I tried to avoid writing about the Beyond Meat burgers. I didn't want to deal with the haters that I got when I shared facts about Arbonne, Soylent, and Nutella. Yet for the last several months my inbox and my social media feeds have been flooded with questions from people asking for my thoughts on Beyond Meat and whether it's actually as healthy and good for the planet as the marketing and media make it out to be. I thought it time to share my final word on Beyond Meat and answer the question: Is the Beyond Meat vegan burger healthy?
Beyond Meat is positioned as the vegan burger that will save us all. They've pulled the vegan burger out from under the crunchy/hippie stereotype that has followed most vegan food around for the last thirty years. They've got fancy packaging, extremely fancy and sophisticated marketing and are throwing around their claims of the health benefits of going vegan, and the apparent low environmental footprint of their vegan 'meat' products.
But is it really all that?
I have eaten all manners of ways along my health journey. At times it may have fallen under the label of plant-based whole foods, vegetarian, and vegan. I was raw for a summer. And in the last few years, I've transitioned to more of a plant-rich, paleo approach while keeping sustainability at the forefront of my decisions. I aim to eat locally and consume foods with minimal packaging involved. The curriculum of my school, the Academy of Culinary Nutrition, is primarily focused on plant-rich eating and is inclusive of all whole-food based dietary philosophies. I wholeheartedly believe we all need to eat more plants.
That being said, Beyond Meat is very far removed from anything even remotely related to a living plant or whole food. It is a mash of processed plant-derived ingredients. It's about the same as calling Aspirin a natural remedy. Yes, its active component is originally derived from willow bark, but would you call Aspirin a natural remedy? Where a food originates from, and what it actually is when you're about to bite into it are not the same thing.
Let's talk meat substitutes.
The Evolution of Meat Substitutes
When I began my health journey to address my diagnosis of Crohn's disease naturally, I turned to a whole foods diet. You can read about everything I did here or listen to this episode of the Today Is The Day Podcast. At the time, there were a bunch of dairy-free and vegan products and most meat substitutes were made from soy and vital wheat gluten (aka seitan). Soy was basically the plasticine of the vegan food industry, shaped into tofu burgers, tofu dogs, soy margarine and 'chickn' nuggets.
I have never been a fan of most store-bought vegan burgers, cheeses, buttery spreads and other substitutes for animal products as they are mainly processed foods containing ingredients that aren't health-supportive. These products are created to simulate meat or dairy, and in order to do so they undergo a lot of changes and additions.
I certainly understand why people like meat substitutes. Reducing consumption of animal products can be daunting, especially for heavy meat eaters or those following a standard American diet. I get it. There is a wide chasm between eating a beef burger and fries and enjoying mung bean patties with a kale salad. Substitutes like Beyond Meat burgers can act as a transition food to show people that plant-based foods can be tasty, make them feel more comfortable, and help them bridge the gap as they explore new foods.
The problem we are facing now is the transition phase never ends: we don't take off the training wheels. Instead, we keep eating these fake meats rather than shifting to cooking with whole foods like fresh vegetables, fruits, gluten-free whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans and legumes.
The demand for vegan products is growing. One analysis of vegan meat substitutes, dairy alternatives, desserts and snacks predicted that the vegan food market will grow at 9.1% per year and will reach $24.3 billion US by 2026. If we're talking meat substitutes alone, they are valued at about $4 billion US right now. By 2025, that number is expected to grow to $7.5 billion US. Beyond Meat stock prices have been soaring since they went public, too.
So many of the products in the vegan food market are packaged and highly processed. This has both health and environmental impacts. And the bigger problem is that these foods are being aggressively marketed as 'healthy' when they are not. I consider Beyond Meat a classic case of healthwashing.
The Beyond Meat burger is basically the same vegan-friendly, processed burger that's been around for decades – it just has better packaging and a massive marketing budget. How can you lose when you've got the limitless money of Bill Gates funding the machine and the message?
The Beyond Meat Burger is basically the same vegan-friendly, processed burger that's been around for decades – it just has better packaging and a massive marketing budget.
