Choosing Burgers Is About More Than Eating Meat (or Not)

An honest assessment of the problems with meat - and their vegetarian alternatives, too.

veggie burger with sweet potato fries
Credit: Photo by Rolande PG on Unsplash

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It used to be that making a burger choice at a summer barbecue was simple: either you opted in for a beef patty, or you brought your own frozen veggie burger. Luckily, that’s all changed: the burger choices on the marketplace today seem endless. That said, more choice means more responsibility. It can seem tougher than ever to figure out the best option for a burger that’s delicious, sustainable, and healthy. With that in mind, and Labor Day coming, here is our assessment.

8. Grass-Fed Beef Burger

If you’re going to go for a beef burger, grass-fed beef from a small farm is your best bet. Grass-fed beef is richer in CLA and omega-3 fatty acids, and it’s more humane to boot.

“Ruminant animals like cattle, sheep, goats, and buffalo have stomachs designed for digesting grass,” explains the team at Grassland Beef. “Grains can cause health problems in cattle, leading to pH levels that are lower or more acidic than normal.”

Grass-fed beef is also often a more sustainable choice, explains Lindsay Fuce, certified nutritionist and founder of Freckle Studio.

“Many grass-fed farms practice regenerative farming, which helps reverse climate change,” she says. “When cows are raised in a grass-fed, well-managed grazing environment, there is less energy used because of the regular moving of cows from fresh pasture to fresh pasture.”

That said, there’s more to grass-fed’s purported sustainability than meets the eye.

“Comparing the sustainability of grass finishing versus grain finishing cannot be achieved based solely on examining what the cow ate – be it grain or grass,” cautions Lauren Stine, a writer and adjunct law professor who raises cattle, sheep, and goats in Northwest Arkansas. “A more important question to ask is how those animals were managed throughout their lifetimes.”

While grazing animals can support a healthy ecosystem by way of regenerative agriculture, some studies have found that grain-fed meat actually boasts lower greenhouse gas emissions. This is due in part to the fact that grass-fed cows gain weight more slowly and thus emit more methane over their lifespans.

To add insult to injury, grass-fed might not be that much healthier than grain-fed, according to Elizabeth Huggins, RDN at Hilton Head Health, an all-inclusive health and wellness resort. 

“Most nutritional differences between grass-finished verses grain-finished beef are trivial,” she says, noting that while technically speaking, grass-fed boasts more omega-3 fatty acids than grain fed, “neither type of beef is a rich source of omega-3s.”

“So although grass-finished beef may tout that it contains up to 2X the omega-3s, the overall content in beef still pales in comparison to certain cold-water fatty fish.”

While the health and sustainability differences may be small, we still prefer grass-fed as it’s more humane. Choose beef from a small producer for the very best in flavor, health benefits, and environmental impact.

7. Chicken Burger

A chicken burger is certainly leaner than a beef burger, and it’s also more sustainable. According to one recent study, choosing chicken over beef cuts the carbon footprint of your burger in half.

That said, it’s important to be judicious when it comes to choosing your chicken burger. 

“Depending on what parts of the chicken or turkey was used to ground up will determine how much total and saturated fat it has,” says Manju Karkare, RDN. “A chicken or even turkey burger may not necessarily be healthier than the beef burger if it has just as much saturated fat.”

And while chicken has less of an environmental impact than beef, industrial chicken production is rife with issues related to humane animal treatment. Choose pastured chicken from an Animal Welfare Approved brand. Better yet, rather than opting for a highly-processed burger, consider grilling up a chicken breast and serving it in place of a burger or on our grilled chicken, mozzarella, and tomato panini.

6. Low-Quality Store-Bought Veggie Burgers

Evidence continues to stack up showing that cutting back on meat – or cutting meat out entirely – is a more ecological choice than merely choosing more sustainable meat. One 2018 research review found that eating a plant-based diet was the single best way of reducing your footprint. That said, not all veggie burgers are created alike.

Plant-based burgers can be “incredibly toxic,” according to Erik Levi of Holistic Nootropics. 

“Look at the ingredient list of any plant-based burger, and you will find a number of substances you do not want in your body, let alone on your grill,” he says. These ingredients could include hydrogenated canola and sunflower oils, both of which can lead to inflammation, especially when cooked over the high heat of a charcoal grill. Other additives and sugars can make some veggie burgers a far from healthful alternative.

