What’s the bull?

Non–meat burgers are becoming more popular due to a perception that they are healthier for you and the planet. But what are these burgers made from, where is that coming from and what is the nutritional value?

Veggie burgers are around since the early ’80s, and soya and tofu since the ’60s.

Last October, the European Parliament voted to ensure that terms traditionally associated with meat-based products, such as “burger”, “sausage” and “steak”, could continue to be used to describe plant-based alternatives.

However, MEPs voted to protect dairy terms such as “milk”, “butter” and “cheese”.

According to recent research by SafeFood, one third of consumers surveyed (n=802) eat a meat substitute, with the most popular substitutes being burgers, mince, meatballs, and sausage rolls. Of those consuming the products, 48% said that they were eating them once a week. The reasons they listed were: 33% for the perceived health benefit; 21% on taste; and 15% because of the environment.

Types of non-meat burgers

  • Bean/vegetable burgers: Veggie burgers are around a long time but the selection, availability and taste has improved in the last few years. See Table 1.
  • Meat-style non-meat burgers: These are burgers which are produced to mimic the characteristics of real meat more closely. See Table 2.
  • Cultured meat: Although not yet commercially viable, companies are developing burger patties by culturing animal cells. For lab-grown meat, stem cells of a living cow are harvested and grown to create muscle tissue.
  • Who is buying into these meat-free products?

    Mosa Meat in the Netherlands produced the world’s first cultivated beef hamburger in 2013 at a cost of €250,000, but they believe they will have a commercially viable product by 2029. In February, the company secured a further €10m in funding (€85m total).

    Investors in this funding round included Nutreco, a global leader in animal nutrition (AKA Trouw Nutrition), and the takeaway platform JustEat.com.

    But Nutreco are not the first large agricultural company to see the potential of the alternatives market. As the demand has grown, philanthropists, big tech and the meat industry heavy-hitters have started to invest. JBS, the largest meat-processing company in the world, is making plant-based burgers. Tyson, Kellogg, Cargill, Nestlé, Kerry, and Smithfield are all adding plant-based options to their product line.

    But with the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the UN projecting global demand for meat will reach 455 million metric tons by 2050 (a 76% increase from 2005), it is not fear of alternatives, but opportunity that is driving this investment.

    GM potential

    In the United States, Burger King sells the Impossible Burger produced by Impossible Foods. However, when introducing the product to the EU market, an alternative supplier was required as the Impossible burger contains genetically modified (GM) ingredients. Impossible Burger uses a genetically-modified heme to give its burgers a blood-red meat appearance. This process uses a genetically-engineered yeast to produce soy leghaemoglobin, a protein which carries heme. Heme is naturally present in conventional beef and is thought to impart a distinctive meat-like flavour.

    GM potential

    Impossible Foods is a big advocate for GM; embracing its potential to “solve critical environmental, health, safety, and food security problems”. Many GM technologies are not allowed in the EU so exploration of what these benefits might be in Ireland is not open to farmers or society.

    Nutritional value

    According to the recent research completed by SafeFood:

  • Bean/veg-style meat substitute burgers have a lower protein content than any of the other burgers [they surveyed], which reflects the fact the ingredients (mushrooms, sweet potato, beans, chickpeas, quinoa and mixed veg) are not rich in protein.
  • Meat-style vegetarian burgers had an average protein content similar to a chicken burger but less than a beef burger, reflecting that the ingredients (soy, peas, mycoprotein) are a source of protein.
  • Both types of meat-substitutes were lower in energy than beef or chicken burgers.
  • Both types of meat-substitute burgers were lower in total fat than beef and chicken burgers, and lower in saturated fat then beef burgers. However, they were equivalent in saturated fat to chicken burgers.
  • Both types of meat-substitute burgers contain carbohydrate and are therefore a source of fibre, whereas unbreaded chicken or beef burgers contain none.
  • Salt levels ranged from less than 1g per 100g in chicken burgers to 1.2g per 100g in meat-style substitutes.
  • Faster and better or still just fast food?

    What about making a healthier choice of burger when you are hitting a fast food joint? Is the plant-based fast-food burger better for you than the traditional version?

    In short: not so much.

    Burger King’s standard Whopper contains 627 calories, 12 grams of saturated fat, 12 grams of sugar and 877 milligrams of sodium.

