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A falafel burger is a vegetarian-friendly source of protein, free of soy and artificial flavors.

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It’s fun to get caught up in fairytales from time to time, but when things seem too good to be true, they usually are. The time I received an invitation to enter a beauty pageant when I was about 9, for instance — I was elated that they would think me beautiful enough to request my presence at their coveted pageant! Visions of me strutting down the runway doing the queen’s wave, holding a large bouquet of flowers, whilst pushing my heavy crown out of my eyes danced through my head. As I weighed a bit over 100 pounds at the time, my mother quickly nixed this fleeting dream. (Don’t worry, Mom, I’m not scarred.)

So often these days, we are presented with new foods that aim to please and are designed to replace the thing we’re not supposed to have. They’re the answer to our prayers; they’re just what we needed. Meat replacements have been around for a long time, but until now, they always tasted like meat replacements. There was something soy-ish or veggie-ish about soy and veggie burgers. Tofu burgers needed to be smothered in condiments and Garden Burgers tasted a little too much like the dirt in said garden. It wasn’t until pea protein came to market in fake meat form that fake burgers actually started to taste like burgers.

It was scary when I first encountered them. Colored with beet root, they were meat’s doppelganger. They were packaged like meat. They even had the word meat in their name. My non-meat-eating friends and I conferred. Here, we were offered something that looked, felt, smelled and tasted like meat. It offered all the health benefits that meat did and potentially more … all with just veggies! Had we entered a meatless fairytale or was this too good to be true?

Sticking to foods with a few simple ingredients is key to combatting the additives that Big Food serves up. If a food contains a number of components and we can’t pronounce even a few of them, this may be a sign that the fairytale is a farce. Beyond Meat contains 23 ingredients. Meat contains one. Meat. (Okay, we could break this down further into micronutrients, of course, but you get my drift.)

To pea, or not to pea

Pea protein came to market not too long ago. Consumers flocked to protein powders and bars that featured this magical, dairy-free protein source. Not only was it free of gluten, soy and lactose, but it was high in iron as well. It’s nearly a complete protein, making it a fine protein alternative to use periodically.

Beyond Meat is based in pea protein and reaches a market that is trying to get away from soy protein. Its counterpart, Impossible Meat, is soy-based and is not organic. Its packaging actually announces the use of genetically altered soy, which is sure to contain higher levels of glyphosate than we would like to tolerate. Impossible Meat contains around 19 ingredients and also includes sunflower and coconut oils. Sunflower oils can be inflammatory and coconut oil is saturated. Consuming large amounts of coconut fats has the same affects as any saturated fats: they clog our arteries and though it might be marginally better than the saturated fats in animal protein, coconut oil still raises our cholesterol.

Nutritionally, plant-based meats won’t bring us the antibiotics and hormones that beef does, but they’ll pack a punch with pesticide residue. Beyond Meat, because it steers clear of soy, contains lower levels of pesticide residue than the Impossible Meat brand. (Remember many of the modifications done to soy in particular have allowed it to tolerate more glyphosate weed killer than its non-GMO predecessors). In fact, in 2019, it was calculated that Impossible Meat contained 11.3 times more glyphosate than its competitor.

Lest we forget that plants taste nothing like meat, each of these brands contains natural flavors, which are engineered in a lab and are derived from chemicals. They are also poorly regulated, making it next to impossible to know what’s actually in them and what their long-term effects might be.

Back to Basics

Any time something is particulated, its quality is most likely compromised. Fructose stripped from fruit becomes dangerous in high amounts. Foods are less satisfying and lose their taste when they’re broken apart, warranting the addition of something else to replace what has been taken out. Plant-based meats may be derived from plants, but they’re so highly processed that anything once resembling a plant is most likely unrecognizable in these products. What’s more, the vitamin content is derived from synthetic vitamins, which aren’t as bioavailable as those found in whole food sources. These burgers are higher in calories, fat, sodium and carbs than the real thing, which seems more fishy than beefy to me.

Grass-Fed, Grass-Finished

Many of us are more educated than some when it comes to knowing what’s on our plate. We’ve raised or hunted our own meat, or at least know people who do and many of us take great pride in our summer gardens and berry bushes. More than a lot of Americans do, we know where food comes from and how the growing seasons work. But what about that meat packed on the supermarket shelves? Conventional, organic, grass-fed, non-GMO, vegetarian-fed and grass-finished. What does it all mean?

As we continue to compromise our Earth at every turn by spraying pesticides on the land and over-tilling our soil, we have to keep running faster just to keep up with the latest trends and dangers. It seems exhausting just to fill our plates. Many people have gravitated to plant-based meats because they feel it’s better for the environment. There is a growing conversation about how the beef industry contributes to climate change. Arguably, it takes 12 pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef. Seventy percent of grain grown in the U.S. is fed to livestock. If instead, this grain was used to feed hungry humans, some say we could alleviate hunger. While this argument might be true, it doesn’t change the way we feel about our burgers, and I doubt it will get everyone on the planet to go veggie.

Cows are meant to eat grass. We know this. But grazing cattle on pastureland takes a lot of acreage and grass-fed cows don’t get fat as quickly as grain-fed cows do. Grass-fed beef is more nutritious than its grain-fed counterpart, containing far more omega-3s and antioxidants than grain-fed beef. It is lower in saturated fat as well.

The markings on beef have become confusing to say the least. “Grass-fed, grain-finished” is an indirect way of telling us that these cattle ate some grass during their lives, but were given grain to fatten them up before they went to slaughter. Beef not marked organic likely comes from cows that were fed grain laced with antibiotics and pesticides. Look for organic, pastured-raised, grass-fed, grass-finished meat when shopping. Chances are, that if something tries to emulate the taste of the exact thing it is not, it’s pumped full of artificial things that we needn’t eat. If we’re going to eat something, we might just want to eat a little bit of the best quality version of the real thing to avoid all the junk.

Falafel Burgers

Makes 4

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Ingredients

1 can chickpeas, 15 ounces or 1 ½ cups, drained and rinsed

2 tablespoons white sesame seeds

3/8 cup almond meal (or ¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons)

2 small carrots, chopped

2 green onions, chopped

3 cloves garlic

2 tablespoons parsley, chopped

2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 teaspoon salt

Black pepper to taste

Method

Heat oven to 375° F.

Place all ingredients in food processor and blend until a coarse, mealy texture.

If mixture is too thick, add a little cold water or olive oil to dilute.

Form into four patties and fry on a hot griddle in olive or avocado oil for 2-3 minutes on each side until golden brown, flipping once gently.

Transfer to a baking sheet and bake 10 minutes on each side, flipping once.

Katharine A. Jameson, a certified nutrition counselor who grew up in Williamsville and Townshend, writes about food and health for Vermont News & Media. For more tricks, tips and hacks, find her on Instagram:

@foodforthoughtwithkat