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Published on December 10, 2019

veggie burger and sweet potato fries

Understanding Meatless Burgers and More

A meatless Whopper at Burger King and vegetable-based KFC “chicken” nuggets …

Is anyone else as shocked as me?

The development of meat alternatives has become a priority within the food industry, due to the impact meat production has on the environment. The development of these clean meats and meat alternatives is happening primarily in the U.S.; however, surveys have shown we are the most leery of consuming them.

Surveyors speculate our resistance is related to a lack of understanding. With South Dakota being home to nearly 2 million head of beef cattle, I am in no way trying to degrade the importance of the meat, especially beef, industry. But, it never hurts to understand what else is available so you can decide if you want to give it a try.

The first type of alternatives are plant-based proteins designed to look, taste and act like the traditional animal based proteins (beef, poultry and fish). Although their ingredient list may be similar to other vegetarian entrees on the market, they differ in that they are sold “raw” and should be cooked just like meat.

Beyond Meat is responsible for the new KFC meatless chicken, but also offers burgers, ground meat and sausage. Their products use peas, rice and mung beans for protein as well as canola oil, coconut oil and cocoa butter for fat. You will also see ingredients like potato starch and methylcellulose to bind everything together and apple extract, salt, vinegar, lemon juice, pomegranate fruit powder and beet juice extract for flavor, freshness and color.

Impossible Foods is responsible for the Impossible Whopper at Burger King but their ground beef substitute can also be purchased at many grocery stores. They use soy and potatoes as their protein source and coconut and sunflower oils for fat. They also use methylcellulose and food starch as binders. Impossible Foods feels strongly that ground beef’s distinct flavor comes from heme (an iron containing molecule found naturally in every animal and plant). They use a genetically modified yeast to create a soy form of heme known as soy leghemoglobin. In addition to the ingredients to make the soy based heme, they also add a lot of vitamins (especially B vitamins) and minerals to their product.

There are significant differences nutritionally between real beef and the vegetable based alternative. Beef has some dietary cholesterol but it is much lower in sodium, carbohydrates and can be purchased with a lower fat content. There is currently no research comparing the health impact of these products.

Here’s a nutritional comparison of a 4-ounce patty:

  • Beyond Meat has 250 calories, 18 grams fat (6 grams saturated), 0 cholesterol, 3 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 390 milligrams sodium and 20 grams protein.
  • Impossible Burger has 240 calories, 14 grams fat (8 grams saturated), 0 cholesterol, 9 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 370 milligrams sodium and 19 grams protein.
  • 90% ground beef has 199 calories, 11 grams fat (4 grams saturated), 73 mg cholesterol, 0 carbohydrates, 0 fiber, 75 milligrams sodium and 23 grams protein.

Although not available on the market yet, meat cultivation or clean meat is the other proposed alternative. The Good Food Institute, which is the primary developer of this product, compares it to gardening. Just like you would take a cutting from a plant, place it in a nutrient rich soil with adequate water and sun, then enjoy the vegetables it produces. They are taking cells or tissue from a cow, placing those cells in a nutrient rich environment called a cultivator, with the resulting tissue being biologically identical to what would have grown inside the animal.

They provide the cells with the same things they would have received from inside the animal: water, protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals. Sounds a bit like science fiction but it is certainly something to be on the lookout for. Nutrition information for this product would be identical to the naturally produced version.

Each option has its positives and negatives, but at least now you know!

Lauren Cornay, RD, LN, is a registered dietitian at Avera Heart Hospital

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