Is Your Veggie Burger Really Eco-Friendly?

Often touted as eco-friendly alternatives to hamburgers, some veggie burgers are certainly not "green."

Leah Zerbe June 7, 2012

Health-conscious and environmentally aware consumers have been opting for veggie burgers in lieu of beef for years now, but a common industrial method of processing soybeans involves the use of hexane, a neurotoxin and registered air pollutant.

That's probably not what the typical veggie-burger buyer is bargaining for. "A lot of people who eat veggie burgers are doing so because they're conscious of their food choices and the impact on the environment," says Charlotte Vallaeys, Farm and Food Policy Analyst for The Cornucopia Institute, a sustainable-farming advocacy group. "But companies are either promoting themselves as natural or even 'made with organic' ingredients and then using hexane."

THE DETAILS: 

Vallaeys' report investigating the questionable soy processing procedures used to produce some soy veggie burgers was released last year, but a recent Mother Jones article brought the issue back into the public eye. Vallaeys explains that in soy veggie burgers not qualified for the USDA-certified organic seal, food manufacturers generally douse whole soybeans in a hexane solvent bath to break down the bean, separating the oil from the proteins.

WHAT IT MEANS: 
It is not clear whether any hexane remains in the food, but it is certainly released into the atmosphere. Vallaeys says food processors are among the worst emitters of the air contaminant. And aside from concerns about hexane, there are issues with how the soy is grown. In the United States, about 90 percent of the soy supply comes from genetically engineered crops, a relatively new food practice that has not been tested for its impact on human health. Some researchers have linked genetically engineered food to food allergies, digestive diseases, and even accelerated aging. Genetically engineered crops are manipulated to either produce their own pesticide inside the plant (which we wind up eating) or to withstand heavy dousing of pesticides that are linked to everything from learning problems in kids to diabetes and Parkinson's disease in adults.

Veggie burgers can still be a great choice, as long as you know what to look for—and avoid.

• It's easy—choose certified organic
Look for veggie burgers certified as organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Hexane is banned in organic production. Instead, processors use an alternative, more old-fashioned method known as mechanical pressing, or expeller pressed. And be cautious of veggie burgers carrying the "made with organic ingredients" label. Under USDA law, this means at least 70 percent of the ingredients are organic, but the soybeans may be conventional and processed using hexane. "If not specified as being organic, you can be pretty sure it was hexane-extracted," Vallaeys says.

Hexane is also used in the creation of cooking oils, by the way. That's why it's also important to look for organic and cold-pressed oils.

• Look for the trouble ingredients
According to Vallaeys, noncertified organic food products containing the following ingredients are most likely processed using hexane: soy protein isolate, soy protein concentrate, texturized vegetable protein.

• Check the nutritional profile 

Depending on your dietary needs, veggie burgers may or may not be a good fit for you. According to the American Dietetic Association, veggie burgers often contain less fat and more fiber (a good thing) than beef burgers, but could contain five times more sodium than unseasoned beef or turkey burgers.

• Choose better beef 

If you decide to eat a real burger, choosing organic means you will get a product with a better balance of healthy fats, and one made without using hormones and antibiotics on the cows. Grass-fed beef is healthier and better for the environment (feedlot cows are fed unhealthy corn and soy diets and release a lot of methane), but Vallaeys does want consumers to know that under current USDA organic standards, cows can be finished on grain, not grass, during their last few months of life. Still, she notes, this is favorable when compared to conventional crowded feedlot operations that use drugs to prop up animal health. Another reason to steer clear of conventional beef that supplies most grocery stores in America? Food processors sometimes inject beef with ammonia in an attempt to kill pathogens that tend to be more virulent in feedlot beef.

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