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The class action suit against Beyond Burger, explained

Episode Summary

If you've had trouble making sense of the news coverage around the class action suit against Beyond Meat, you're not alone.

Episode Notes

Plaintiffs have a beef about the protein claims being made by a leading vegan burger company.  Here’s what they’re upset about.

Nutrition Diva is hosted by Monica Reinagel. A transcript is available at Simplecast.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! I’m Monica Reinagel and you are listening to the Nutrition Diva podcast. Welcome!

You may have heard about a pair of lawsuits that have been filed against Beyond Meat, a popular brand of plant-based meat alternatives. The suits claim that the company has misrepresented the amount of protein provided by their products. But if you’ve had trouble making sense of the news coverage, you’re not alone. I’m here to explain.

Beyond Meat produces a variety of plant-based products, including burgers, sausages and ground meat-like products. I reviewed both the Beyond Burger and the Impossible Burger on the podcast when they came out a few years ago.

Both products have enjoyed widespread popularity. But now Beyond Meat has been named as a defendant in two lawsuits. According to the Nutrition Facts labels, the Beyond Burger provides 20g of protein per serving. The lawsuits claim that the actual amount is 19 grams–clearly, not a big enough difference to justify a class action lawsuit.  But there’s more to the story.  And to tell you the rest, I’m going to have to get a little nutrition nerdy. (Fortunately, I know you’re good for it.)

The amount of protein in a food is determined by the amount of nitrogen it contains. Nitrogen is only found in protein molecules. It does not appear in carbohydrate or fat molecules. So, you can use the nitrogen content to calculate the protein content of a food. Based on this, the Beyond Burger contains 20 (or maybe 19) grams of protein per serving.  But in addition to indicating the amount of protein, the Nutrition Facts label may also show what percentage of the Daily Value for protein that represents.  

The Daily Value for protein is 50 grams, meaning that adults should try to consume at least 50 grams of protein per day. (Some argue that this target is actually too much low for many adults, but that’s a subject for another episode. In fact, it’s been the subject of numerous previous episodes!) 

Providing a percentage Daily Value for protein on your label is completely optional, by the way. However, if you want to claim—as Beyond Burger does—that your product is a “good source” of protein or “high in protein,” then you are required to include that extra information. 

Converting the amount of protein to the percentage of Daily Value seems like it would be a simple math problem. If the Daily Value for protein is 50 grams, then 20 grams represents 40% of that. Which is exactly what the label on the Beyond Burger says. So what’s the problem here?

The problem is this: Measuring dietary protein is a bit more complex than simply counting up the amount of nitrogen. Because there’s a big difference in the biological value of plant proteins and animal proteins. 

Part of that has to do with what we were talking about a few weeks ago: the food matrix. Protein in plant sources is often bound up with other food components, such as fiber, which affects its bioavailability. And part of this has to do with the array of amino acids. Animal proteins tend to have a more balanced profile of essential amino acids, making the protein more complete and higher quality.

The bottom line is that 20 grams of protein from peas or wheat or almonds is not going to be completely equivalent to 20 grams of protein from beef or egg or fish.. 

There are more sophisticated methods that assess not only the amount of protein but also evaluate its bioavailability and quality. One of these is called the Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score, or PDCAAS. Another is called the Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Score, or DIAAS. 

There’s a bit of debate in nutrition nerd circles about which is better, but suffice it to say that either one of them is a lot more accurate than simple nitrogen counting. And for the time being, the World Health Organization has adopted the PDCAAS as its preferred method of evaluating protein quality. 

Let’s compare a few scores from different proteins. The PDCAAS of egg protein is 1, meaning that you absorb and use 100% of the protein in an egg. The PDCAAS of soy is 0.9, meaning that 100 grams of soy protein would yield 90 usable grams of protein. Black beans have a PDCAAS of just 0.75. Rice has a PDCAAS of 0.5. Keep in mind, however, that combining different sources of protein into a single food could improve the protein score by balancing out the amino acids. 

Still with me? Good. Now that you understand a little more about how dietary protein is measured, we can return to the class action suit.

It is perfectly legal and acceptable to use a nitrogen assay to determine the amount of protein shown (in grams) on the Nutrition Facts label. In fact, the label must disclose the actual protein content—and not an adjusted value. HOWEVER, the determination of the percentage of Daily Value is a different story. 

For better or worse, the Daily Value for protein was established with the assumption that you would be getting the majority of your protein from animal sources. If you’re getting the majority of your protein from plant sources, then 50 grams a day might not be adequate.

So the FDA, in its infinite wisdom, decided that, while it’s acceptable to use a nitrogen assay to establish the grams of protein in your food, the percentage of Daily Value needs to be based on the more nuanced PDCAAS or DIASS assay. Which can result in what looks like some funky math.

For example, the Nutrition Facts label for the Impossible Burger, Beyond’s biggest competitor, shows that the product contains 19 grams of protein, but just 31% of the Daily Value. If you do the math, you’ll see that they are adjusting for protein quality. Once adjusted for bioavailability and quality, 19 grams of protein is equivalent to just 15.5 grams of high quality (or animal) protein.

And here’s where Beyond Meat appears to have gotten in trouble. Their label shows that a serving includes 20g of protein, and 40% of the Daily Value for protein. That implies a PDCAAS of 1. However, independent analysis shows that PDCAAS to be only 0.88. Meaning that a serving only provides 35% of the Daily Value for protein. So, while the label suggests that a serving will supply 40% of your daily protein needs, it may only provide 35%. 

If you’re thinking that this is a lot of drama over a few percentage points, you would not be wrong. And there are a couple of possible explanations for how this rose to the level of a class action suit. Explanation #1: Class action suits make lawyers a lot of money. Explanation #2: The plaintiff in a related lawsuit happens to be a company that previously (but no longer) did business with Beyond Meat. Whether this is a whistle-blower situation or a bad break up is a little hard to guess.

But I can tell you who is ecstatic about this whole thing: meat, egg, and dairy producers. These guys are really feeling the pressure as plant-based alternatives continue to gain massive market share. And they’ve been pushing back on several fronts. 

For example, they’d like to point out that virtually all of these plant-based alternatives are considered ultra-processed foods, while meat, dairy, and eggs are minimally processed. They also object to claims that plant-based products are more ecological or sustainable, arguing that comparisons do not include the environmental impact of all the processing involved. The difference in protein quality is another favorite talking point.  

These are all issues that we’ve been looking at—from a variety of angles and points of view—on this podcast. And I’m not here to take sides in this argument. In the interests of transparency, I do eat some meat and fish, as well as eggs and dairy. But I also include quite a lot of  plant-based alternatives in my diet, including plant-based meat alternatives. 

But I thought this case—and the attendant confusion about protein and how it is measured—was a great opportunity to give you a little more insight into how protein and protein quality are assessed and communicated on the Nutrition Facts labels for the foods you buy.  

If you have a nutrition question for me (or need me to be an expert witness in your court case), you can reach me at nutrition@quickandirtytips.com.

And, if you missed our live workshop earlier this month, Brock Armstrong and are offering another one in early July. We’re going to be teaching our 3-step process for creating healthy habits that stick. It’s free and you can sign up at weighless.life/workshop