Where's the Beef? Navigating the world of burger alternatives.

Where's the Beef? Navigating the world of burger alternatives. See How to Pick Healthy Vegetarian Burgers

For many, the thought of a "veggie" burger conjures up images of Birkenstock-shod communards having a "barbecue" to celebrate the solstice-without animal sacrifice. However, a trip down the frozen-food aisle of any major supermarket tells an entirely different story: the nonmeat burger has become far more mainstream than fringe. Many stores have more than a dozen varieties on display. Most fall into one of two categories: (1) trying to mimic the experience of the meaty patty, or (2) going its own way merrily down the garden path.

EatingWell convened a panel of tasters including some regular consumers of veggie burgers, a young vegetarian and a few proud carnivores who rarely stray from the all-beef patty. Their top picks represent choices that ought to satisfy every kind of burger-lover.

Amy's California Burger. This entry from one of the largest selling brands of natural and organic convenience foods falls into the more-veggie-less-meaty category and was the top pick of five of our panelists. Joslin: "It has a slightly nutty taste. I like that I can actually see some veggies." Strausser: "It looked and tasted like vegetables. I would buy these and eat them." Carr: "I can pronounce everything on the ingredient label."

Morningstar Farms Garden Veggie Patties. This golden-colored burger from the vegetarian-food division of Kellogg's also falls into the "unbeef" category and was our second-favorite. Landscape designer Nate Carr liked the "clean veggie flavor" and respected the burger for "not trying to be meat." Cherington: "Lots of visible vegetables. Nice mushroomy taste."

The tastes-like-meat style of burger wasn't quite as popular with our panel although two entries did emerge as decent choices.

Yves Good Burger Veggie Authentic was singled out by Liz Joslin, our teen vegetarian panelist, because it "actually looked like a burger." Sennhenn: "Dense, chewy texture, good all-around flavor."

Gardenburger Homestyle Classic was another real-burger-pretender given a positive nod by some. Carr: "I like its uniform beeflike appearance." Pete: "There's some good spice in the flavor."

Veggie Victory

While veggie burgers may not provide the iron, zinc and vitamin B12 found in beef, they fortunately also lack the high fat (over a third of it saturated), high cholesterol and calories found in a typical 3-ounce beef burger.

Veggie burgers offer fiber, a variety of trace minerals and plant phytochemicals. Because most are soy-based, they also deliver high-quality protein. In addition, research suggests that soy phytochemicals, such as isoflavones, may help to prevent cancer, and that soy peptides (partially digested soy proteins) may help to reduce hypertension.

How to choose?

The 18 veggie burgers we looked at were made from wholesome ingredients, such as vegetables, whole grains and soy products. They were also free of artificial preservatives and flavors or other controversial ingredients. None had any trans fats and only a few harbored a gram or two of saturated fat or cholesterol. All were healthful choices.

Bottom Line: From a nutritionist's perspective, the best picks were veggie burgers that delivered at least 10 grams of protein, 4 grams of fiber and contained under 350 mg of sodium.

The Tasting Panel:

Emmalee Cherington, graphic designer

Rolf Sennhenn, general-store owner

Lisa Strausser, wine buyer

Nate Carr, landscaping-business owner

Liz Joslin, high school student

Rick Pete, landscape architect

June/July 2005