While on a trip with friends last winter, my husband tried an Impossible Burger, the plant-based patty made to look and taste like real beef.

“It was the only non-meat option on the menu,” he said.

For companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meats, makers of plant-based “faux” meats, my husband represents one kind of customer — someone who enjoys a burger but avoids red meat for health reasons, environmental reasons, or both.

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Though my hubby happily eats black bean burgers, not everyone so eagerly gives up their USDA all-beef patty for something made of legumes and veggies; for many folks, if a burger doesn’t look, taste, and smell like the real thing, they’re not interested.

Luckily for the die-hards, Impossible and Beyond have created something that comes pretty close — so close, in fact, that half of Impossible’s customers can’t tell their meatless patty apart from real beef.

Recognizing that eating a burger is a whole experience, food scientists strive to replicate not just the flavor of beef, but also its aroma, mouth feel, and the appearance of “bleeding.” On a grill, these patties even sizzle like the real thing.

Getting the recipe right is important, because although vegans and vegetarians are buying faux meats, 95% of Impossible’s customers are carnivores. And they’re (quite literally) biting.

Faux meats are now available in more than 20,000 grocery stores and 53,000 restaurants, featured in everything from tacos and burritos to sausage sandwiches and breakfast wraps. Sales last year in the U.S. topped $1 billion.

CHOW TIME: Moonshine Ink reporter Alex Hoeft, seen here enjoying a nice juicy “burger,” learned that just because a veggie burger is derived from, well, veggies, it’s not the same thing as plant-based meat. Photos by Terra Stodtmeister

“We started selling Beyond Meats three years ago at the request of vegans,” says Andrea Shaw, buyer for New Moon Natural Foods in Truckee. New Moon now carries Beyond Burger patties, ground “beef,” and hot Italian sausage, all of which, says Shaw, sell really well.

If the popularity of faux meats continues, these products could shift demand away from livestock farming — an industry with devastating impacts on soil and water pollution, deforestation, resource use, and production of greenhouse emissions. Beef is, by far, the worst offender, followed by lamb.

Plant-based meats offer a very real solution. Compared with a beef burger, one faux burger uses around 96% less land, 87% less water, 46% less energy, and overall produces a whopping 90% fewer greenhouse gasses. Considering that Americans eat a total of 35 million hamburgers per day, replacing even a fraction of those with a plant-based alternative could have a huge impact.

But are faux meats healthy for your body? This is a two-part answer. First, consider that when you’re eating a faux burger or sausage, you’re not eating red meat. And unless you’ve been living in a bubble, you know that a diet high in red meat (beef, lamb, and pork) has been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, colorectal cancer, and type 2 diabetes, not to mention exposure to foodborne illness and the risk of developing resistance to antibiotics.

A number of troublemakers in red meat are responsible, including nitrites added to processed meats, carcinogens that form during grilling and frying, saturated fat, and a substance called TMAO that the gut makes when digesting red meat. TMAO makes blood platelets stickier, increasing your risk of blood clots, stroke, and heart attack. The heme iron in red meat independently forms certain carcinogens and boosts TMAO.

Now for the second half of the faux meat question: Are the products, themselves, healthy? Impossible and Beyond meats both start with plant proteins (soy and potato for Impossible; pea, rice, mung bean, and fava bean for Beyond), then add plant oils like sunflower and coconut for mouth feel and sizzle on the grill.

To get the meaty flavor and pinkish hue, which comes from heme iron naturally in beef, Impossible uses a heme molecule from soybean roots, inserts it into genetically modified yeast, then allows it to ferment and grow. No one knows yet if this soy-derived heme forms carcinogens and TMAO in the body like red meat’s heme does. Plus, the safety of genetic engineering is still largely unknown.

Beyond Meat uses no genetically modified organisms or soy heme, getting its pink color instead from beet and fruit juice, and flavor from “natural” sources (code for “proprietary formula”).

Compared with a beef burger, faux burgers have about the same calories, more sodium, and — at 19 or 20 grams per patty — only slightly less protein than a beef burger. 

“The high protein is one reason people buy them,” says Shaw.

Beyond burgers have the least saturated fat — 5 grams, versus 8 each for beef and Impossible patties.

Unfortunately, Impossible Burgers were found to contain high levels of the herbicide glyphosate — the active ingredient in Round Up weed killer and a possible carcinogen. Just 0.1 parts per billion of this herbicide in animals has been linked to an increase in fatty liver disease and destruction of gut microbes. The Impossible Burger contains an alarming 11.3 ppb. Until Impossible solves this problem, it might be wise to stick with Beyond products, which contain no glyphosate.

Though faux meats are being called “the future of meat,” some people consider them highly processed, preferring instead to eat organic meats from quality sources. Although organically raised animals have better living conditions and food, and are given no hormones or routine antibiotics, they still contribute to climate change as much as feedlot animals and are an inefficient use of resources. 

Plant-based meats are, hands-down, better for the planet, and can be a good choice if you want to eat less red meat, especially processed meat like sausage. But if your goal is to eat whole, minimally processed food close to the source, a better choice might be true veggie burgers made with beans, vegetables, tofu, and nuts.

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