A vegan with high cholesterol sounds almost as paradoxical as a hamburger without meat. However, not only do both of these exist, but they both share common ancestors – Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods.
The health-conscious and environmentally woke populace of America has championed these two companies as heirs to the vegan throne, pushing the country forward to a meatless yet tasty future. However, dietitians have mixed feelings about whether or not these plant-based products should be viewed as "healthy."
"They're not much healthier than a meat-based burger," said Julieanna Hever, a plant-based dietitian and the author of Plant Based Nutrition (Idiot's Guides). "I'm concerned about the saturated fat levels as well as the excessive amounts of amino acids."
Indeed, one Impossible Burger contains 40% of the recommended daily intake of saturated fat while the Beyond Burger fairs slightly better at 30%.
The impact of the "health halo" consumers place on plant-based meats has been translating quite directly into Hever's experience as a dietitian.
"For the first time in 14 years I'm having people come to me quite frequently with high cholesterol or can't lose weight or [they] gain weight while on a vegan diet because they're eating a lot of processed foods," Hever said. "They're being kind of masqueraded as health foods."
Former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman recently told CNBC, "We can't really market it ... as necessarily better for you, because we don't know."
The issue, according to Hever, is not to be found on the nutrition label itself — which in the case of both Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are available to review but not easy for the average eater to understand — but the context through which consumers choose to eat the product. She believes not all vegan foods are created equally.
"If [consumers] are gonna go to a fast food restaurant and they're gonna get a burger anyways, it's better to get the plant-based burger," Hever said. "But if they're gonna go have a healthy whole food meal or a plant-based burger, I'd rather them have the whole plant meal. You're not going to be promoting chronic overnutrition and getting an excessive dose of saturated fats and protein and calories."
In fact, the fast food industry already has started an alternative meat arms race, with many of the biggest brands racing to add these plant-based options to their menus.
Plant-based dietitian and author Sharon Palmer thinks analyzing the health impact of the burgers should include factors outside what is written on the nutrition label.
"Research shows that red meat has been linked with numerous health risks," Palmer said. "When we get away from looking at nutrient levels and we look at more of a plant-based diet and reducing red meat consumption, that's another aspect. So these products could help you reduce your red meat consumption."
Palmer also stated that while the saturated fat levels in both burgers are to be watched, it may not be as concerning to vegans who follow a strict plant-based diet and therefore do not consume many saturated fats overall.
An Impossible Foods spokeswoman noted that its burger has as much bioavailable iron and protein as a comparable serving of ground beef from cows. In addition, the Impossible Burger has 0 mg cholesterol, compared to a quarter-pound, conventional "80/20" patty from cows which has about 80 mg cholesterol. The Beyond Burger also has no cholesterol. Though both are still high in saturated fat.
Neither diet expert showed much concern over the burgers' sodium levels or Impossible Foods' use of GMOs, both of which have been past jabs at the company. A 2016 study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found no significant difference in the health risks between genetically-modified crops and regular crops.
"No one is getting chronic diseases from GMOs," Hever said. "We're getting chronic diseases and obesity from chronic overnutrition. We're eating too much and too much of the wrong foods."
Saturated fats can raise the levels of cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL or "bad") cholesterol in the blood, according to the FDA, and that can increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death in both men and women in the U.S.
Dr. Dariush Ajami, Beyond Meat's chief innovation officer, noted in an email that Beyond Sausage has 38% less saturated fat than traditional pork sausage, and the new, meatier Beyond Burger and Beyond Beef have 25% less saturated fat than 80/20 beef. "It's critical to note that it's not just the levels of saturated fat, but the type of saturated fats. Not all saturated fats are created equal and the saturated fats found in our products come from coconut oil, cocoa butter and canola oil."
The health consequences of saturated fats may change depending on the source of the fats. A Harvard study showed that people with a higher intake of plant-based fats have a 16% lower risk of dying from any cause while people with a higher intake of animal-based fats had a 21% higher risk.
The Impossible Foods spokeswoman said the company is still striving to lower the amount of saturated fat as much as possible since people can have high cholesterol as a result of genetics and need to watch their dietary intake of both cholesterol and saturated fats (and carbs). The company is working on Impossible Burger prototypes with lower amounts of saturated fat.
Hever does worry about too much focus being placed on protein diets, in general. The plant-based burgers are designed to mimic the protein content of animal-based burgers because "people celebrate protein" she said, but that is a dangerous way to think for your health.
The recommended dietary allowance for protein is 0.8 g protein/kg body weight/day for adults — or 64 grams of protein for a 177-lb person. For children, it is 1.5 g protein/kg body weight/day, and for adolescents 1.0 g protein/kg body weight/day.
Generally speaking, over-consuming protein, at levels higher than the RDA, (with protein powders and high meat and meat analog intake) is far too common, putting people at risk for a metabolic burden on the bones, kidneys, and liver, as well as an increased risk for coronary heart disease due to intake of saturated fat and cholesterol or even cancer.
"People are over consuming protein and it is independently contributing to chronic disease risk," Hever said.
Although Palmer made it clear there are many healthier vegan burgers on the market, she admires the Beyond Burger and the Impossible Burger for their impact in leading people towards a more sustainable diet.
"Even before these burgers came along, the first generation of veggie burgers were a great gateway," Palmer said. "If people want to start eating a plant-based diet or maybe they want to try a vegan diet, [the newer burgers] are really great things to help people understand how to plan their meals as they're trying to negotiate the whole thing and figure out how to do it in a more balanced way."
Nestle has offered more traditional veggie burgers under its Sweet Earth Foods brand and is planning to introduce a more direct competitor to Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods that closely mimics meat in the U.S. this fall, its Awesome Burger.
In figuring out the balance as the alternative meat industry grows and shows up in more U.S. grocery stores and restaurants, Palmer keeps a simple formula for evaluating the nutritional content of vegan burgers.
"When I'm a consumer and I buy these products, I like to look for those that have the lowest saturated fat. And then I like to look at a good protein source," Palmer said. "You want to at least get seven grams [of protein] to replace an ounce of meat. I like to get at least 14 grams when I'm buying ... I try to keep the sodium below 20% [of the recommended daily intake]."