Burger wars: Is a plant-based patty always better for you than beef?

Plant-based burger and sausage patties, ground “meat” and more are springing up in grocery aisles and fast food chains across Canada, often promising the texture and flavour of the meats they’re imitating.

And at a time when the Canada Food Guide is suggesting that Canadians emphasize plant protein in their diets, these can seem like tempting options.

But some experts, such as consulting dietitian Rosie Schwartz, warn against swapping real meats for the fake stuff, saying these plant-based options aren’t always as healthy as they’re made out to be:

“People are giving it an undeserved health halo.”

Beyond Meat, a company whose burger and sausage patties have appeared all over Canada in recent months, says on its website that it uses plant proteins, fats and minerals to “rebuild meat from the ground up without sacrificing on taste and texture.”

The ingredients list for its burger patty includes things like “pea protein isolate,” coconut oil, rice protein, methylcellulose, sunflower lecithin and potato starch, as well as beet juice extract for colour.

For these reasons, Schwartz calls the Beyond Burger and products like it “ultra-processed foods” — a kind of food that many recent studies have linked to various health problems.

Beyond Meat’s protein is heated, cooled and put under pressure to create the fibrous structure of meat, said Will Schafer, vice president of marketing for Beyond Meat in an emailed statement.

“We believe it is a tale of two processes between industrial livestock production and our approach of by-passing the animal to build burgers and sausage directly from plants, and ultimately it is up to the consumer which they are more comfortable with.”

Ultra-processed foods contain “little, if any, intact food,” said Amanda Nash, a registered dietitian with Heart & Stroke. They’re often ready-to-eat, and contain ingredients that would be hard to make in an ordinary kitchen — usually the result of multiple industrial processes.

One recent clinical study offered people either a diet of ultra-processed foods or one that included more whole foods, and found that people on the ultra-processed diet ate around 500 more calories each day than the other group, gaining some weight in the process.

Another study published last week by Heart & Stroke found that a diet high in ultra-processed foods was associated with an increased likelihood of obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure.

“It is leading to hypertension, to cardiovascular diseases, to an increased risk of depression and also there is association with all causes of mortality,” said study author Jean-Claude Moubarac, an assistant professor of nutrition at the Université de Montréal.

“They have various nutrition problems,” he said.

“We know that they’re loaded with free sugar, sodium or saturated fat, and often it’s two or three of those. And they have little fibre, protein and minerals.”