Beyond Meat Burger Ingredients
Let's take a look at what's actually in the Beyond Meat burger, according to their website. Please note that a few different sources had slight variations in the ingredients. This may be due to labeling or ingredient requirements in various countries, and Beyond Meat has also stated they are still tweaking ingredients in different markets. Below is the list from the Beyond Meat website and I've bolded some of the ingredients that are concerning to me.
Beyond Meat Burger Ingredients
Water, Pea Protein Isolate, Expeller-Pressed Canola Oil, Refined Coconut Oil, Rice Protein, Natural Flavors, Cocoa Butter, Mung Bean Protein, Methylcellulose, Potato Starch, Apple Extract, Salt, Potassium Chloride, Vinegar, Lemon Juice Concentrate, Sunflower Lecithin, Pomegranate Fruit Powder, Beet Juice Extract (for color)
Is this the worst ingredient list I've ever seen? No. But being 'healthier' than another product doesn't make it healthy. A smoker who smokes less is still a smoker.
However, it gets a little more complicated when you look at additional ingredient lists for the Beyond Burger, which include more modified starches, sugars, oils, preservatives and extracts. If you're going to purchase the Beyond Meat burger, ensure you look at the ingredient list on the package to determine what you are getting in case you have any sensitivities.
Beyond Meat Burger Ingredients: Some Variations
- Water, Pea Protein Isolate, Expeller-Pressed Canola Oil, Refined Coconut Oil, Contains 2% or less of the following: Cellulose from Bamboo, Methylcellulose, Potato Starch, Natural Flavor, Maltodextrin, Yeast Extract, Salt, Sunflower Oil, Vegetable Glycerin, Dried Yeast, Gum Arabic, Citrus Extract (to protect quality), Ascorbic Acid (to maintain color), Beet Juice Extract (for color), Acetic Acid, Succinic Acid, Modified Food Starch, Annatto (for color).
- Water, Pea Protein, Canola Oil, Refined Coconut Oil, Rice Protein, Natural Flavour, Dried Yeast, Mung Bean Protein, Methylcellulose, Potato Starch, Sugars (apple extract, pomegranate fruit powder), Potassium Chloride, Vinegar, Concentrated Lemon Juice, Beet Juice Extract (vegetable glycerine, water, maltodextrin, ascorbic acid), Salt, Sunflower Lecithin, Lycopene Extract From Tomato, Vitamins and Minerals (niacin [vitamin B3], pyridoxine hydrochloride [vitamin B6], thiamine hydrochloride [vitamin B1], riboflavin [vitamin B2], folic acid [vitamin B9], cyanocobalamin [vitamin B12], calcium pantothenate, biotin, zinc sulphate, ferric orthophosphate).
Pea protein, one of the primary ingredients in the Beyond Meat burger, has its challenges. Pea protein is derived from peas that have been stripped of the fibre and starch, leaving a concentrated source of protein behind. Peas are a member of the legume family, which is a common allergen. What's also worrying is that a report found concerning levels of glyphosate in protein blends with pea protein (even organic ones!). Glyphosate is a herbicide found in genetically modified foods and is a key ingredient in Bayer/Monsanto's Round-up (recently implicated in a 2 billion dollar lawsuit for its direct link to causing cancer). Though one of the claims of Beyond Meat is the ecological benefit, as companies move away from soy in favour of pea protein, we are potentially facing a pea protein shortage. Is pea protein becoming the next soy, to be used in everything from food to beauty care products to plastics?
Canola oil is on my never-ever oil list. It's high in omega-6 fats, which can bring the body into an inflammatory state when consumed in excess (which many of us do, as canola is inexpensive and in a lot of packaged products). It's also processed with chemicals that degrade its nutritional value, and then more chemicals are added back in to mask its rancidity. The same goes for sunflower oil. You can learn more about the impact of vegetable oils here and grab a helpful reminder infographic about healthy cooking oils.
Refined Coconut Oil
Refined coconut oil has been heated to a higher temperature than virgin coconut oil (which I love) and deodorized to remove the coconut odor and taste. It contains fewer nutrients, too. I aim to purchase and consume organic oils that have undergone minimal processing, chemical extraction and chemical additions.
