Veggie burgers can be a great substitute for meat, but if you’re only a sometime/flexi-vegetarian, you might still be tempted to cheat with the real deal. These days, though, a wave of high-tech products simulate meat so well you might be willing to leave the real thing behind forever. The big innovations are in flavor and presentation, in the way the fake burgers brown, sear, and even “bleed.” I tested out the two most compelling entrants to the real/fake burger market, the Beyond Burger and the Impossible Burger, to see if there was more to them than marketing sizzle.
RELATED: The Best Healthy Burger Recipes
The Beyond Burger
I found the Beyond Burger (made by Beyond Meat) in the refrigerated meat case at a Whole Foods Market in New York City. (They’re also available in select Safeway, Kroger, Shaw’s, and other supermarkets throughout the country. Check for availability near you.)
I paid $10 for two packs of two quarter-pound patties, which is about what you’ll pay around the country. (It’s a little pricey relative to most frozen veggie burgers, and even compared to many varieties of grass-fed ground beef.) To test them out, I cooked them up for my family on a recent Friday night, using my trusty cast-iron skillet ($24; amazon.com) as I would for any other burger.
Coming out of the package, the burgers looked on-point: pinkish-brown, reminiscent of ground chuck. I got my pan nice and hot before throwing the burgers on. The sizzle was beef-like, and the burgers even oozed fat into the pan (in the form of canola and coconut oil), which contributed to the patties getting a nice brownish crust. I didn’t get the much-ballyhooed “bleed” (which comes from beet juice extract), but that could have been the result of my slightly overcooking the patties (I went a touch longer than the three minutes recommended per side).
RELATED: 9 Ways to Build a Better Burger
When dressed up with mayo, lettuce, and tomato on a whole wheat bun, I found the Beyond Burger was a good substitute for a beef burger. When eaten “neat,” as my eight-year-old son takes his, we noticed there’s not a ton of flavor inherent to the patty, though my son was perfectly happy with it, and gave it a hearty thumbs up, cleaning his plate. To me, it resembled the somewhat starchy blandness of a Boca burger. That said, the Beyond Burger has a better texture than a Boca: it’s more tender, less chewy, has a fresher consistency, and a much more accurate pinkish-red look.
Nutrition-wise, the Beyond Burger compares favorably to ground beef. Stacked up against 4 ounces of 20% fat ground beef (as portrayed by the USDA), the Beyond Burger is comparable in calories (290 to 287 in ground beef), total fat (22g to beef’s 23g), better in saturated fat (5g to beef’s 9g), higher in sodium (450mg to 75mg), comparable in protein (20g to 19g); and it gives you a little fiber (3g to 0g) with no cholesterol (beef has 80mg).
RELATED: The Best and Worst Burgers
The Impossible Burger
Next up was the Impossible Burger, which my son and I ordered at our friendly neighborhood Bareburger. It was priced comparably to the other meat burgers the chain sells. (The Impossible Burger is also available at other select burger joints nationwide.) This was actually our second encounter with the Impossible Burger; my son and I had slider-sized versions at the recent Food Loves Tech conference in Brooklyn, New York, served up by Chef Brad Farmerie of the NYC restaurant Saxon + Parole, and were impressed.
While the Impossible Burger, like the Beyond Burger, is made primarily from plant protein and includes fat from coconut oil, its secret ingredient is a compound called heme. It’s complicated, but roughly speaking, the iron in the heme molecule (ordinarily found in animal blood and muscle tissue) gives beef its color and distinctive taste. To lend that essence to their burger, the scientists at Impossible Foods manufactured a plant-based type of heme extracted from soy roots and grown with the help of yeast. This soy leghemoglobin contributes to the Impossible Burger’s reddish tint and helps it brown and sear, while retaining a pinkness on the inside, just shy of “bloody,” and contributes to the burger’s meaty flavor.
While the Beyond Burger, in my experience, had a pleasant (if bland) flavor, the Impossible Burger is gamier, with a flavor less like a veggie burger and more in the realm of some exotic wild meat (think elk, bison or boar), with notes of liver. My son agreed, and declared that the Impossible Burger “tastes like meat,” was chewier than the Beyond Burger, but, in his view, "didn’t taste as good after a few bites," a problem he easily remedied with a few squirts of ketchup.
RELATED: Best Backyard Burger
I like the flavor of the Impossible Burger, but agree that it’s more aggressive than that of the Beyond Burger. Like the Beyond Burger, the Impossible Burger compares favorably to 80% lean ground beef in terms of nutrition. Using a 3-ounce serving size, the Impossible Burger stacks up like this: comparable in calories (220 to beef's 215), lower in total fat (13g to 17g), higher in saturated fat (10g to 6g), higher in sodium (430mg to 56mg), higher in protein (20g to 15g) with no fiber and no cholesterol (beef has 60mg per 3 ounces).
It’s worth noting that if eating only clean ingredients is your top priority, your best move is probably going with a pure veggie-only play. Both imitation burgers get their nutritional heft and burger-like textures from processed plant-based proteins (the Beyond Burger is made with pea protein isolate; the Impossible Burger from textured wheat protein, potato protein, and soy protein isolate), along with some gums and other additives.
RELATED: 5 Delicious Homemade Veggie Burgers
Both burgers are certainly worthy of a try, particularly if you like the taste and feel of beef but want to wean off of it, whatever your reason (whether ethical, environmental, or health-related, all of which give the imitation burgers the edge over beef). Home cooks will find the Beyond Burger a worthy (if pricey) substitute for traditional veggie burgers that can be dressed up with the usual fixins to impart flavor. Meanwhile, burger-joint diners who want a unique meat-like experience might enjoy the Impossible Burger’s distinctive gamey flavor. Even as a non-vegetarian, I can imagine going out of my way to have an Impossible Burger every now and again.
To get more food stories delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Balanced Bites newsletter