Plant-based beef burgers may beat meat from cattle in the sustainability stakes; but when it comes to taste and nutritional value, the original still wins every time.
That’s the headline finding of a new study conducted by US food product consultancy Chew, which is headed by a chef and staffed by food scientists of various stripes.
The Bostonian firm’s ‘Plant-Based Burger Report Card‘ compared nine of the top-selling analog patties in the US, plus a ‘control’ burger by Bubba Foods made from animal-derived ground beef.
The Report Card was compiled through a combination of blind taste testing and analysis of each product’s listed ingredients and nutrition facts.
According to Chew, each burger was “objectively graded” as A, B, C, D, or F for its performance in three categories:
- Deliciousness – eg; raw appearance, cook performance, cooked smell, cooked appearance, flavor, presence of ‘off-notes,’ texture.
- Nutrition – eg; protein content, protein quality, sodium content, fat comparison, presence of allergens.
- Sustainability – of ingredients, packaging, and processing.
Here’s the Report Card:
|Bubba Foods (animal beef)||A+||B+||F||C+|
|365 (Whole Foods)||D||B-||C||C|
|Raised & Rooted (Tyson)||D+||C||C||C-|
Bubba’s animal beef burger won out on deliciousness and nutritional value, but came bottom of the league when it came to sustainability.
Among the plant-based patties, the Impossible Burger was the most akin in deliciousness to animal-derived beef, according to the Report Card. “[It’s] by far the closest to traditional beef, but still has a way to go. Where it fell short was the cooked smell, flavor, and off-notes which were more reminiscent of liver than whole muscle beef,” the report said.
The product scored lower on nutrition and sustainability due to its use of soy protein — a common allergen, as well as being “associated with deforestation.” Chew said it also downgraded Impossible’s sustainability ranking due to its use of genetically modified soy yeast – though that is likely to be a controversial decision.
Escaping the lab
Chew founder Adam Melonas told AFN that the Report Card takes this into account “because of the generally perceived risk of GMOs.”
“Some believe that modified organisms — especially tiny ones that can be airborne, like yeast — risk ‘escaping the lab.’ In addition, if GMOs end up in nature, there is a concern that they will outcompete natural [specimens],” he said.
“By design, GMOs resist disease, grow more quickly, and withstand restricted conditions, like drought. Since these organisms theoretically have a competitive advantage, they may take over and become the only [specimen], or at least the vast majority.”
Melonas added that GMO crops have “many advantages,” in that they can increase post-harvest life, improve pest and abiotic stress resistance, and boost nutrient quality.
However, “there isn’t much research on the effect of GMO yeasts on biodiversity and sustainability,” he said. Chew believes that “if it is possible to use natural occurring yeasts, that is the preference in terms of sustainability.”
“Generally speaking, Chew strives to avoid GMOs. Consumers are very sensitive to them and there are some unknown potential risks,” Melonas said.
‘More in line with pet food’
The Beyond Burger, on the other hand, scored higher because it uses non-GMO ingredients; but was rated lower on nutrition and taste than its archrival.
“The strong smell you get from Beyond tends to smell less like meat, more in line with pet food, having some super-strong top notes of kerosene and gas,” the Chew report stated, adding that the Beyond Burger “suffers from major processing consistency issues, where you will get massive variation from batch-to-batch of their product. The color is also a detractor, as it comes across as super-processed.”
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Ranking highest for sustainability, and second-highest for nutrition, was the algae-based patty from Akua. Chew says it “may have been unfair to rate this burger against other more conventional formulations.”
“Some people assume this can be a straight switch for beef in a burger, but it is a remarkably different experience,” the report says. “The appearance overall was not appetizing to a consumer who is looking for a burger replacement. The texture was also not enjoyable, as it was not a consistent texture to hold up to the typical garnishes of a burger – it crushes versus bounces on the teeth. [It’s] compelling from a concept but doesn’t follow through.”
Given this, Chew scored Akua’s offering joint-last for deliciousness – alongside two private-label products from retailers Trader Joe’s and Wegman’s.
Chew suggests that plant-based burgers may be being held back by their objective of trying to recreate animal-derived products, and should instead aim to create an entirely new category.
“Most of these products are just trying to mimic beef. We see the need for a ‘phase 2,’ a next-generation, in which plant-based burger companies are genuinely being innovative,” the company said.
However, that would appear to be at cross purposes with the message from groups such as the Good Food Institute, which argues that, for the global population to reduce its reliance on animals as a food source, alt-protein companies must provide accurate analogs of animal-derived meat products.
That said, Chew’s “phase 2” angle could also play nicely into its core business as a product innovator; perhaps we’ll see the next tofu coming from the firm’s kitchens in the near future.
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