A sprouting fad?

Healthier alternatives to plant-based burgers.
Plant-based burgers typically contain high amounts of saturated fat. Photo by iStock

With plant-based burgers sprouting on menus, is a new diet fad blossoming?

Many fast-food favorites now offer meatless burgers. But unlike veggie burgers, which have been around for years, the new arrivals are designed to taste like meat and appeal to meat-lovers. Sorry, vegetarians and vegans — if you don’t like the taste of meat, stick with your garden-grown goodness.

Although the faux burgers are sometimes touted as healthier options, Kristi Artz, M.D., Spectrum Health Lifestyle Medicine and Virtual Health and lead physician of Culinary Medicine, said there are better alternatives.

“They’re essentially still processed food,” Artz said.

Instead of presumed healthier content, the meatless alternatives typically contain high amounts of saturated fat, which can lead to cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
The plant-based meats also tend to carry more sodium than their true meat counterparts, according to Artz.

“Heme, a protein product, gives the texture and taste that makes it taste like meat,” she said. “It will sizzle when you cook it — that’s the heme. Heme iron, when derived from animals, has been correlated with cardiovascular disease and diabetes. We see that less with plant heme. But the point is, these are highly processed foods. When you diet for health, you need to focus on whole foods and plant foods.”

Illustration by James Heimer

Artz said she recommends black bean burgers over the new plant-based burgers (see her favorite recipe on this page).

“This way, they’re getting whole foods instead of highly processed food,” she said. “But the trade-off is they’re not getting the taste and texture they’re used to. That’s why these (plant-based burgers) are appealing to a lot of individuals. But they’re hearing and thinking plant-based meat is healthier, but there are no long-term health studies on these products to show that.”

In fact, it appears plant-based products may have the potential to improve the planet’s health more than your own.

“A lot of the plant-based meat alternatives were designed around addressing the impact that heavy meat diets have impacted our climate and sustainability of local food resources,” Artz said. “When you look at why these were designed, it’s more for the health of the planet and not the individual.”

Artz cited studies that look at the resources needed to support animal agricultural versus plant agriculture.

Analysis of a plant burger shows its carbon footprint is about 89% smaller than a beef burger — uses 87% less water and 96% less land.

Artz said many revealing infographics are available at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s website (hsph.harvard.edu) and the Culinary Institute of America (ciachef.edu).

“There are several infographics that look at water utilization and how much higher it is for animal agriculture than it is for whole grains, nuts and legumes,” Artz said.

Artz noted that depending on what people choose to eat, they’re essentially voting with their food dollars and impacting changes they may want to see.

“The plant-based meat alternative really stemmed from looking at how our diet choices impact the planet,” she said. “People are becoming more accustomed to and comfortable with plant-based eating. In the last five years, we’ve seen more products on the market.”

Again, Artz cautioned against jumping on a plant-based product bandwagon or buffet. Choose plants that are grown, not plants that are processed.

“If you’re looking to change your diet for health reasons, I would not encourage you to eat these foods,” she said. “Instead, choose whole grains, quinoa, ancient grains, brown rice and vegetables.”

Don’t worry about paltry protein with plants.

“Broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts contain by weight more protein than an equivalent weight of beef,” Artz said.

For upcoming plant-based eating classes and more recipes, visit spectrumhealth.org/culinarymedicine.

Photo by iStock.

Black bean burgers

1 15-ounce can black beans, reduced sodium,
drained and rinsed
1/2 red bell pepper, small dice
1/2 onion, small dice
1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese
1 clove minced garlic
1 tablespoon cumin, ground
1 teaspoon oregano, dried
1/4 teaspoon salt
Ground black pepper, to taste
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 large egg
3/4 cup whole wheat breadcrumbs
cooking spray, as needed
2 sliced tomatoes
2 cups greens, such as romaine, spinach or arugula
6 whole wheat hamburger buns

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Mash beans in a large bowl with a fork or potato masher.
Mix in red pepper, onion, cheese, garlic, seasonings, egg and breadcrumbs, mix well. Shape into 6, 4-ounce patties.
Line a baking sheet with foil and spray lightly with cooking spray. Place burger patties in a single layer.
Cook in oven until burgers firm up and reach internal temperature of 165 degrees, about
12 minutes.
Serve on a toasted whole wheat bun with lettuce, tomato and any other favorite condiments.

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