Super-cool “bleeding” veggie burgers are suddenly everywhere, from grocery store shelves to high-end restaurants, to fast-food joints. And they get a lot of health cred for being completely vegan—which makes sense on the surface. After all, there’s plenty of evidence that eating more plants is associated with much better health—and concurrent info that eating red meat is associated with higher risks of cancer and chronic disease.
But a lot of the value of eating a vegan or plant-based diet is that you’re eating more real, whole foods, and fewer processed foods. And one thing few people have really talked about is that while the different bleeding burgers may all be meat-free, they’re still processed food.
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This week, digital magazine Quartz is pointing that fact out in an article that addresses several concerns about the meat alternative.
Both Beyond Meat and the Impossible Burger have lengthy ingredient lists—including maltodextrin and methylcellulose in the Beyond Meat burger, and methylcellulose and leghemoglobin in the Impossible Burger. Though these additives aren’t necessarily questionable health-wise (for example, soy leghemoglobin is just a protein from the soy plant), they are additives. And these bleeding burgers need quite a few additives to enhance their appearance (um, vegan “blood”), taste, texture, shelf life and nutrition content.
Speaking of nutrition, let’s take a look at the Nutrition Facts for the two biggest products. A 4-oz. Impossible Burger patty has 240 calories, 8 grams of saturated fat and 370 mg of sodium. A 4-oz. Beyond Burger patty isn’t much better. It has 270 calories, 5 grams of saturated fat and 380 mg of sodium. Which is to say, these “healthy” burgers have more or less what you’d find in a regular fast-food burger patty.
As Quartz points out, it’s “no wonder these burgers have been so quickly adopted by fast-food chains,” including White Castle and Carl’s Jr., two places that Quartz says “still sell cheaply produced meat.” (A Guardian food writer seems to agree that the newest brand of fake-meat options are not healthier at all, writing in January about similar products, “there is not necessarily anything particularly healthy about a vegan hot dog. Many see them as just another set of overly processed industrial foods in a world that is already awash with what food writer Michael Pollan calls ‘food-like substances.’ “)
Studies have shown that eating too much processed food can impact our health in negative ways. A study from last year shows that eating highly processed foods may increase our cancer risk, while a study from this year showed a link between processed foods and higher mortality in middle-aged people. (In fact, that study showed that just eating 10 percent more processed food was associated with a 14 percent higher risk of mortality for adults 45 years old or older.) Other studies have linked high intakes of processed food with obesity and higher cholesterol, as well.
The lesson here, then, may be that just because a burger is vegan doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better for you. And eating fewer processed foods is an easy way to improve your health.
Bottom Line: If you’re looking to eat more whole foods—and cut back on processed foods—you’d be better off making your own veggie burger at home (try these recipes). Or shop for a vegan or vegetarian burger with a shorter ingredient list. Here’s what to look for on the nutrition label. And don’t miss our 30-Day Whole Food Challenge, which will guide you through a month of eating without any processed foods.
Related: 6 Processed Foods You Can Easily Make at Home
This article originally appeared on EatingWell.
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