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Veggie Burgers: the new mystery meat

October 11, 2009

The guy at the check-out counter kept sneaking weary glances at it, a puzzled look on his face.

“They’re veggie burgers,” I said.

“Veggie burgers?”

“Yeah, they’re made out of soy and milk and stuff,” replied Austin.

“Oh, um, that’s cool,” the guy muttered, quickly stuffing the Boca Burger box into our shopping bag.

I wondered why a veggie burger, with its plant-based ingredients, would make the poor guy nervous, while an industrial hamburger patty, with its unknown animal contents, would more than likely escape his notice.

But it got me thinking:What the heck is in a “veggie burger” anyway?

In your average grocery store, two kings rein over the meatless meat freezer: Boca Foods and Morningstar Farms (a brand of Kellogg company), each with a loyal fan base.  Though both boast of meatless burgers, chik’n, and breakfast entrees, the taste and composition of their food is quite different.

While I’ll leave the taste testing to you, I took a deeper look into the Boca and Morningstar websites to learn more.

As is with all processed foods, the ingredients list was a medley of words I couldn’t pronounce- words like Disodium Guanylate, Nicotinamide, and Thiamin Mononitrate.  Yet in chosing processed food, these mystery ingredients are an unavoidable part of the package.

Both companies revealed that the soy beans used in their products are likely from genetically engineered soy plants.  However, for consumers who prefer to stay away from genetically engineered products, both companies provide “organic soy” products, which do not contain GE soy.

Then how about all the processing?  Though veggie burgers provide an alternative to meat (a source of environmental problems), are the veggie burgers themselves eco-friendly?  We may feel better that some veggie burgers contain no GE soy, but we can’t ignore the fact that they are still manufactured in factories, requiring a lot of energy and resource input.  I found a post that looks at an article from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition about the environmental impacts of food production.

A summary from the post:

“The journal picked soy studies for a comparison, lucky for you. Meat production took more land (6 to 17 times as much), water (4.4 to 26 times), fossil fuels (6 to 20 times), and biocides (a lumped-together category of pesticides and chemicals used in processing — 6 times as much). In fact, meat lost in every category. When processing and transport is factored in to the equation, the difference becomes less extreme, but it’s still there. Meat-based diets use about twice as many environmental resources as soy-based diets. Despite concerns about deforestation and genetic engineering, soy appears to be the winner here.”

In this food showdown, the veggie burgers have triumphed.  Yet figuring out what foods are healthy, environmentally friendly, and delicious can still be quite an Omnivore’s Dilemma. Do you pick organic or local?  Natural or fresh?  Meat or meatless?  Sometimes you just want to throw in the towel and hit up Subway (which I’ll admit I did last night).

However, in figuring out the mystery behind the mystery meat-less, I’ve realized how easy it is to search around on the internet to find your answers.  It doesn’t take more than a few minutes to contact those companies or talk to those farmers, ask a few questions, and figure out your food.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. Lora permalink
    October 12, 2009 12:08 am

    Just be careful about HOW MUCH soy one comsumes. The only way to kill the toxins in soy is by lengthy fermentation, which is typically not the way it is consumed here in the states. Miso, tempeh, soy sauce and natto are fermented versions of soy. There are other fermented options, but they are not typically found in most US stores…you would need to go to a specialy store or Asian market. The only tofu that is fermented is pickled or stinky tofu, which is not what is avaialble in most stores.
    Plus, as this article points out, most soy is genetically modified, and unfortunately while some brands label their product “organic”, they could still contain GM soy due to the fact that some certifiers have varying definitions of how “GM” might be defined. It’s pretty scary really. The commercial ag buisnesses have everyone consuming their biggest money-makers (soy and canola) and they are quite happy about it.
    I have been uncovering tons of interesting and distrubing information regarding soy lately…and it’s basicaly led me to avoid it, unless in the fermented version and/or in very small quantities. I’ve provided a slew of links below that are just a handfull of some of the articles I’ve read, and research I’ve delved in to.
    Personally I’m back to eating meat. I’ve got a million reasons why, but I don’t want to write a rediculously long post on someone else’s blog.

    I hope this info can help inform people about the dangers of soy, and what to pay attention to if one decides to eat it.
    There are companies that make veggie burgers that don’t contain soy, but of course they may still contain GM corn, although that’s probably a better trade off if one has to decide between the two.

    http://www.soyonlineservice.co.nz/03summary.htm
    http://www.alive.com/3529a5a2.php?subject_bread_cramb=494
    http://www.naturalnews.com/025513.html
    http://www.westonaprice.org/mythstruths/mtsoy.html
    http://www.westonaprice.org/soy/index.html
    http://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_18029.cfm
    http://www.drgreene.com/21_2163.html
    http://willtaft.com/organic-food/organic-soy-may-not-be-free-of-gmo/
    http://www.soyinfo.com/haz/gehaz.shtml

    • janiec52 permalink
      October 12, 2009 11:15 pm

      I’ve read a lot about soy and how it can be dangerous for men when eaten in large quantities because it contributes to a rise in estrogen levels. I didn’t know much about the fermented aspect though, so thanks for the info! I’ve always been torn on my views of soy because of my ethnic background. While I trust in the validity of the scientific research and data, I grew up in a culture where soy beans (in various forms such as soy milk, tofu, soy sauce, etc) is consumed with almost every meal. It’s hard for me to turn my back on a crop that has been such a culinary staple.

      The GE aspect is pretty scary though. While many people don’t find anything wrong with genetically engineering (they say: It’s all the same molecules and atoms so what’s so scary about it?) I personally think we shouldn’t tamper with genetics at all. I don’t like the idea of humans playing the role of “god”. Again, thanks so much for the information. It’ll definitely help me better understand all the big fuss behind this little bean.

