No Bun Intended
The top veggie burgers and nuggets
by Jayne Hurley and Bonnie Liebman, December 2011
Maybe you’d like to eat less meat to lower your risk of heart disease or colon cancer. Maybe you want to curb greenhouse gas emissions from cattle or minimize your risk of food poisoning from E. coli O157:H7. Maybe you’ve heard that some meatless burgers are dead ringers for hamburgers...except that they take just 1 or 2 minutes in the microwave. Or maybe you just don’t like the idea of eating animals.
Regardless of what brought you to the veggie "meat" section of the supermarket, here’s what to look for once you’re there.
Information compiled by Emily Caras.
1. Search for less sodium.
Salt is the Achilles’ heel of veggie meats. Whether it’s a meaty beef or chicken wanna-be or a who-cares-about-meat grains-and-veggie patty, sodium levels typically reach 300 milligrams or more. Even without a bun—which is likely to add another 200 to 300 mg—that’s high for a food that has just 100 to 200 calories.
To their credit, some brands have cut the salt. Amy’s Light in Sodium California Veggie Burger, for example, has "50% less sodium than our regular burger," and her Texas Veggie Burger has "only 350 mg of sodium," according to the boxes. Dr. Praeger’s "reduced sodium" burgers clock in at around 250 mg.
But others—like Gardein The Ultimate Beefless Burger, Morningstar Farms Mushroom Lover’s Burger and Grillers Original, and Veggie Patch Chick’n Nuggets—are in the same range. They just don’t boast about it. Take-home message: check the Nutrition Facts panel, not just the front of the package.
Our Best Bites have no more than 250 mg of sodium. Honorable Mentions have no more than 350 mg. Check the bottom of the page for our taste picks.
2. Consider protein.
Don’t assume that your veggie burger has as much protein as the hamburger it replaces. A typical meat burger has about 20 grams of protein. Veggie burgers range from 3 to 26 grams.
How much protein do you need? The Recommended Dietary Allowance is equal to 0.36 grams per pound of body weight. (Divide your weight by 3 to get a rough estimate; 40 grams a day for someone who weighs 120 pounds, for example.) However, many experts recommend more to help you hang on to muscle as you age. To reach that higher level, divide your weight by 2 (60 grams a day for a 120-pounder). And some researchers argue that older people need 20 to 30 grams of protein in each meal to keep building muscle.
It’s hard to get there if your veggie burger has only 5 or 7 grams of protein (unless you’re also having a protein-rich food like beans or Greek yogurt). Unfortunately, some of our favorites—like Morningstar Farms Mushroom Lover’s Burger and Dr. Praeger’s California Veggie Burgers—are in that range. If you don’t eat much meat, chicken, or seafood, it’s worth shooting for veggie burgers that have at least 10 grams of protein. That’s what we required in our Best Bites.
3. Know what you’re getting.
Protein varies so much in veggie burgers because their ingredients range from mostly soy protein concentrate (like Boca Burgers and Patties, Gardein The Ultimate Beefless Burger, and most Morningstar Farms Grillers) to mostly vegetables and grains (like Gardenburgers, Organic Sunshine Burgers, and many Dr. Praeger’s).
Before you buy, check the box’s Nutrition Facts panel. Our Best Bites have at least 10 grams of protein. Most get that high from added soy protein. Don’t go by the product’s name. Morningstar Farms Garden Veggie Patties, for example, sound and look like they’re mostly vegetables, but each burger has 10 grams of protein (thanks to soy).
Wheat gluten is another source of protein in many burgers. If you’re gluten intolerant, try Dr. Praeger’s Gluten Free California Veggie Burgers, Helen’s Kitchen The Original GardenSteak, or Amy’s Bistro Burger.
4. Know what you’re missing.
Meat isn’t just a good source of protein. It’s also rich in nutrients like zinc, iron, and the B vitamins. You’ll find the latter two added to a handful of veggie burgers like Morningstar Farms Grillers Original, Grillers ¼ Pound Burger, Chik Patties Original, and Italian Herb Chik Patties.
The added iron and vitamin B-12 are a plus if you frequently eat veggie burgers (and you don’t take a multivitamin). You’re not likely to run short of the other B vitamins. And the added B-12 is important if you’re over 50, because some older people can’t absorb the naturally occurring B-12 that’s bound to the protein in food. That’s why it’s good to get some B-12 from a multivitamin or from a fortified food like a breakfast cereal...or a veggie burger.
Also missing from veggie burgers—don’t shed a tear—is meat’s saturated fat. A broiled 3 oz. burger made of “lean” ground beef delivers 6 grams of sat fat (about a third of a day’s worth). Few veggie burgers have more than 1 gram.
5. Avoid Quorn.
We ignored the entire Quorn line of burgers and "chicken" because its main ingredient—a "mycoprotein" that's made from a fungus (a mold, actually)—causes severe vomiting, diarrhea, and stomachache in some people. It also can cause potentially fatal anaphylactic shock. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, Nutrition Action's publisher, has urged Whole Foods to stop selling Quorn and has called on the FDA to ban the mycoprotein. (To report an adverse reaction, go to quorncomplaints.org.)
6. Tempt your taste buds.
Veggie burgers range from terrific to one-bite-is-enough. We had trouble getting used to several burgers made by Asherah’s Gourmet and Organic Sunshine Burgers, for example. They (and most other burgers) might taste better sautéed in a skillet. We cooked ours in the microwave because it’s quickest. And breaded chicken patties are best when baked in a toaster (or ordinary) oven.