    The Plant based Whopper contains just 59 fewer calories, 3 fewer grams of saturated fat, has the same sugar and 438 more milligrams of sodium.

    There’s little meaningful difference between the two burgers in terms of their nutrition content, so if healthy eating is what you are looking for, remember that fast food is still fast food.


    Traceability of meat is sacrosanct. Enshrined. But this is not the case for the plant-based alternatives.

    Plant number

    Traceability for meat products is a requirement under Regulation 853/2004. This traceability on meat products is presented on labels as an oval mark which includes the actual plant/premises number along with the abbreviation for the member state and the EU initials. However, this is not a requirement on all other foods.

    Production facilities

    Under European and Irish Food Law, any business or person that wishes to operate such a food business is obliged by law to notify the HSE of their food business. All the approved FBOs (food business operators) that handle and/or process foods of animal origin are listed on the FSAI website.

    Non-meat plants are inspected by the HSE but do not require approval and do not have to place an approval stamp on the products produced.

    According to the HSE: “With regard to traceability, while all businesses must have a traceability system in place, there are no requirements to pass this information on to the consumer.”

    The FSAI informed us that this means that “food business operators are required to have traceability records for all ingredients used in the production of a final food as well as supplier-onwards details to the next food business to ensure full traceability in the event of a recall.”

    Irish Country Living contacted all the plant-based burger manufacturers to ascertain traceability of ingredients. See table 5 below to view the response from those who replied.

    Putting it to the taste test

    Sinead McCarthy from the Teagasc, Ashtown research centre has said on numerous occasions that taste is the predominant driver of food decisions. All the wonderful claims on these products might make them attractive on day one, but only taste will drive a repeat purchase. Could they taste as good as the real deal? To answer that question, we decided to try them ourselves.

    With COVID-19, a proper taste test gathering of non-biased consumers was simply not possible. However, the bubble I live in contains a variety of tasters which gave a reasonable spread of “fussy” to “will try anything.” Importantly, although admittedly not scientific, my mother has spent almost four years trying to “perfect” vegan recipes for her daughters (not me), so when it comes to adding taste to vegetables, I trust her.

    With a fairly wide assortment available across the retailers, we ended up with 16 products. The outright winner was the Quorn hot and spicy burgers (€1/burger). They had a nice (chicken) texture and a crispy spicy batter that everyone liked, but they were nothing like a beef burger. Some were horrifically bad, smelt like dog food and were absolutely inedible. All of these fell into the “meat-free” category which were generally a rehydrated soya or pea base. The absolute worst was the Birds Eye Green Cuisine meat-free burgers (€1.75/burger), which achieved straight zeros across the board.

    The actual plant-based burgers were in the middle. The favourite; the Gosh Moroccan Spiced Bakes, probably should not have been purchased as they didn’t claim a burger status. A very nice falafel none the less.

    Alternative proteins – what are they?

    Protein is the most important macronutrient. However, unlike carbohydrate and fat which can be stored within the body, protein can only be obtained through the diet. Much of our current dietary protein is dairy or meat-derived.

    Table 6 details the source of the protein in the alternative burgers we looked at. None of the ingredients for these products are grown commercially in Ireland.

    Last November, a research collaboration, funded by DAFM, between Teagasc, UCC, NUI Maynooth, NUI Galway, Queens University Belfast and a number of industry partners commenced.

    This project is called U-Protein (Unlocking Protein Resource Opportunities To Evolve Ireland’s Nutrition). The project aims to explore sustainable crop and marine-based protein alternatives that can be grown in Ireland and spans the entire production process.

    Grain of truth

    Soy production is not the most environmentally-friendly product and has been linked with deforestation. Some is grown in the EU and the majority of soya imported into the EU is not for burgers or milk but for animal feed. There are opportunities to grow other protein crops in Ireland, which could be used to produce these products. The jury is out.

    While these products are technically plant-based, it’s not like you’re eating mashed-up carrots and parsnips in a burger shape. Nutritional advice is that the closer vegetables are to their whole, natural form, the better they are for you, and these veg are not very close to their natural forms. If you are eating these burgers as a replacement product, compare the nutritional information carefully to ensure that you are getting adequate protein and your five-a-day.

    Read more

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