Would I eat a burger every day? No, I wouldn’t. This is the same thing.”
Lapidus said her concerns about Beyond Meat vary from person to person. If, for example, someone who isn’t a regular A&W customer or fast-food consumer starts to regularly seek out the plant-based burger, that’s not a healthy option. If it’s the opposite, where it’s regular fast-food eaters swapping their beef burger for a Beyond Burger, it might not be too bad.
It also depends on someone’s personal health history, she said. “If you’re somebody who’s at risk for colorectal cancer, eating more red meat is going to further increase your risk for developing colorectal cancer.”
For someone who has hypertension, a Beyond Meat burger at A&W — which has more than half your daily requirement of sodium (1,110 mg) — is not a good option. Conversely, A&W’s teen burger, which has bacon, has 910 mg of sodium.
A 113-gram Beyond Meat patty has 250 calories, 18 grams of fat, 390 milligrams of sodium and 20 grams of protein. Health Canada says 113 grams of lean ground beef contain 292 calories, 16.5 grams of fat, 105 milligrams of sodium and 33 grams of protein. For comparison, 113 grams of Yves’ Veggie burger (which is typically 75 grams) contains 165 calories, nine grams of fat, 602.4 milligrams of sodium and 18 grams of protein.
These consumers are blindly purchasing foods that they think are healthy because they associate it with a plant
Michael Rogers, a food scientist at the University of Guelph, worries the proliferation of Beyond Meat is only adding to a growing food crisis, where in Canada, 50 per cent of people’s calories come from ultra-processed foods.
The Heart and Stroke Foundation defines ultra-processed foods as those that “go through multiple processes (extrusion, moulding, milling, etc.), contain many added ingredients and are highly manipulated.” This includes hot dogs, chicken nuggets, sweetened breakfast cereals, ice cream and chocolate.
“For the last million years, we’ve evolved with a very specific diet that’s been based on whole foods,” Rogers said. “There hasn’t been a change in our diets this drastic in all of human evolution with the exception of one event in human history: when early evolutionary ancestors ventured from forests into pastoral land and started … agricultural practices,” more than 12,000 years ago.
Since the Industrial Revolution, Rogers explained, companies have been working to make food more shelf-stable, palatable and functional by way of extracting, purifying and manipulating proteins, carbohydrates and fats, which are then added to such formulated foods as the Beyond burger.
When an animal or plant cell is broken down, the original, biological structures of those cells are transformed and no longer respond the same way in our bodies.
Beyond Meat products are made from yellow pea protein isolates, where the yellow pea itself is broken down through various processes. Other ingredients such as refined coconut oil and natural flavours are added to make a cohesive patty that tastes good.
“Where this gets troublesome is consumers now see that this vegan burger has pea protein … and they associate this vegetarian product, which is formulated from all these refined ingredients, and they think it’s the same as eating a plate full of peas,” Rogers said.
It’s not. When we consume food products that have been refined, the structures that exist to slow down digestion are removed. As a result, our bodies consume the energy of the food much quicker and easier, spiking our insulin, which can lead to the onset of diabetes.
Think of brown rice, Rogers said. When the outer layer — the bran — is polished to make white rice, our bodies digest the carbohydrates much quicker and it transforms from a complex carbohydrate to a simple one.
“We’ve created a whole new form of malnutrition that, from an evolutionary perspective, didn’t exist until a hundred years ago. There is no anthropological evidence to suggest Type 2 diabetes. There’s no anthropological evidence that suggests that diseases like metabolic syndrome even existed a hundred years ago. And that is a direct consequence of the ultra-processing of our foods,” he said.
“These consumers are blindly purchasing foods that they think are healthy because they associate it with a plant. But once that food has been processed, it doesn’t matter if it came from a plant, or a piece of cardboard — whatever — the whole food has gone.”
Despite all the warnings, Lapidus, Langer and Rogers all agreed that having processed food in your diet isn’t entirely bad — so long as it’s in moderation.
So go ahead and delight in a plant-based burger if your heart desires, but as Langer said, “use common sense.”
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