Hamburgers are bad for you. They're full of fat and cholesterol, and like all red meat they're linked to a variety of health troubles, including heart disease and cancer. But if you're like most Americans, the hamburger is an essential component not just of the backyard barbecue but also of your sense of national identity. Is there a way to eat healthy without becoming a burger-spurning Commie? In fact, a wide variety of good-for-you, non-meat burgers has crept into the U.S. marketplace. Soy burgers, veggie burgers, and their ilk are available not just from your local hippy co-op, but in your Safeway freezer section. Are any of them good? Will any of them fool you into thinking you're eating a real hamburger? I went to local grocery stores, picked up over 30 varieties, and present below the results of my humane, animal-free research.
Soy Burgers, akaFake Hamburgers
(A note on terminology: Vegetarian burgers have no meat, fish, or fowl in them. Vegan burgers have no animal products at all, eschewing things like eggs, milk, and animal-derived gelatins.)
Soy protein—which is derived from the soy bean—has been shown to provide all sorts of health benefits. It's a low-fat source of protein, and according to the Food and Drug Adminstration, "soy protein included in a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol" may help lower your cholesterol and reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. By eating a soy burger instead of a hamburger, you are not just removing a source of ill, you are adding a likely source of good.
So it's pretty unfortunate that soy burgers are disturbingly fecal in aspect and generally taste terrible. They're shaped like hamburgers and are supposed to taste like them, but these compressed discs of brown soy protein have a singed-plastic scent that spices can't mask and a texture that leaves me gagging. They are palatable only when drenched in ketchup, and even then are a chore. But in this sea of bad burgers, one stands out as somewhat tasty. In fact, it's the only soy burger I was able to finish: the Morningstar Griller. Granted, it has more fat than all the other burgers I tried (6 grams, while most others had 1 to 2.5 grams—but still far better than a quarter-pound hamburger, which has 21 grams). But the texture was not too pencil-eraserlike, the flavor was rich, and it even tasted vaguely, dare I say, like chicken.
Vegan Soy Burgers Boca Burgers; 365, Whole Foods store brand; and Healthy & Natural all offer vegan varieties, which contain no animal byproducts. Picking the best vegan soy burger is like picking the best way to get your arm mangled in a corn thresher. VSBs are all mortifyingly unappetizing to the non-vegan such as myself, and the only way I could handle them was to sniff it, take a bite, chew a little, and spit it out. A terrible waste, yes, but if it saves one of my dear readers from buying a package herself, I'll consider it a contribution to society. If you don't eat dairy and need a burger, though, I suppose the best of the vegan soy burgers I tried was the Meat Free Vegan Burger, produced by Whole Foods grocery stores. It's clearly good for you: no fat, 4 grams of fiber, 13 grams of protein, and 80 calories. But the difference tastewise between it and the other competitors was tiny. Basically, I liked the texture of this one the best: It was a little less sticky.
Veggie Burgers are a whole different animal from the soy burgers. Instead of emulating meat, they simply offer a nod hamburger-ward by using the patty shape. Their composition varies from brand to brand, usually including a combination of grains, vegetables, and some soy protein.
I found quite a few regular veggie burgers that I honestly loved and would eat again. Of the varieties I sampled, four made it into the final round: the Gardenburger Original, Amy's Organic Chicago Burger, Morningstar Oven Roasted Veggie, and Natural Touch (what is this, a maxi pad?) Garden Veggie Pattie. These were all good: excellent texture, good herbs and spices, and so on. But the Natural Touch wins: It has 2.5 grams of fat (less than all the others), it's toastable (you can prepare some of these burgers without even dirtying a dish by putting them through the toaster twice), has less sodium than all but Amy's, contains no cholesterol (Gardenburger has 15 milligrams), and was satisfyingly filling. Do keep in mind that this was a very close race, though; you won't go wrong with any of the four finalists.
Organic and Vegan Veggie Burgers
Two main companies, Amy's and Hearty & Natural, make organic veggie burgers—i.e., the ingredients were grown without toxic pesticides and fertilizers and do not include any artificial or irradiated ingredients—and almost all of these burgers are also vegan. These were generally quite good (though I did not like Amy's Texas Barbecue flavor). There's one vegan variety made by veggie burger Über-brand Gardenburger, but it was bland, and strangely enough it hadn't completely shaken the shackles of hamburgerdom (brownish color, uniform texture, meatlike spices). I must admit, though, that it was far better than any of the vegan soy burgers.
The best vegan veggie burger was the California Veggie Burger by Amy's. Hearty & Natural's Veggies and Grain was a top contender for this spot mainly because it seemed proud of its veggie nature, displaying big chunks of carrot, bean, and corn. But the texture didn't quite cut it—it barely held together as I flipped it (this one was not toaster-compatible, so I cooked it in a pan). Another strange note: On the Hearty & Natural certified organic Veggie Burger Patties there was a heart logo with the words "Soy Health Claim" printed on them. Did someone forget to insert that health claim in there, or am I missing something? Anyway, Amy's California had a robust, nutty texture and flavor. Top organic non-vegan goes to Amy's as well, for its Chicago Veggie Burger. This was similar to the California Veggie Burger but was much improved by a heavy dose of cheddar cheese. Yum.
It would take a real health nut to calculate the relative merits of a vegan, wheat-free soy burger versus a flax-seed-impregnated and fiber-enhanced dairy-containing soy burger. Plus, once you're eating veggie burgers you're already on the road to a healthy diet. But in case you're at the double-black-diamond level of nutrition awareness, Gardenburger makes a fat-free LifeBurger with flax seeds (which are rich in essential fatty acids and have been shown to have a slight anti-carcinogenic effect), 6 grams of fiber, 16 grams protein (13 of which are from soy isoflavone flour, which some studies have found to be especially good for you), and 100 calories. It does have 360 milligrams of sodium—100 milligrams higher than some other burgers—but flax seed? Come on. Anything with seeds in it gets my healthy vote.
Be suspicious of soy in meat's clothing. In attempting to emulate hamburgers, the manufacturers sacrifice common sense: What vegetarian relishes the thought of her meal being just like the rotting flesh of the animals she's trying to spare? (The back of the Gardenburger Hamburger Style patty box perfectly expresses this misguided attitude by exclaiming, "see what a healthy 'carnivore' you've become.") And for those who have turned to veggie burgers for health reasons, the reality behind the package statements promising "a lip-smacking juicy burger" is a slap in the face. These discs of pressed soy are nothing like hamburgers. The best bets are those veggie burgers that are comfortable with their own vegginess.