Ground meat alternatives were among the first products to gain attention in today’s plant-based movement. Pioneers BeyondMeat and Impossible utilized groundbreaking technologies to create meat alternatives that were much more meat-like than their predecessors. Competitors followed and ground meat alternatives continue to hold a prominent position in the marketplace because of their versatility and ability to mimic ground meat in functionality and sensory features.
A November 2022 report by Innova Market Insights on meat substitutes describes the landscape for meat alternatives. Europe is the biggest region for total meat substitutes launches tracked globally while North America holds a 14% share of the meat substitutes launches tracks in the 12-month period between July 2021 and June 2022. Burgers, ground meat and meatballs substitutes comprise nearly half of all launches.
In its 2023 forecast, New York-based Baldor Specialty Foods, a supplier to foodservice, hospitals, retail, and wholesale, named “Plant-Forward” as a top trend for this year. The company observed 46% year-over-year Q3 growth between 2021 and 2022 in ground meat alternatives. It anticipates expanded options this year that incorporate more chickpeas, mushrooms, and other vegetable bases, as well as expanded plant-based menu options and restaurant choices.
Proteins often are blended to optimize both functionality and nutrition. A combination of rice protein and soy protein enhances water solubility, foaming, and emulsification properties. Wheat protein confers gelation properties to soy protein; additionally, the lower protein quality of wheat is enhanced by the high quality of soy. Combining wheat with pea protein also improves protein quality.
Ingredient manufacturer Cargill recently introduced a new textured protein from peas and wheat. Company literature notes that the textured protein blend has a neutral taste and mimics the texture, firmness, and juiciness of ground meat.
The saturated fat in animal-based ground meat is hard at refrigerator temperatures but melts during the cooking process, imparting a characteristic juiciness to burgers. Manufacturers of plant-based burgers typically incorporate highly saturated plant-based fat such as coconut or palm oil and may add a less saturated fat like canola oil.
Starches help bind and stabilize plant-based ground meat products. Many interact with protein and/or help retain moisture. Potato starch and corn starch are common ingredients with the added feature of being gluten-free. Products that include wheat flour also contain gluten.
Ground beef offers a distinct nutrient profile that has not yet been fully replicated – positively or negatively – in plant-based alternatives. A 4-oz cooked ground beef patty, provides 230-290 calories, depending on the percentage of fat, up to 19 g total fat and 7 g saturated fat, 94 mg cholesterol, no carbohydrate or fiber, and 25-30 g high-quality protein. It has a PDCAAS (Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score) of 1.0, the highest possible score. Ground beef is a good source of riboflavin (vitamin B2) and the minerals copper and iron, and an excellent source of niacin (vitamin B3), vitamins B6 and B12, and the mineral zinc. Unseasoned ground beef is relatively low in sodium.
Much of the conversation around plant-based burgers centers around protein and protein quality, referring to its profile of essential amino acids and its digestibility. “Soy protein is a high-quality protein with a PDCAAS of about 1.0,” says Dr. Mark Messina, executive director, of Soy Nutrition Institute. “Researchers have shown that protein quality using a newer measure, DIAAS (Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Score), also is high for soy protein isolate, tofu, soymilk, and leading plant-based burgers made with soy protein.” Because of variations in their protein concentration, soy protein isolate has the highest PDCAAS, followed by soy protein concentrate and then soy flour. Pea protein also is high quality but not quite as high as soy protein. Wheat protein has lower quality measures than soy or pea; it often is combined with a higher quality protein. Whole food bases like jackfruit can have little or no protein.
Plant-based burgers can come close to the amount of total and saturated fat in ground beef, depending on their fat source. Coconut oil is highly saturated – the jury still is out regarding whether plant-based saturated fat is less harmful to health than animal-based. The major benefit of plant-based burgers is their lack of cholesterol, which is found only in foods from animals.
Plant-based burgers typically are fortified with nutrients to replicate the composition of ground beef. Market leaders Impossible Beef and Beyond Burger are fortified with several B vitamins and the mineral zinc.* They also provide calcium and fiber, nutrients not present in beef burgers. In contrast, a non-fortified patty with vegetable and/or fiber-rich vegetable or grain-based ingredients may be a good source of fiber but no declarations of B vitamin content.
Burger alternatives are higher in sodium than unseasoned ground meat because they require sodium, typically salt and salt-containing ingredients, to enhance their flavor. In an October/November 2022 article in The World of Ingredients on formulating plant-based meat alternatives, Chef Charlie Baggs notes the importance of balancing flavor using ingredients that collectively address all five tastes — salt, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami. One way he works toward managing the amount of sodium in new products is by manipulating the placement of sodium, for example, in a coating or seasoning; using ingredients with natural umami, and adding high-flavor ingredients that are relatively low in sodium.
It will be interesting to watch the evolution of plant-based burgers in terms of ingredients, sensory qualities, and nutrition. Consumer acceptance also is vital. Additionally, any impact on health status – positive or negative – will depend more on the overall diet than on the individual foods chosen.
*based on website information at the time of writing
Mindy Hermann, MBA, RDN, is a food and nutrition communications consultant in metro New York and a market research consultant for Innova Market Insights, Arnhem, Netherlands.