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msnbc.com
updated 10/14/2005 7:14:29 AM ET 2005-10-14T11:14:29

Veggie burgers are now standard all-American fare, served at fast food restaurants, sports arenas, amusement parks and schools. But are they really more healthful than a burger made of extra lean ground beef or turkey? Moreover, how should one choose among the array of veggie burgers in the grocery store?

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One of the best reasons for choosing a veggie burger is to cut saturated fat. Depending on its size, a regular hamburger’s four to seven grams of saturated fat are a significant part of the recommended daily limit of 15 to 25 grams, which varies according to a person’s calorie needs and blood cholesterol level. Most veggie burgers contain from zero to 1 gram of saturated fat.

A burger made of extra lean ground beef (90% lean) reduces saturated fat, but only to three to five grams. Chicken, turkey and salmon burgers are better options. At two to three grams, their saturated fat can be almost as low as a veggie burger.

The size of a veggie burger affects its nutrition content, and its size is another reason why it is a healthy choice.

Most veggie burgers weigh 2.5 ounces, or 71 grams, and have 70 to 170 calories each. A “standard” meat portion, in contrast, is three ounces after cooking. A quarter-pound of uncooked ground beef will yield a hamburger of this size, and it will have about 200 calories. However, many Americans eat considerably larger burgers. To eat a healthier regular burger, you could reduce its size. A 2.5-ounce regular hamburger contains about 170 calories, while the same size burger made of any kind of lean meat carries about 150 calories.

If you choose veggie burgers for the benefits of soy, check that you’re getting what you want. Veggie burgers with soy contain soy protein that can help reduce blood cholesterol, but not all the protein is from soy.

If you want to eat soy for isoflavones (natural phytochemicals that might lower the risk of cancer or help with symptoms of menopause), you should eat soymilk, tofu and soy nuts. A serving of these foods supplies about 25 milligrams (mg) of isoflavones, while a veggie burger may have 6 mg at most. Soy protein isolate, which is the kind of soy protein in some veggie burgers, retains its isoflavones, but another kind – soy protein concentrate – may contain little, depending on how it’s processed.

Find one you like
Some people choose veggie burgers over traditional hamburgers to boost their dietary fiber intake. Others want to cut back on red meat, since too much of that may increase the risk of colon cancer.

Others simply like the convenience of being able to cook a frozen veggie burger in one to two minutes. Others fear E. coli bacteria in meat, although the risk is minimal when the meat is thoroughly cooked.

If you are unfamiliar with veggie burgers, try different brands until you find one you like. Those with more soy and a little oil produce a more hamburger-like texture. Those with more grains and vegetables are less meat-like.

Try not to choose one with over 300 mg of sodium per serving, if you eat a lot of processed foods. If you limit your meat consumption, look for veggie burgers with more iron than others (aim for at least 10 percent of the Daily Value) and fortified with vitamin B-12.

Sometimes people think a portobello mushroom can replace a burger nutritionally. If you eat plenty of meat, fish, poultry, or vegetarian protein, a mushroom “burger” is fine. If you don’t, accompany your mushroom burger with a soup or salad containing beans or lowfat cheese. A veggie burger made with soy, nuts, or other proteins is a nutritional replacement for meat because it provides protein, iron and other nutrients that a mushroom lacks.

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