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If it looks like a burger, cooks like a burger and even tastes like a burger, it must be a burger, right? Well, not anymore.
"Burgers," made with plant-based ingredients instead of animal meat, have become a hot item in grocery stores and even fast food chains. The Beyond Burger — which Carl's Jr., the restaurant famous for its particularly meaty dishes with ads starring models, incorporated into its menu — and the Impossible Burger, adapted by Burger King as a new Whopper patty, are two examples of the trendy alternatives out there.
And unlike the fake meats that are often relegated into the vegan section, the newest crop of plant-based options are found in the meat aisle at your local supermarket. That's right, the meat aisle! These companies aren't just making food for vegans and vegetarians — they're coming after meat lovers.
More Americans are switching to a "flexitarian" diet.
The growing trend to incorporate vegetarian options into a diet of meat and fish is known as "flexitarianism," and it comes with immense health benefits.
Currently, Americans eat a lot of red meat. According to the USDA, the average American ate 222.4 pounds of red meat in 2018; that's the equivalent of 890 quarter-pound burgers (or 2.4 burgers a day). The World Cancer Research Fund recommends limiting red meat consumption to no more than three 4-ounce portions a week. That means folks are eating more than five times the amount of red meat experts recommend as part of a healthy diet.
Research from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services found a diet of too much red meat comes at a cost, including increased risk of colorectal cancer, heart disease, cardiovascular disease, obesity and high cholesterol levels. Processed meat, in particular, is higher in sodium, which has been linked to an increased risk of coronary heart disease and type-2 diabetes.
Evidence generally indicates that reducing red meat intake is a good idea, particularly for people who are at a higher risk for cardiovascular disease or certain types of cancers. For example, a 2012 NIH study estimated that replacing one serving of red meat with one serving of other foods (fish, poultry, nuts, legumes, low-fat dairy and whole grains) was associated with a 7%-19% lower mortality risk.
On the other hand, other protein sources — including those from plants — could help you live longer, making these faux meat options a great way to get the taste you love without impacting your well-being.
Are plant-based meat alternatives really that healthy?
While plant-based meats have zero cholesterol, they are often calorically similar to and have more sodium than their animal-based counterparts.
On the other hand, plant-based alternatives often have one nutrient missing from all animal products: fiber. And because most adults clock in their fiber intake at about 15 grams a day — way below the USDA-recommended 28 grams per day — eating more of these plant-based alternatives can help you on your way to meeting these requirements.
Although overall there may seem to be some health benefits, experts don't necessarily recommend that these plant-based meat alternatives become a regular addition to your weekly menu.
"Some of the plant-based alternatives, in my opinion, are quite processed and have a long list of ingredients," Maya Feller MS, RD, CDN, told TODAY Food. "It's important to understand that these alternatives are not a whole foods alternative. They are a shelf stable alternative that has been engineered to have a similar mouthfeel and texture as meat."
Bottom line: We can't draw the conclusion that plant based meats are healthier, but at the very least, choosing it over a ground beef burger would help you decrease your red-meat intake.
Plant-based burgers may help the environment, too.
Health aside, there is one additional argument in support of opting for plant-based meats: environmental responsibility. Harvard researchers note that there is an "urgent need to reduce meat and dairy consumption" and that "getting protein from plant sources instead of animal sources would drastically help in meeting climate targets and reduce the risk of overshooting temperature goals."
According to the International Livestock Research Institute, livestock farming used 45% of Earth's land surface and contributed to more than 18% of global greenhouse gases in 2011.
Plant-based companies can produce a burger with a fraction of the water, land and greenhouse gases of a conventional burger. Beyond Meat claimed it produces 14 Beyond Burgers with the same amount of land it takes to produce one beef burger and 60,837 Beyond Burgers using the amount of water in an average swimming pool versus 312 beef burgers.
How to choose the right plant-based alternative
"Both plant-based meats and regular beef burgers can fit into a nutrient-dense diet in moderation. There are trade-offs for choosing each, so neither should be relied on as a sole source of protein," The Nutrition Twins, Tammy Lakatos Shames, RDN, CDN, CFT and Lyssie Lakatos, RDN, CDN, CFT, told TODAY.
When opting for either of these, shoppers "should choose organic beef or a veggie burger without highly processed components."
For many, these trendy "burgers" may be their first foray into plant-based products and another easy way to make dinner on Meatless Mondays.
Ready to try the meatless "meat" trend?
Here's a list of some of TODAY's favorite plant-based meat alternatives that taste, well, like meat!
The plant-based burger that bleeds has a special secret ingredient that's the key to it cooking, smelling, and tasting like real beef: heme, which is found in animals and all plants. Impossible Burgers also adds essential B vitamins (a plus for vegan and vegetarians, whose diets are usually deficient). This "burger" will hit grocery stores nationwide in September but can be tried out chains from Burger King to Cheesecake Factory to White Castle.
