Having a more plant-forward diet is important for a lot of health reasons but leaving out meat altogether may not be best for children, teenagers, breastfeeding women and older Americans.

In a study from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and Colorado State University, researchers found that the protein in plant-based burgers wasn’t digested as much as that found in meat-based burgers due to the concentration and digestibility of the amino acids.

A decade ago, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization developed a standard for protein quality called the Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Score (DIAAS). It focuses on the digestibility of essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein).

Researchers used the DIAAS system to understand protein quality in beef and pork burgers and plant-based burgers from Impossible and Beyond Meat.

The researchers fed pork burgers, 80% and 93% lean beef burgers, the soy-based Impossible burger and pea-based Beyond burger to pigs, the FAO’s recommended research subject for DIAAS studies. Then they measured digestibility of individual essential amino acids and used those digestibility scores to compute DIAAS values.

Both beef and pork burgers, served without buns, scored as “excellent” sources of protein (DIAAS scores 100-plus, for people of all ages). The Impossible Burger, when served without a bun, also scored as an excellent protein source for ages 3 and up, but not for children less than 3 years old. With a value of 83, the bunless Beyond burger was a “good” source of protein for ages 3 and up.

“We have previously observed that animal proteins have greater DIAAS values than plant-based proteins and that is also what we observed in this experiment,” wrote Hans Stein, professor in the Department of Animal Sciences and the Division of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Illinois and co-author. The study was published in the European Journal of Nutrition.

Burger patties are typically eaten with a bun, so the researchers also looked at the protein quality of patties and buns together. Because grain products, like hamburger buns, offer low protein quality, feeding the bun and the patties together reduced DIAAS values.

It’s particularly children, teenagers, breastfeeding women and older people who are at risk of not getting enough amino acids, according to Stein.

The study has implications for developing countries where there may be little access to animal-based proteins, particularly for children. In some countries, Stein said most children are amino acid deprived. Without enough amino acids, brain development can suffer.

The bottom line is an occasional meat-based burger, pork chop or steak may be helpful in making sure you’re digesting the amino acids you need.


Q: What is whey protein?

A: Whey is a byproduct of the cheesemaking process. After milk has been curdled and strained, the liquid that remains is called whey, which is one of the two primary proteins that are found within dairy products. The other is casein.

Whey is a good source of essential amino acids that the body uses for many functions that can impact strength training, muscle recovery, wound and burn healing, and maintaining weight.

Red Beans Creole

Daylight saving time may be just a few weeks away, but winter isn’t giving up easily in some parts of the country. I put my slow cooker to work when the weather doesn’t invite grilling. Here’s a recipe for red beans Creole, featuring healthy red beans. It’s from Allrecipes’ “Slow Cooker Favorites.”


» 3½ cups dried red beans

» 3 cups chopped onions

» 2 (4-ounce) cans (drained weight) sliced mushrooms, drained

» 2 tablespoons Creole seasoning

» 6 cloves garlic, minced

» 2 cups uncooked instant brown rice

» 2 cups green sweet pepper strips

» 1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes with basil, garlic and oregano, undrained

» Hot pepper sauce (optional)


Rinse beans; drain. In a large saucepan, combine beans and enough water to cover beans by 2 inches. Bring to boiling; reduce heat. Simmer uncovered, 10 minutes. Remove from heat. Cover and let stand 1 hour.

Drain and rinse beans. In a 6-quart slow cooker, combine beans, 5 cups fresh water, onions, mushrooms, Creole seasoning and garlic. Cover and cook on low 11 to 13 hours or on high 5½ to 6½ hours. If using low, turn to high.

Stir in rice, sweet peppers and tomatoes. Cover and cook 30 minutes more. If desired, serve with hot pepper sauce.


Makes 12 servings

Per serving: 269 calories; 14 grams protein; 53 grams carbohydrate; 1 gram fat (0 grams saturated); 0 grams cholesterol; 11 grams fiber; 886 milligrams sodium

— Charlyn Fargo Ware is a registered dietitian with SIU School of Medicine in Springfield, Illinois. Contact her at charfarg@aol.com, or follow her on Twitter: @NutritionRd, or click here for additional columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

Charlyn Fargo Ware

Charlyn Fargo Ware

Charlyn Fargo Ware is a registered dietitian with SIU School of Medicine in Springfield, Illinois. Contact her at charfarg@aol.com, and follow her on Twitter: @NutritionRd. The opinions expressed are her own.