As plant-based meat sales have soared, an outcry has followed. Loudest is the political and legal backlash from ranchers upset about vegan meat labeling, which in some states has made the old-fashioned veggie burger a contraband food.

But more surprising is the intensity of the backlash from local food advocates, health food eaters and even vegans, who criticize plant-based burgers and meats for being too processed, and not as good as traditional veggie burgers made from beans and grains.

At the Shaw’s supermarket in the Westgate plaza in Portland, plant-based burgers share space with ground beef in the butcher case. Photo by Avery Yale Kamila

Public enemy No. 1 for advocates of healthful eating is the Impossible Burger. This high-tech, plant-based burger was birthed in a laboratory in Silicon Valley and debuted in exclusive, high-end restaurants in 2016. By 2018 the Impossible Burgers had spread to fast-food outlets and this fall, packages of ground Impossible Burger meat began to claim space at supermarkets nationwide.

Because this is Maine, we can still call it a burger. But no matter your location, don’t call the Impossible Burger vegan.

Last year, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals reported that Impossible Foods tested its novel iron molecule soy leghemoglobin on 188 laboratory rats before “killing them, and cutting them up” and relinquishing any vegan claims, according to PETA. The GMO iron molecule, or heme, is produced by genetically engineered yeast and is what allows the Impossible Burgers to “bleed.”

While not all brands of plant-based meats use GMO ingredients, very few are organic and all have faced criticism for relying on heavily processed ingredients, such as protein extracted from soybeans or yellow peas.

In August, John Mackey, the co-founder and co-CEO of Whole Foods, and a longtime vegan, declined in an interview with CNBC to endorse vegan meats on health grounds.

Mark Bittman, a food writer who urges people to eat vegan before 6 p.m., said to stay away from plant-based meats. In a Twitter post in July, Bittman criticized the meat-free burgers’ “hyperprocessing” and linked to an essay on the subject in his magazine Heated. In that essay, a farmer warns readers that “Impossible Burgers and Beyond Meats are at their core ultra-processed junk foods” that “will never succeed in mimicking the humbling intimacy from meals where the animal’s death is deeply felt.”

The farmer forgets that not all of us want the animal dead.

In August, a Fox Business medical correspondent, Dr. Marc Siegel, told viewers of the Varney & Co. show that if they buy vegan meats “you end up with chemicals and processed foods, and it ain’t as good for you” as when “your wife makes it for you, and she uses beans and lentils and beets, beets are great, and sprouts and avocado.”

People without such a skilled spouse find themselves faced with the choices of a fast food drive-thru or a supermarket meat case. And today most fast-food chains and supermarkets offer plant-based options alongside the ground beef.

Even restaurants that have shunned vegan meats are beginning to see the plant-based light. McDonald’s began testing Beyond Burgers at restaurants in Canada in late September, and KFC’s vegan fried chicken test in Atlanta in August sold out in under five hours.

Clearly feeling the plant-based heat, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association in a retail news bulletin issued in August touted the sales history of beef, and dismissed plant-based hamburgers as undesirable and unprofitable. One of the bulletin’s talking points criticized the beef-free burgers for “added processing ingredients like sodium, saturated fat and starches.”

Yet the bulletin failed to mention the beef industry’s own history of processed ingredients, which includes the controversial filler product lean finely textured beef. It was made from slaughterhouse sweepings and famously called pink slime in a media firestorm that prompted the largest manufacturer of the filler, Beef Products Inc., to sue TV network ABC.

The suit eventually was settled in the meat producer’s favor for $177 million, and the processed meat product remains a staple of the American diet. Except now it has a different name. At the close of 2018, the U.S. Department of Agriculture ruled that lean finely textured beef can be labeled and sold as ground beef.

Which means if you’re in Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri or any other state that has restricted vegan meat labeling, it’s illegal to label a veggie patty a “burger” but it’s perfectly fine to call pink slime a hamburger.

In April the D.C.-based Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine sued the USDA over its meat inspection practices that allow widespread e. coli contamination of raw meat. Since the publication of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” in 1906, the unsanitary conditions of American meat processing plants have been an open secret. Those of us willing to talk about it remember that in 2015 testers at Consumer Reports found that every ounce of the “458 pounds of beef we examined contained bacteria that signified fecal contamination.”

Last month the USDA revealed plans to loosen inspection oversight and end line speed limits at pig slaughterhouses.

Meanwhile, animal farmers are visibly spooked by vegan meat’s incursion into the supermarket butcher case and onto fast-food menus. Their fears are stoked by a 2019 Nielsen research report that finds “a whopping 62 percent of consumers are willing to reduce meat consumption due to environmental concerns.”

Meat tops food charts when it comes to resource use and pollution. Climate scientists say drastically reducing animal-based meat consumption needs to happen to avert extreme climate change.

Food advocates who look at the changing meat landscape and respond by criticizing plant-based meat are missing the point: No one’s swapping homemade veggie burgers for plant-based hamburgers. Instead what’s getting swapped is an animal-based burger, meaning the real choice facing consumers is illustrated at Burger King, where customers can choose a Whopper or an Impossible Whopper.

So let’s compare the two.

A beef Whopper patty delivers 240 calories, 18 grams of fat, 8 grams of saturated fat, 80 milligrams of cholesterol and 230 milligrams of sodium. In comparison, the plant-based Impossible Whopper contains 210 calories, 12 grams of fat, 7 grams of saturated fat, 0 milligrams of cholesterol and 330 milligrams of sodium.

The Impossible Whopper wins in every category except salt, and I’m not aware of any science that examines whether swapping 100 milligrams of sodium for 80 milligrams of cholesterol has a positive or negative health outcome. Until that research takes place, we’ll have to call it a wash.

No one disputes that a homemade veggie burger is nutritionally superior to a plant-based hamburger. But when compared side-by-side, a plant-based burger and a cow-based burger only have one major difference, and it’s not the processing but rather the dead animal.

While Fox correspondents have veggie-burger-making wives and Mark Bittman’s farmers have deep feelings about animal death, the rest of us out here in the real world face less rarified choices and one of them is, will it be beef burgers or plant burgers tonight? Faced with that choice I’ll pick plant-based, every time. I hope you will, too.

Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at

[email protected]

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila

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