Natural flavours are tricky beasts because we don't always know what they actually are. It's a catch-all term and they could be innocuous, or harmful to our health. And vegans and vegetarians beware: Foods that appear to be 100% plant-based on the label might not be. There was a case here in Toronto where a woman with an anaphylactic allergy to dairy was hospitalized after unknowingly consuming dairy at the Vegandale Brewery. The owners didn't know the ingredients of everything they were using and admitted there may have been dairy in some of their seasonings. Natural flavours aren't natural at all, and you'd be hard-pressed to be able to find out what exactly this is in any given food.
This is another term for MSG - a compound that many people are sensitive to and can cause multiple health effects., including allergic reactions, headaches, neurotoxicity and obesity.
Vitamins and Minerals
The synthetic vitamins and minerals added to most processed foods are not the forms that our bodies are best able to readily use and absorb.
Regardless of which ingredient list you're looking at, the Beyond Meat burger is primarily a mixture of water, pea protein and oil. When you look at the ingredient list as a whole, you see ingredients that were originally derived from plants but have been processed, stripped, refined or extracted along the way to make this burger. That is quite different from actually eating plants.
What Else You're Getting With Your Beyond Meat Burger
Fast food companies across North America are welcoming meat alternatives like the Beyond Meat burger with open arms (BTW - am I seeing tortilla chips stuffed into that burger up there? Is that a thing?). They are promoting the purported health benefits of these products - as one example, fast-food chain A & W has an array of photos of whole yellow peas, coconut meat, beets and their greens, whole grain rice, whole potatoes (potato starch is what is actually in the burger) and pomegranate seeds (which they claim as a source of antioxidants and vitamins). This would make it seem like you're basically eating a salad, with all of these whole foods in their natural state. You aren't. Not even close.
Aside from the burger itself, when you are purchasing it from a burger joint or restaurant you're also likely to consume it along with a bun, cheese (some offer vegan options), condiments and seasonings that contain preservatives, artificial colours, sugar, yeast extract (another term for MSG) and natural flavours.
A & W shares the full ingredient list of their Beyond Meat menu item including what's in the patty, bun, seasonings, condiments and cooking oils, including their egg-containing mayo on the vegan burger. Whoops! There are dozens of ingredients on the list. And, if you're vegan, they also cook their Beyond Meat patties on the same grill as their beef burgers so they are essentially being cooked in conventional beef fat. (If it seems like I'm picking on A & W, it's only because they are one of the few companies I found that posted the full list of ingredients rather than only the fat grams, carbs and calories and allergen warnings. I appreciate that they actually were honest about the whole list of ingredients so consumers can understand what they are eating.)
If you're purchasing Beyond Meat burgers at your local grocery store and cooking them at home, it's possible that you can add more nutrition by eating them without the bun, using a lettuce leaf, making your own condiments like ketchup or BBQ sauce, and serving them with grilled veggies, roasted veggies or a salad. There are probably some people who do this, and likely as an occasional thing to enjoy a family BBQ and not compromise personal dietary or lifestyle choices.
HOW Is the Beyond MEAT Burger Healthier Than Animal Products?
This is a big and loaded question. I am not addressing the personal ethics of eating meat versus not eating meat. That's a completely different conversation that, to be honest, isn't even needed. That's a personal choice and we best not be judging each other for it no matter what stand we may take. Glass house and stones- you know how it goes. We all have our own values and philosophies that should be respected. I'm talking about personal, physical health.
The Beyond Meat company certainly promotes their products as healthier than eating animals, linking plant-based diets to a reduced risk of heart disease and cancer. Now, this is a big topic for sure and one that researchers have studied extensively. We know that factory-farmed meat is a problem and negatively impacts the environment, our health and the welfare of animals. We know that plant-based diets are great for us.
However, there is a large body of evidence about the health benefits of organic, grass-fed animal products like meat, poultry and eggs. I delve into this in my post about 'naturally raised' meat. You can read more studies about the health benefits of animal products here. Yes, nutritional research will show that a plant-based diet is better for our health if you're comparing it to someone eating a standard American diet. Still, you can be a healthy vegan or an unhealthy vegan, or a healthy meat eater or an unhealthy one. It's possible to be an unsustainable vegan or meat-eater, or a conscious meat-eater or vegan. Evidence indicates that vegetarians and vegans don't live longer than healthy omnivores, though they may live longer than an unhealthy meat-eater (there are also other lifestyle factors at play - including exercise, lifestyle, alcohol and tobacco consumption, etc.).