5. Second-Generation Plant-Based Burgers

The Impossible Burger got a lot of attention when it was first released: a vegan patty that bleeds like meat, Impossible certainly helps folks transition to plant-based… but at what cost?

The folks behind Impossible don’t hide the fact that their burger is “a double whammy of genetic engineering,” as Hans Eisenbeis, Director of Marketing & Communications at the Non-GMO Project, explains.

“New GMOs are behind the heme that makes this burger ‘bleed,’ while the protein base is old-fashioned herbicide-tolerant GMO soy,” he says.

While neither GMO is particularly natural, it’s the latter that makes this burger so worrisome. Ninety-four percent of all soy grown in the U.S. is genetically modified to withstand repeated spraying of glyphosate. The herbicide is the active ingredient in Roundup (Monsanto/Bayer) and was deemed a probable human carcinogen by the World Health Organization in 2015. (We delved into why the Impossible Burger isn’t sustainable.)

And to top it all off, despite being made with plants, it’s not that good for you.

“The Impossible Burger, while quite tasty, is filled with sodium, preservatives, fillers, and flavorings that help achieve that burger-like taste,” adds Fuce. 

If you need your veggie burger to taste like beef, Beyond is perhaps a more palatable offering. Made with pea protein and Non-GMO Project verified, it’s certainly more sustainable than Impossible.

That said, Beyond is not quite as nutritious as the Impossible Burger. A Consumer Lab report noted that while Impossible “provides as much or more of nearly every vitamin and mineral found in appreciable amounts in a beef burger, aside from choline and selenium,” Beyond “provides none of the vitamins, not even vitamin B12, which people on vegan diets need to get from fortified foods or supplements, as it is best obtained from meats, dairy, and eggs.” Indeed, aside from calcium, potassium, and protein, Beyond doesn’t provide any real nutritional benefit to consumers.

4. Veggie-Blend Burgers

An interesting compromise between a true veggie burger and a beef burger is a blended burger, like those from Applegate’s Well Carved. These burgers feature frozen organic meat combined with a panoply of vegetables, grains, and legumes. Each burger delivers about a quarter-cup of vegetables per serving. The Well Carved Grass-Fed Organic Beef Burger was found in independent research from HowGood to create 51 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than a conventional beef burger and use 67 percent less water due to run-off than a conventional beef burger. And since the beef used in these burgers is organic, it’s not a bad choice.

3. Salmon Burger

Salmon burgers aren’t just delicious: they’re also rich in healthy omega-3 fatty acids, and they’re easy to make at home from canned wild salmon.

“They are certainly healthier than beef burgers as they are higher in healthy fats and low in saturated fat,” explains Lisa Richards. Richards is a nutritionist and author of The Candida Diet, who notes that, like poultry, salmon is slightly more sustainable than beef as it requires less land and food as compared to large cattle.

That said, salmon is far from the most sustainable fish out there. You’ll want to be extra vigilant in seeking out a sustainable salmon (see Monterey Bay Aquarium’s guide to salmon) brand before cooking up a tasty salmon patty (try our delicious salmon burger and kale salad recipe), or else consider using a more sustainable fish, like mackerel.

2. High-Quality Store-Bought Veggie Burgers

While some veggie burgers are made with fillers and processed ingredients, others are quite sustainable – and delicious! Fuce recommends Dr. Praegers. These plant-based burgers are made with avocado or sunflower oil. They’re gluten-free, soy-free, and are made with non-GMO project verified ingredients. 

Richards, meanwhile, loves Beyond Meat and Boca Burger, while Karkare likes Morning Star. Quorn is a tried and true vegan brand with burgers made with mycoprotein that require 90 percent less land and water to produce than beef burgers, with a carbon footprint 10 times lower than beef and four times lower than chicken.

1. Homemade Veggie Burger

The very best burger choice you can make this summer, however, is to make your own at home. From a simple marinated Portobello mushroom cap to a homemade bean burger, this option allows you to source all of the ingredients yourself and exert control over their provenance and quality. Here are some of our favorite recipes:

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Related on Organic Authority
5 Ways to Make Sure You Get Humane Meat for Grilling Season
How to Master Vegan Grilling (Tricks, Techniques, and 5 Gourmet Recipes!)
How to Grill Vegetables to Absolute Perfection (Secrets Revealed!)

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Emily Monaco is a food and culture writer based in Paris. Her work has been featured in the Wall... More about Emily Monaco