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What’s happening: There may be no food more American than the hamburger. An estimated 50 billion of them are eaten every year in the United States. Now there are new meat-free alternatives popping up on restaurant menus across the country. The lion's share of the non-beef burger market is dominated by two products: the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger.
Both mimic the look and, arguably, the taste of the traditional beef burger, but they are made with plant-based ingredients. Impossible Burgers are mostly made of soy. The main ingredient in Beyond Burgers is pea protein.
Why there's debate: Part of the appeal of plant-based burgers is how effectively they imitate a hamburger without the documented health risks of regular beef consumption.
But just because the burgers aren't made of meat, doesn't necessarily mean they're healthy, some argue. Impossible and Beyond Burgers contain saturated fats and high amounts of sodium, but have a lot less cholesterol than a beef patty.
Plant-based burgers also offer more than dietary benefits that make them appealing to many customers. The process of making the burgers appears to be significantly more friendly to the environment than cattle farming. It also eliminates concerns about animal cruelty in slaughtering cows for meat.
What's next: The market for plant-based burgers is growing rapidly and more restaurants are adding them to their menus. That doesn't mean the classic beef burger is going away. Demand for meat increased to a record high in 2018. Since plant-based burgers are a brand-new food, it will take time to know what are the long-term health effects.
Meanwhile, there's a burger battle shaping up that may become even more complicated. Cattle farmers and the government are already debating about "clean meat" — real meat synthetically grown in a lab.
Plant-based burgers should be treated as an indulgence, just like hamburgers.
"While seeing the Impossible Burger on a menu can feel like a godsend to vegans and vegetarians at a restaurant, this burger should be treated as an indulgence in the same way a healthy omnivorous eater would view a standard cheeseburger. It’s fine on occasion, but the Impossible Burger shouldn’t be seen as a go-to meal for health purposes." — Lauren Wicks, Cooking Light
"Plant-based meat is absolutely safe — but it’s not a health food. … For the most part, it is probably about as good for you as the meat it’s imitating." — Kelsey Piper, Vox
Plant-based foods should not be confused with vegetables.
"Saying a food is 'plant-based' does not mean it’s made with whole vegetables, and therefore healthy. These meat-free burgers, like many vegan food products, are full of derivative ingredients such as protein isolated from plants." — Gabrielle Lemonier, Men's Journal
Clever branding masks what the burgers really are.
"Slap a 'plant-based protein' sticker on this thing and pop it onto every fast food menu in these here 50 states, but a soy burger is still a soy burger." — Paul Kita, Men's Health
It's too early to tell what the long-term effects are.
"I can’t help feeling that the novelty of these products means that their effects on human digestion are relatively untested." — Bee Wilson, The Guardian
The environmental benefits alone make them a better choice than beef.
"The biggest issue, though, and the one that seems to motivate a lot of the people working in the sector, is climate change. Replacing beef is a big carbon win." — Tamar Haspel, Washington Post
Partnering with fast-food restaurants undercuts the altruistic objective.
"But as Impossible Foods rapidly expands, some in its Bay Area home base … question whether partnering with the fast-food industry is the best match for a company whose stated mission is to save the world." — Tara Dugan, San Francisco Chronicle
What you put on your burger is as important as what your burger is made of.
"A bigger issue is what you use to dress your burger: cheese or lettuce? A giant buttered bun or a pickle slice? A ton of mayo or a small dot of mustard? That's where racking up grams of fat sneaks in." — Zlati Meyer, USA Today