Is a Beyond Meat burger healthier for you than the standard hormone/antibiotic-laden feedlot burger comprised of bits of 100 different cows? Probably. Does that make it a healthy option? This bit is arguable. There are salads at fast-food restaurants, too. That also doesn't mean they are healthy.
Is the Beyond MEAT Burger MORE ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY?
Beyond Meat commissioned a study that showed their burger "uses significantly less water, less land, generates fewer Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHGE), and requires less energy than a beef burger." They compared the Beyond Meat burger to a "4 oz. uncooked burger patty delivered to retail outlets." A burger patty found at retail outlets - restaurants, stores and fast food places - is most likely a conventional beef burger.
I would love to see a study comparing the Beyond Meat burger to the environmental impact of an organic, grass-fed beef burger raised on a biodynamic farm in the eater's local area. What is the entire footprint of the meal including packaging, shipping, freezing, etc.? Or how about a study that examines Beyond Meat consumption and the impact on health, as the benefits of plant-based diets may not apply if you're eating Beyond Meat burgers, sausages and crumbles.
It's impossible to praise or condemn the environmental impact of a meal when it is narrowed to only what is sitting on your own plate at that moment. There is way more to it than just what it takes to grow the ingredients. When food is manufactured in a factory, what we don't see is all the testing that goes on. Is the Beyond Meat burger better for the planet than the massive feedlot farming and the impact that is having on the environment? Without a doubt. Does that make the Beyond Meat burger an environmentally-friendly choice? Again, this is arguable.
When it comes to studies intended to sell a product, you have to know that the data will be picked and chosen carefully, and masterfully worded to support the one goal of increasing sales. Let's not forget - Beyond Meat is a publicly-traded company that saw a nice little spike in share value when they shook hands with the Subway chain of restaurants last month.
Beyond Meat burgers: The FINAL WORD
Many people believe that there is no healthy, ethical or sustainable way to eat meat, and I understand this view. But is the Beyond Meat burger the antidote to meat-eating? Beyond Meat claims it is the 'future of protein', but why can't the future of protein be cultivating sustainable whole protein sources like nuts, seeds, beans, legumes and vegetables, and some meat, if it's part of your diet, but eating less of it?
Beyond Meat promotes its burger as kosher, gluten-free, GMO-free, soy-free and nut-free, but being free of something doesn't automatically make the Beyond Burger healthy. As my husband Josh and I discuss in our Fooled by the Label podcast episode, companies use label claims to lull us into believing that a product is more nutritious than it truly is. When we make food choices, knowing what's in the food is just as important as what's not in that food.
Eating Beyond Meat burgers is a choice. It may be the best choice compared to other choices in certain situations, or you may simply enjoy the product and want to eat it. My aim here is to encourage people to truly educate themselves on what they are eating and how meat substitutes may affect their health - and to avoid being fooled by the labels and the marketing hype.
My aim continues to be that we appreciate the beauty and deliciousness of plant-based foods without reaching for the fake burgers. Eat real food. It's not complicated and it's not difficult.
There are many chefs, health experts, bloggers and food advocates who are championing us to eat and appreciate plant-based foods - people like Michael Pollan, Dan Barber, Yotam Ottolenghi, Michelle Obama, Jo Robinson and many, many more. They encourage us to eat vegetables grown from the ground and elevate plant-based cuisine.
Beyond Meat burgers are not the ideal alternative to meat. If you'd like to omit eating meat, or pursue a plant-based diet for health and environmental reasons, there are many options that are better for our wellbeing and the health of the planet.
Fast food is still fast food. Instead of looking at how we can save the planet by changing up our fast food order, maybe we need to be reassessing why we're eating so much fast food and factory-farmed foods that are part of this health and environmental crisis.
Delicious Alternatives To The Beyond Meat Burger
Some of my favourite plant-based burgers for you to try!
20 Best Burger Recipes (includes a mix of vegan, vegetarian and meat options)