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New Study Compares Nutrients in Plant-Based and Beef Burgers

Plant-based burger

 Ekaterina Smirnova/Getty Images

Key Takeaways:

  • A recent study looked at the nutrition profile of a variety of plant-based burgers and compared them with traditional beef burgers.
  • Plant-based burgers are higher in fiber, but also higher in sodium and saturated fat, compared to beef burgers.
  • Some plant-based burgers are more nutritious than others, so it’s important to read labels and make informed choices.

In a 2020 survey regarding plant-based consumer views and purchasing behaviors, 65% of respondents said they’d tried a new plant protein over the last 12 months, and the most popular options were plant-based alternatives to meat.

In light of the growing popularity of plant-based proteins, a new study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics compared the nutritional composition of plant-based ground meat alternatives to ground beef.

The researchers looked at the nutrients for 37 varieties of plant-based ground "meat" to assess the calories, protein, fat, vitamin, and mineral content.

A Closer Look at Plant-Based Beef

Overall, plant-based ground "meat" has both advantages and disadvantages:

  • Plant-based burgers have about 153 kilocalories (kcal), compared to 182 kcal (for 90% lean) and 230 kcal (for 70% lean) for beef burgers. 
  • Saturated fat in plant-based burgers accounted for 4% recommended daily value, which is lower than 20–30% in ground beef.
  • The dietary fiber in plant-based meats makes up for 15% of the daily value, whereas beef has 0% of the daily value of fiber.
  • Plant-based burgers contained less protein, zinc, and vitamin B12 than ground beef.
  • Plant-based burgers were high in folate, niacin, iron, phosphorous, manganese, and copper.
  • Only 3 of 37 plant-based "meats" were fortified with vitamin B12.
  • Plant-based burgers contain phytic acid, a natural component that may hinder iron and zinc absorption.

Rosanne Rust, RDN

Most processed plant-based burgers are going to be much higher in sodium than fresh beef burgers. If you have high blood pressure, kidney disease, or need a low sodium diet, plant-based burgers aren’t the best choice for you.

— Rosanne Rust, RDN

“The good news is that we found most plant-based burgers to be a good or excellent source of fiber, which is something most Americans consume too little of,” says Lisa Harnack, a professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, and lead researcher on the study.

“Most plant-based burgers contain iron in amounts similar to that of ground beef, and most had substantially less saturated fat than ground beef,” says Harnack.

But there were some downsides for the plant-based burgers, too. “Most of the products were found to contain substantially less protein, zinc, and vitamin B12 than ground beef,” says Harnack. “Also, most were found to contain moderate to high amounts of sodium.” 

Rosanne Rust, a registered dietitian, author, and blogger at Chew the Facts, says that beef burgers tend to be lower in sodium, at about 60 milligrams, compared to the 350–450 milligrams in plant-based burgers. Of course, the sodium content in beef patties depends on how much salt you add during preparation.

While the degree of processing was not assessed in the study, the authors acknowledge that protein quality may be lower in plant-based meats due to processing methods. When eaten frequently, ultra-processed foods are linked to higher heart disease risk.

All Iron is Not Created Equal

While the numbers for iron look comparable in plant-based and beef burgers, there’s more to the story. Most plant-based burgers naturally contain phytic acid, which is known as an “anti-nutrient” that can reduce iron absorption.

Beef also contains heme iron, which is better absorbed by the gut compared to the non-heme iron in most plant-based burgers. 

“Heme iron from beef is absorbed two to three times better than non-heme iron,” says Rust.

Generally, this means ground beef has an edge over plant-based ground "beef" products when it comes to iron, explains Harnack. 

How to Choose a Better Burger

When choosing plant-based foods, marketing claims such as “natural” and “organic” play a strong role in consumer’s product choices. These buzzwords are more influential than information on the Nutrition Facts label or the ingredient list. That’s unfortunate, since the latter facts may help consumers choose more nutritious options.

“Most processed plant-based burgers are going to be much higher in sodium than fresh beef burgers," says Rust. “If you have high blood pressure, kidney disease, or need a low sodium diet, plant-based burgers aren’t the best choice for you.” 

“Plant-based burgers vary in their nutrient profile,” says Harnack. “I'd suggest reading the product Nutrition Facts panel to choose one that best aligns with your needs.”

For example, Harnack explains that if you have high blood pressure, you may want a burger with less sodium, or if you’re vegan, you may want a burger that’s fortified with vitamin B12

For meat-eaters, Rust doesn’t think relying on processed plant-based meat for protein is the smartest option. “Instead, choose smaller portions of meats less often, and add more fruits, vegetables, and legumes to your overall diet.”

Instead of reaching for the more popular processed plant-based "meat," Rust suggests a classic bean-grain burger.

Choosing beef? Since it's higher in saturated fat, both Rust and Harnack suggest making beef patties using at least 85% lean ground beef.

What This Means For You:

There’s a tendency for consumers to think anything plant-based is nutritious, but that’s not always the case. It’s smart to read labels and choose foods that are minimally processed, lower in saturated fat and salt, and higher in fiber. 

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  1. International Food Information Council. IFIC survey: consumer viewpoints and purchasing behaviors regarding plant and animal protein. Published January 26, 2021.

  2. Harnack L, Mork S, Valluri S, et al. Nutrient composition of a selection of plant-based ground beef alternative products available in the United States. J Acad Nutr Diet. Published online June 2, 2021. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2021.05.002

  3. Srour B, Fezeu LK, Kesse-Guyot E, et al. Ultra-processed food intake and risk of cardiovascular disease: prospective cohort study (Nutrinet-Santé). BMJ. 2019;365:l1451. doi:10.1136/bmj.l1451