Have you ever been at a cookout, munching on your perfectly grilled hamburger, feeling sorry for your meat-eschewing friend who has to settle for a veggie burger? Maybe you're the one who is missing out.
That's because many of today's veggie burgers are legitimately delicious, according to Consumer Reports. They bear little resemblance to the rubbery, flavorless discs you may have tasted once and vowed never to try again. At restaurants such as Superiority Burger in New York City, veggie burgers have achieved gourmet status, and fast food chains are getting onboard, too. Wendy's is test-marketing a black bean burger that's getting a thumbs-up for great taste, and White Castle added a veggie slider to its menu last year.
Clearly, meatless burgers are having a moment. According to a 2015 survey from market research firm Mintel, 25 percent of Americans say veggie burgers are on the menu more than once per month; many eat them several times weekly.
The veggie burger renaissance is part of a trend toward eating more plant-based foods. Almost three-quarters of meat eaters substitute nonmeat protein in a meal at least once weekly; 22 percent say they're doing so more often than they did in the previous year, according to a 2015 survey published in Meatingplace, a leading meat industry trade publication.
But what about supermarket veggie burgers? Consumer Reports' dietitians and professional food tasters put 17 widely sold veggie patties to the test. They come in two broad types: meatlike and grain- and/or vegetable-based. The meatlike offerings usually have soy or pea protein as a main ingredient. The grain- and vegetable-based options are made with ingredients such as sunflower seeds, beans, vegetables (such as peppers, carrots and mushrooms) and grains (such as bulgur, millet and quinoa), and don't resemble meat at all.
Consumer Reports looked at both types, rating them for nutrition and taste, then combined those scores to give them an overall rating. Its nutritional ratings system gives extra points to veggie burgers with mostly "real" ingredients, such as vegetables, grains and seeds rather than artificial flavorings, additives and chemical ingredients that are used in extensively processed foods.
More than half of the burgers received a Very Good score for taste. The others all rated Good, though some had bitter notes or harsh garlic flavors, and some were mushy. Tasters noted that the meatlike burgers were better on a bun with condiments and that the top grain and vegetable burgers were tasty enough to stand on their own. If you don't feel like sliding them into a bun, try serving them on top of a salad, with scrambled eggs, or with a side of vegetables.
Consumer Reports' nutritional analysis revealed some surprises. First, not all veggie burgers are low in calories. The counts ranged from 100 in Lightlife Smart Patties (2 1/2 ounces) to 360 for Sunshine Burgers Quarter Pound. By comparison, a 3-ounce 93 percent lean beef burger has 164 calories.
Sodium was another shocker; four of the burgers had more than 400 milligrams. (Lower-sodium options are available.) Though protein doesn't factor into the nutrition rating algorithm (because most Americans get enough), vegans and others who count on plant protein might be surprised to find that some of the burgers contained as little as 4 or 5 grams.
Note that with some of the burgers weighing as little as 2 1/4 ounces, you may wind up eating two, so keep that in mind when you're checking burgers' nutritional information.
To learn more, visit ConsumerReports.org.