  2. October 12, 2009 1:33 pm

    I find those products very helpful when I have a craving, need a quick microwave dinner solution or have to go to a BBQ or other event where I don’t want my dietary choices to stand out too much. A veggie burger fits in a lot better than a tofu stir fry.

    I used to prefer the Boca products, but after I tried Morningstar, I can’t stand them anymore. The taste of Morningstar is far far better.

    Love the breakfast stuff especially, like the sausage patties and BACON! Even my husband likes the stuff, especially the buffalo wings, chicken nuggets and corndogs. At first he didn’t believe the corn dogs weren’t “real.” LOL!
    He won’t touch the burgers though. Especially the “weird” flavored ones that I prefer — black bean burger and asian veggie patty.

    Now, it’s not something I eat often, maybe a couple times a week. It’s way too expensive for every day! I think of it sort of like the fast food of the veg world — not something you want to eat often, but very handy when you need it!

    • janiec52 permalink
      October 12, 2009 11:07 pm

      I’m going to have to try the Morningstar burgers. My mom and sister (vegetarians) are both fans of the Boca burgers so that’s the only kind I’ve tried. I agree, it’s a bit pricey, but a good quick fix when you’re in a rush.

      I should’ve given the veggie burger to Austin without telling him what it was to see his real reaction. Maybe I’ll try that with bacon: something he loves, especially on toast with grape jelly (I’m serious! Actually, it is pretty good, you should try it!)

  3. Jenny permalink
    October 13, 2009 4:21 pm

    Never had the burgers – but I really enjoy the morningstar chik’n products…yum!

  4. Emar permalink
    October 14, 2009 12:43 am

    Well, the other issue that you run into with the veggie burgers is that they are made with industrial corn and soy, which, ignoring the health aspects, is terrible for the environment. Nitrogen runoff from the corn belt is basically creating huge dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, topsoil across the nation has been depleted up to 85%, pesticides and herbicides seep into the groundwater, etc. Yes, CAFOs do much worse, but choosing one evil for a lesser one is still evil. While reduction in meat eating would reduce the amount of corn and soy consumed by animals, Cargill and ADM would just up their purchases because they would become even cheaper as farmers scrambled to shore up their losses by planting more corn and soy.

    Take a look at the ingredient list for the Morningstar burger:

    “TEXTURED VEGETABLE PROTEIN (WHEAT GLUTEN, SOY PROTEIN CONCENTRATE, WATER FOR HYDRATION), EGG WHITES, CORN OIL, CALCIUM CASEINATE, CONTAINS TWO PERCENT OR LESS OF MODIFIED TAPIOCA STARCH, ONION POWDER, CANOLA OIL, TRIGLYCERIDES FROM COCONUT OIL, HYDROLYZED VEGETABLE PROTEIN (CORN GLUTEN, WHEAT GLUTEN, SOY PROTEIN), DEXTROSE, SALT, SOY PROTEIN ISOLATE, AUTOLYZED YEAST EXTRACT, SUGAR, NATURAL AND ARTIFICIAL FLAVORS FROM NON-MEAT SOURCES, CARAMEL COLOR, CULTURED WHEY, MALTODEXTRIN, GARLIC POWDER, SPICE, CELLULOSE GUM, DISODIUM GUANYLATE, DISODIUM INOSINATE, SOY SAUCE (WATER, SOYBEANS, SALT, WHEAT), VITAMINS AND MINERALS (NIACINAMIDE, IRON [FERROUS SULFATE], THIAMIN MONONITRATE [VITAMIN B1], PYRIDOXINE HYDROCHLORIDE [VITAMIN B6], RIBOFLAVIN [VITAMIN B2], VITAMIN B12), SESAME SEED OIL, CELERY EXTRACT, SOY LECITHIN.”

    Half of these are either corn and soy or corn and soy derived, both of which (as have been previously noted) have strong correlations with health problems. I would say as far as protein sources, beans and legumes are the better choice for the bulk of meatless meals. However I think that supporting local grassfed meat is probably better for the environmental movement as a whole for simply moving towards more sustainable agriculture (plus it is hard to fake, unlike certified organics).

    • janiec52 permalink
      October 20, 2009 12:00 pm

      I understand the issue you bring up: what to do when you’re caught between a burger and a soybean? Both have their different environmental impacts. Is nitrogen runoff worse than CAFO’s? Do we pick soil pollution or water pollution. These are questions that are difficult, maybe even impossible, to answer.

      On a side note, thanks for suggesting beans and legumes! For many who are considering a vegetarian diet, or simply trying to include more meatless dishes into their diet, it is easy to overlook the simplicity of baked beans, hummus, or black bean soup.

  5. Craig permalink
    October 14, 2009 11:00 am

    Try a Lentil burger. It’s basically just meatloaf with Lentil beans as meat substitute (Google it for a recipe). I find lentil burgers very tasty and enjoy them often.

  6. October 19, 2009 1:29 pm

    A friend of mine once made a veggie burger from oatmeal, onions, and a select choice of seasonings. It was years ago but I remember being surprised by the interesting taste and even more interesting ingredients.

    • janiec52 permalink
      October 20, 2009 12:02 pm

      Thank you Craig and Sheena for the alternative veggie burger ideas! It’s so easy to just buy a package of pre-made veggie burgers that we forget that they can be homemade with various delicious ingredients as well. I will definitely Google a recipe and try it out. Perhaps Austin will like those a bit better!

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