From cancer researchers: Treat these popular plant-based burgers like meat

While they haven’t been making many headlines lately, there’s still a buzz about these meaty-tasting plant-based burgers.

The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) s the latest to weigh in on their potential impact on your health.   They’ve just posted their opinion on their blog and it’s definitely worth a read. They state that until more research is done, we should be treating these plant-based burgers like meat.

The post is entitled: Plant-Based Burgers: What are They Made of and can They be Part of a Cancer-Protective Diet?

Keep in mind that while initially providing information on their websites about the health benefits of eating their plant-based meat substitutes, the company Beyond Meat has dropped from its website frightening statistics about the health risks of eating meat that had been posted for months.

According to the CBC, Beyond Meat did so as a result of critics who stated the company was making claims without the scientific research to back it up. (I was one of those critics). Beyond Meat removed an attention grabbing graphic which stated that eating meat increases the chances of getting cancer by 16 per cent and the chances of developing heart disease by 21 per cent.

A footnote below the graphic said the numbers were associated with processed meats — which excludes fresh beef — and based on a scientific study. An internet search found that it was a Harvard Study published in 2012 and the processed meats subjects ate included hot dogs and bacon.

Now back to the AICR and their recommendations. They have long pointed out that scientific research shows that regularly eating too much red meat — and even small amounts of processed meats — increases the risk of colorectal cancer. That’s why they have recommended eating no more than 12-18 ounces of beef, pork and other red meats per week.

The group also recommends eating a predominantly plant-based diet as whole grains, vegetables and other plant foods are packed with fibre, nutrients and phytochemicals and are linked to a lower risk of certain cancers.

But they also recommend selecting mostly whole and minimally processed foods. “That is not these patties,” says AICR’s Senior Director of Nutrition Programs Alice Bender, MS, RDN.

Why treat these burgers like meat?

While both the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger contain plants as their protein source, in place of beef, there are questions about how their highly processed ingredients – soy and potatoes in the Impossible Burger and pea protein in the Beyond Burger in combination with a whole whack of other ingredients including added oils, binders and flavorings – may affect health.

One of the concerns deals with heme iron – the type that’s usually found in meat and other animal foods. The Impossible Burger adds this type of iron (from soybeans) into the mix, producing it in large quantities by inserting it in yeast and letting the yeast ferment, which makes them — and the heme iron — multiply.

The makers of the Impossible Burger claim that it’s this type of iron that gives their burgers a meaty texture, taste, and smell.

The potential problem

“Yet, heme iron is one of the candidates for why high amounts of beef and other red meats may cause cancer,” says Edward L. Giovannucci, MD, ScD, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health and one of the expert panelists on AICR’s Continuous Update Project.

Giovannucci goes on to say that he doesn’t know if heme from soy products has been fully studied, and what the effects might be, especially if these are consumed frequently. He says. “I would be concerned if people got a sense that since this is ‘plant-based,’ they can eat as much as they want. They may not get all of the benefits of what we generally consider as a whole food, plant-based diet.”

Because scientists don’t yet know what is behind the excess meat-cancer link, they suggest moderation when it comes to these burgers and to actually treat them like red meat. Bender says that if you are eating these burgers, to limit your intake to no more than 12-18 ounces per week.
The bottom line

While it may not sound sexy, the nutrition advice is still the same. Eat more whole and minimally processed plant-based choices and limit how much in the way of ultra-processed foods you consume – plant-based or not.

Tags: , , ,

Categories: Nutrition News, Whole Foods

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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2 Comments on “From cancer researchers: Treat these popular plant-based burgers like meat”

  1. November 21, 2019 at 5:02 pm #

    A highly processed food, sounds like it’s full of additives plus a white bun. Not exactly what I’d call a healthy food.

    • November 22, 2019 at 8:50 am #

      I agree with you, Rosemary! But because they’re called “plant-based”, they’re given an undeserved health halo.

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