“Where’s the beef?”

Walter Mondale took his quarter-pounder of flesh from Gary Hart in the 1984 Democratic presidential primary with that zinging rhetorical skewer. What Wendy’s marketing team seared into our collective zeitgeist has continued to manifest itself in different ways over the ensuing 35 years.

That little sound bite from actress Clara Peller is more influential than you know. It went viral long before “went viral” was even a phrase. (Aside: Peller was supposed to say, “Where is all the beef?” But because of her emphysema, she could not render the slightly longer line.) In 1985, Peller appeared in a Prego spaghetti sauce ad where she proclaimed “I found it. I really found it.” When Wendy’s found it, the chain fired her and ended the “beef” campaign.

But “Where’s the Beef?” has continued to influence fast food chains’ marketing over the years, not the least of which was — wait for it — Wendy’s. In 2011, it ran an ad campaign with the tagline “Here’s the beef.”

Recent ad campaigns that come to mind include Arby’s — “We Have the Meats” — Taco Bell with “Think Outside the Bun” and Chick-fil-A’s cows imploring you to “Eat Mor Chikin.”

But in this age where feints are fine and folks are consumed with global warming, we have a new age of beef at the fast-food order window: the non-beef burger.

Veggie burgers — tofu or some other veggie combination — have been a regular staple in the grocer’s freezer case for years now, but they have never darkened a sesame seed bun at any of the major chains, until now.

This fall, virtually every major chain — except Wendy’s — has a non-beef burger on its menu either as a test or a “limited time” option. McDonald’s has the P.L.T. (Plant, Lettuce, Tomato) made with a Beyond Meat burger. Burger King has rolled out its Impossible Whopper, courtesy of Impossible Foods. Even Hardee’s has rolled out a test Thickburger using a Beyond Meat patty, and the chain is even extending that to its sausage biscuit (No! Not the biscuits!) Even that great bastion of grease, White Castle, has a plant-based burger on the menu. Because who doesn’t want more options when it’s 2 a.m. and you’ve been drinking too much with your friends? At least, that’s how I spent my college days.

The overarching philosophy here is that the farming of beef is bad for the planet and worse for your arteries. As someone who had a heart attack three weeks after he turned 50, that had my attention.

Through the miracle of modern sophisticated science — outlined in an excruciatingly long recent article I kind of mostly read in The New Yorker — these plant-based burgers today have been engineered at the molecular level to mimic beef patties. They “bleed,” they sizzle, their consistency is similar. They do everything but moo.

So all that being said, are these plant-based burgers any good — or good for you? The answer: It depends.

Beef — all meat — is a great source of protein and “good” fats. Our cave people forebears knew that a hunk of meat — fish, fowl or a plains grazer — was the ticket to living the ripe old age of 30. If you wanted to outrun the bear or charging bison, you better have started your day with a piece of medium-rare something.

However, legumes and other plants are also a good source of protein. As the song goes, beans are good for the heart. The more you eat the more you — well, you know.

Beyond Burger’s slogan is “The Future of Protein.” I bought a two-patty package of Beyond Meat burgers at Harris Teeter last weekend and cooked them in a frying pan. I put mine on bread with ketchup, mayo and pickles.

The look and feel was “burger.” The taste was slightly different, somewhere between beef and mid-pile carpet. I would eat it again.

The Impossible Foods patty, according to a spokesperson, “is meant to mimic beef as much as possible, but made entirely from plants. A quarter-pound Impossible Burger (original recipe) contains approximately the same amounts of fat and calories as a quarter-pound burger from cows, and delivers slightly more protein and iron than a burger from cows.”

Not satisfied by that, I went to Burger King and bought an Impossible Whopper and a regular Whopper. I took them to work, where we cut them in half, and did taste tests. We could tell them apart, but the presence of common “fixings” and buns renders the Impossible Whopper wholly reasonable.

So are they good? Yeah, mostly. Good for the environment? Yes. Good for you? Not so much.

A traditional Whopper has 660 calories, 40 grams of fat (12 of which are saturated) and 28 grams of protein. The Impossible Whopper clocks in at 630 calories, 34 grams of fat (11 saturated) and 25 grams of protein. And it has more sodium than a regular Whopper, if you can believe that. You might be “eating ethically,” but you are not really “eating healthy.”

When you eat a beef patty, you’re eating one thing: beef. When you eat a plant-based burger, like the Beyond Burger, your ingredients list will include water, pea protein isolate, canola oil, coconut oil, rice protein, “natural flavors,” cocoa butter, mung bean protein — I have never seen a mung bean, much less its protein — and then several more things. Oh, and it includes beet juice extract for color. If you are allergic to legumes or other foodstuffs, you better check the label.

In the end, you can eat to save the planet. You can eat to save money. Or you can eat to spoil your taste buds.

Have it your way.

Contact editor John Nagy at (910) 693-2507 or john@thepilot.com.

(3) comments

Patricia Punch

If I am going to order a burger from a restaurant, etc, I want a real beef burger not a plant based burger. Nice to have a choice for others but, just my feeling towards it.

Sally Larson

I think those of us who are curious are interested in finding out if plant-based beef is any good. I was at the hospital cafeteria a couple of weeks ago and decided to try their plant-based burger. It was ok, not great if you are trying to compare it with a real burger but it was decent and eatable for its own flavor. Maybe we shouldn't call them burgers to change our expectations. I did like it but the next day I bought a turkey burger, more familiar without thinking too much about it. I'm still interested in experimenting until I find one I like. Maybe they should be called "Plant Patties."

Kent Misegades

Join PETA - People for the Eating of Tasty Animals!

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