One 4-ounce patty has 240 calories, 14 grams fat, 370 milligrams sodium, 3 grams fiber and 19 grams protein.
The Beyond Burger, made with pea, rice and mung bean protein, doesn't use heme like the Impossible Burger, but it gets its red color from beets with an additional magic ingredient: apple extract. This extract helps the patty turn from red to brown as you cook it. The extra meatiness from marbling — aka the white fat streaks you see in beef — it's replicated using coconut oil and cocoa butter, which create a melt-in-your-mouth texture.
A 4-ounce patty has 250 calories, 18 grams fat, 390 milligrams sodium, 2 grams fiber and 20 grams protein.
Beyond Sausage has all the juicy, meaty deliciousness of a traditional sausage, but comes with the upside of a plant-based meal. You won't find any hormones, nitrites, nitrates, soy or gluten in the sausage either.
Beyond Sausage delivers the juicy, delicious, and sizzling satisfaction of pork sausage, and it has 43% less total fat, 38% less saturated fat, 27% less calories and 26% less sodium than traditional pork sausage. It comes in Original Bratwurst, Hot Italian and Sweet Italian flavors.
Timed with their 40th anniversary, Lightlife launched their new line of meat-like pork sausage replacements made entirely of plants. This Italian sausage has nearly half the total fat and three more grams of fiber than traditional pork sausage for the same amount of protein and 60 fewer calories.
One cooked Italian sausage has 220 calories, 12 grams fat, 500 milligrams sodium, 3 grams fiber and 16 grams protein. They're available now at more than 7,500 stores nationwide, including Acme, Albertsons, Haggen, Jewel, Pavilions, Safeway, Vons, Wegmans, Sprouts, Fresh Thyme and more.
The Abbot's Butcher was developed in a kitchen with ingredients like extra virgin olive oil, organic tomato paste and Spanish smoked paprika. One half-cup 1/2 cup of "chorizo" has 140 calories, 6 grams fat, 420 milligrams sodium, 3 grams fiber and 16 grams protein. It's available online via Mylk Guys and Vegan Essentials.
This plant-based, non-GMO "sausage" patty can work well when people are hankering for a breakfast sandwich, but don't want to overdo the meat. One 2-ounce patty has 130 calories, 10 grams fat, 170 milligrams sodium, 4 grams fiber and 8 grams protein.
It will launch in 3,000 stores in early September in Southern California, Colorado, Texas and Florida, and roll out nationwide in late fall.
In September 2019, plant-based will officially have gone mainstream. Launched by chicken giant, Tyson, Raised & Rooted is their newest line of "flexitarian" meat options, the nuggets are made from pea protein isolate, golden flaxseed, bamboo and egg whites (so they're not vegan). Four nuggets contain 220 calories, 13 grams fat, 680 milligrams sodium, 5 grams fiber and 9 grams protein. They're available in grocery stores nationwide.
Founded by 19-year-old entrepreneur Ben Pasternak, NUGGS are made with pea protein, corn starch, pea starch and corn flour. NUGGS, available online, have almost twice as much protein as the animal-based equivalent and 20% fewer calories and no cholesterol. Five pieces have 180 calories, 5 grams fat, 270 milligrams sodium and 22 grams protein.
Good Catch is on a mission to protect the oceans' natural resources while still allowing you to enjoy the anti-inflammatory health benefits of fish. Their plant-based tuna contains algal oil and a six-legume blend of peas, chickpeas, lentils, soy, fava beans and navy beans, and are vegan, GMO-free and gluten-free.
This tuna packet serves up the same amount of protein as tuna (14 grams), as well as 350 milligrams of heart-healthy DHA omega-3 fatty acids. While this is less than the 590 milligrams in white albacore tuna, it's still more than you could get from just eating the same legumes alone. Good Catch is available at Whole Foods, Thrive Market and FreshDirect.
A chip that tastes like bacon but is made from a vegetable? Sign us up! The base of these PigOut chips is actually from oyster mushrooms and is a vegan, gluten-free snack. A serving has 73% less saturated fat and 69% less sodium than cooked pork bacon. One ounce of chips has 160 calories, 10 grams fat, 210 milligrams sodium, 4 grams fiber and 2 grams protein. The brand is available at Sprouts, Wegmans, Fairway, Lassens, Whole Foods stores in the Southern Pacific region and online at Thrive Market and Pig Out Chips.
The following members of the Eat This, Not That! Advisory Board contributed to this article: Maya Feller MS, RD, CD; The Nutrition Twins, Tammy Lakatos Shames, RDN, CDN, CFT and Lyssie Lakatos, RDN, CDN, CFT; Amy Shapiro MS, RD, CDN and Isabel K Smith, MS, RD, CDN.