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Study: Plant-Based Burgers and Beef Burgers Are Not Nutritional Equals

Plant-based burger.

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Key Takeaways

  • Meat-like plant-based burgers are becoming a popular option in many households.
  • While both beef alternative burgers and traditional beef burgers provide protein, there are some differences in certain nutrients that they each provide.
  • Both options can be a part of an overall healthy diet.

In the past, those who wanted to eat more plant-based proteins leaned on unprocessed choices like lentils, soybeans, and nuts. But now, the options have grown from a soy patty to meatless hot dogs, “chicken” nuggets, and tofurkey. Items like Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger are the solution for people who crave a burger but don’t want to eat too much meat. 

But a plant-based meat-like burger is not nutritionally equivalent to beef burgers, according to a new study.

Made from ingredients like pea protein, mung bean protein, and/or wheat protein, these “burgers” pack a punch in the protein department. And to emulate the juicy red color that beef burgers offer, ingredients like beet juice extract are added to the mix. Sources of fat and vitamins are added as well. 

So, like beef burgers, meat alternative burgers are a source of protein, fat, and are soy and gluten-free. But unlike beef burgers, meat alternative burgers tend to contain sodium. They are cholesterol-free and contain fiber, two features that beef burgers cannot claim, however. 

“This research is important because it answers a question many of us have: Can designed food products mimic real, whole 'nature made' foods?" Shalene McNeill, PhD, RD, executive director of nutrition science, health, and wellness at National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, tells Verywell. "While we need more research to fully understand these new alternative products, this new research, as well as other emerging research, is beginning to show it is hard to mimic the quality and nutrient matrix of real meats like beef."

So, even though plant-based meat alternatives and beef may appear to provide a similar quantity of protein, they “are not truly nutritionally interchangeable when taking into account expanded nutritional profiles,” study author Stephan van Vliet, PhD, postdoctoral associate at Duke Molecular Physiology Institute, tells Verywell.

Van Vliet does note that “our data doesn’t mean you need to eat meat to be healthy or that meat is more nutrient-dense. It also doesn’t mean one is per se healthier than the other.”

The July study was published in the journal Scientific Reports

How Different Are Beef and Meat Alternative Burgers?

Beef burgers and meat alternative burgers can both be utterly satisfying. But they can't be equated nutritionally. 

Of course, the source of the protein is quite different—one is a single-ingredient (beef) and the other is a combination of plant-based proteins, 

But there are other nutritional differences that should not be underestimated. 

“In the field of nutrition science, our understanding of how diet impacts our health has mainly focused on the nutrients that routinely appear on nutrition facts panels, such as calories, protein, sugar, fat, and vitamins, and minerals,” Van Vliet explains. “Although this knowledge has been very important to understand how these nutrients impact health and disease, these nutritional components represent only a small fraction of the >26,000 metabolites in foods, many of which have documented effects on health but remain understudied for their presence in food sources.”

He explains that one of the goals of this study was to determine the “extent to which beef and a novel plant-based meat alternative were similar or different, especially since their nutrition facts panels suggest that comparable nutrients may be obtained.”

Using a method called metabolomics, van Vliet and his research colleagues compared the nutritional content of 18 plant-based meat alternatives and 18 grass-fed ground beef patties. And while the nutrition labels on the samples evaluated appear similar, there were some glaring differences in the nutritional content when evaluating the nutrients beyond what is listed. 

Twenty-two metabolites were found only in beef, including DHA omega-3 fatty acids, niacinamide (vitamin B3), and certain antioxidants. Plus, 51 metabolites were found in greater quantities in beef when compared with the plant-based meat alternatives. 

On the other hand, 31 metabolites were found exclusively in the plant-based meat alternative, including vitamin C and certain antioxidants. 

“The bigger picture of our work is that considering foods as equivalent or interchangeable based simply on their protein content underestimates the manifold of other nutrients that different foods provide,” Van Vliet adds. “An egg is not a peanut and a soy burger is not a beef burger, despite all being rich in protein. Certainly, all of these could be part of a healthy diet and complementary in terms of the nutrients they provide in addition to protein.”

What This Means For You

Beef alternative burgers are not nutritionally equivalent to beef burgers and choosing an alternative option does not necessarily mean it is a "healthier" choice. You should try to incorporate a diverse mix of proteins into your diet.

Which Is Better?

The results of this study show that plant-based meat-like burgers are not a perfect “swap” for the other, and each offers a unique mix of nutrients.

“This study is a great reminder that we need protein variety in our diet because each protein food contains hundreds of different nutrients,” Dawn Jackson Blanter, RDN, registered dietitian and author of "The Flexitarian Diet," tells Verywell.

“To get a wide variety of nutrients, consider a flexitarian-style diet that has a complementary mix of both animal-based protein and whole-food plant-based protein like beans, lentils, and tempeh, a superfood made of fermented whole soybeans,” Blanter adds.

And if you have concerns that you will have nutritional gaps if you opt for one burger over the other, Van Vliet assures that the absence of certain nutrients in our diet when we eat one burger over another “does not imply that one cannot be healthy without them, especially during adulthood. Overall diet quality will be far more important in determining health outcomes to individual foods.”

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  1. van Vliet S, Bain JR, Muehlbauer MJ, Provenza FD, Kronberg SL, Pieper CF, Huffman KM. A metabolomics comparison of plant-based meat and grass-fed meat indicates large nutritional differences despite comparable Nutrition Facts panels. Sci Rep. 2021 Jul 5;11(1):13828. doi:10.1038/s41598-021-93100-3