Meatless burgers are having a moment. Once the province of vegetarian restaurants and college-dorm kitchens, they’re now turning up everywhere from fast-food chains to big-box grocery stores.
Though some people have long avoided meat for ethical reasons, many today embrace a plant-based diet for its health benefits. Still others skip meat as a way to combat climate change. For some, all three reasons apply.
These instincts are spot on. The current mainstream mode of factory farming is terrible for animal health and welfare.
And the highly processed, meat-heavy standard American diet is a key reason more than half of all Americans suffer from chronic illnesses, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and neurodegenerative conditions. Factory-farmed meat contains high levels of harmful inflammatory fats, while diets rich in whole, nutrient-dense plant foods support wellness.
Plus, conventional and feedlot livestock leave an outsize carbon “hoofprint”: They’re responsible for roughly 15 percent of all greenhouse-gas emissions. Each factory-farmed cow releases 220 pounds of methane into the atmosphere every year, and methane warms the air at 28 times the rate of carbon dioxide.
It’s clear that we need protein sources other than factory-farmed animals for personal and planetary health. Still, many health experts caution that processed meat substitutes may present challenges of their own.
“Caring for our planet is essential — after all, our health is directly impacted by the health of the environment we live in,” says Romilly Hodges, MS, CNS, who directs nutrition programs at Dr. Kara Fitzgerald’s functional-medicine clinic in Connecticut and serves on the board of the American Nutrition Association.
Plant-based meats are a step in the right direction, Hodges says, but not an endpoint. “Today’s faux meats present a conundrum. On one hand, reducing the consumption of carbon-heavy animal meats is a good idea for our environment. On the other hand, moving away from real foods to something manufactured with synthetic ingredients in a lab is not good for our health.”
Still, it is possible to cut back on factory-farmed meat without swapping in a processed replacement at every meal. As with most health-related matters, moderation is key.
Meatless options aren’t new. Soy-based burgers and hot dogs have been available for decades, and people have been making bean burgers at home for even longer.
But food manufacturers are now creating plant-based substitutes that look, smell, and taste like actual meat, hoping to attract eaters who wouldn’t otherwise consider a plant-based burger.
It’s working. Today, meatless options that are virtually indistinguishable from beef are widely available. And they’re selling — a fact that pleases many healthcare experts.
“Fast-food restaurants are seeing an upsurge of requests, and people are actually eating them there, which is a good sign.” says functional nutritionist Mary Purdy, MS, RDN. “I feel very hopeful and delighted that people are beginning to understand the effect of our food system — and specifically livestock production — on climate change. A cultural shift is happening.”
Purdy’s enthusiasm is tempered by other concerns, though. “I think the climate-conscious picture around food is quite complex,” she says. “If we simply stop eating meat as individuals, or reduce how much we eat, that won’t necessarily change the current agricultural system. And the processed foods that are used in the creation of faux meats do not necessarily lend themselves to environmental sustainability.”
One such ingredient is genetically modified soy. Of the 300 million acres of farmed land in the United States, more than half are planted with just two crops — soy and corn.
Soy is typically grown as a monocrop: One type of plant is cultivated in the same place, in wide swaths, year after year. Few things in nature grow in such an isolated way. Without diverse plant matter feeding the soil, it becomes depleted of essential nutrients and microbes, making the plants more susceptible to pests and increasing the need for chemical pesticides.
Soil with fewer nutrients and less microbial diversity also requires fertilizer — lots of it. Fertilizer releases nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas that increases planetary warming and damages the ozone layer. Levels of nitrous oxide have increased sharply since the 1960s, when inexpensive synthetic fertilizers first appeared on the market.
In short, faux meat has a carbon footprint of its own. The average soy burger adds carbon dioxide to the atmosphere because of monoculture farming, while a beef burger made from a regeneratively raised animal removes carbon dioxide by helping to build topsoil that sequesters it. (For more on this, see “What Is Regenerative Agriculture?” below.)
“Once you dig into [the connection between climate change and agriculture], you find out there’s a lot more than just plant-based versus animal-based protein,” says nutritionist Katie Morra, MS, RD, IFMCP. “In the grand scheme of things, a processed-meat substitute is likely a better option than a feedlot-beef patty, but compared to regeneratively raised beef, it may not take the cake.”
Conventionally raised beef and lamb are the most resource-intensive of all animal foods. Studies show that in countries where average meat consumption is high (“arguably too high to be healthy,” says Hodges), reducing meat consumption can improve the household carbon footprint.
Still, “removing meat altogether, when meat consumption is otherwise low, might not be the biggest win,” Hodges adds. She cites a recent study of Japanese households that found alcohol, candy, and restaurant dining contributed more to household carbon release than meat and poultry consumption.
Americans eat more animal protein per capita than Japan, so the calculus may be different here, concedes Hodges. But she still doesn’t believe the solution is processed-meat substitutes.
“There is plenty of room to reduce meat consumption and make a big impact on the environment as well as health,” she says. “But instead of switching to industrialized faux meats, I would steer people toward increasing their whole-plant food intake — especially varied, colorful vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, lentils, and beans. There are plenty of ways to fake a ‘meaty’ meal with plant options like portobello mushrooms, vegetable and nut patties, and well-seasoned legumes.”
If the food–climate connection is more complicated than it first appears, surely the food–health connection is more straightforward. After all, a wealth of research shows that plant-rich diets support optimal health — so shouldn’t a plant-based burger fit with that story?
As with so many things, it depends on the burger.
“Plant-based meat alternatives are not created equal,” says Mark Hyman, MD, founder of the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional Medicine. A whole-food organic mushroom or lentil burger is good for you, he notes, but “a highly processed GMO soy burger with 110 times the glyphosate needed to harm your microbiome? Maybe not.”
Not only does the glyphosate used on GMO soy appear to harm the gut microbiome, it’s been deemed a likely carcinogen by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer. Research also suggests that glyphosate can trouble our endocrine systems.
Then there’s the genetic-engineering factor. “GMO foods haven’t been consumed by humans before, and the FDA [sanctions them] under the GRAS, or ‘generally recognized as safe’ rule, which is a fairly lax regulation,” says Purdy. “GRAS requires only that the company do its own research, which is a questionable practice, in my mind, because it makes me feel like the companies can put profits over people’s health.” (For more on the GRAS loophole, see “The Food-Additive Loophole”.)
Newer meat substitutes contain other dicey ingredients. “[A popular fake burger] contains pea-protein isolate, which is a processed pea protein, so it is stripped of many nutrients,” says functional-medicine practitioner Liz Lipski, PhD, CNS, LDN. “The canola oil doesn’t state that it’s organic, which means it is GMO.”
A lengthy, unpronounceable ingredients list qualifies a food as “ultraprocessed” — a classification most functional-medicine practitioners encourage us to avoid.
“For variety in my diet, I do enjoy an occasional Beyond Burger, which I think tastes great,” says functional-medicine practitioner Robert Rountree, MD. But, he adds, “products like this work best as a transitional food for people who are trying to eat more vegetarian.” Long term, such processed foods aren’t good for people or the environment.
For strict vegans and vegetarians, a faux burger at a barbecue or on a road trip is a nice treat. Just don’t depend on them for protein. “Homemade bean burgers — or lentil soup, beans and rice, or tofu stir-fry — have a comparable amount of protein and less processing,” says Purdy.
As ever, the goal is to choose whole foods and preparations that satisfy you and your values. Says Morra: “It may sound too simple, but picking organic, non-GMO, and whole-food sources of protein is the best practice that anyone can follow, vegan or not.”