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Agricultural Literacy Curriculum Matrix

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A Tale of Two Burgers: Beef and Plant-based Protein

Grade Level(s)

9 - 12

Estimated Time

1-2 hours


Students will compare the components of beef and plant-based burgers by determining the production and processing methods of each product; evaluate the ingredients and nutritional differences between beef and plant-based products; and discuss different points of view in the agricultural industry concerning plant-based proteins and traditional beef.


Interest Approach

  • Meat or Meatless? PowerPoint

Activity 1:

  • Burger Gallery Walk activity sheets (1 copy for a small class, 2 copies for a larger class)
  • Large poster paper (1 per group)
  • Markers
  • Sticky notes

Activity 2:

  • Points of View- Plant-based Burger cards (1 copy per class)
  • Beach ball or soccer ball

Essential Files (maps, charts, pictures, or documents)


genetically engineered (GE) : the technical process of inserting or modifying a gene into an existing species, with the help of specific techniques, to enhance a receiving organism

yeast: a microscopic fungus consisting of single oval cells that reproduce by budding, and are capable of converting sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide

leghemoglobin : an oxygen carrier and hemoprotein found in the nitrogen-fixing root nodules of leguminous plants

heme: an iron-containing molecule found in every living plant and animal that looks and tastes like blood

Beyond Burger : a plant-based alternative that looks and cooks like beef, but does not contain heme or soy

Impossible Burger : a plant-based alternative to traditional beef burgers that contains heme and mimics the flavor, aroma, and texture of beef

burger: a round patty of ground beef or plant-based products

hamburger : ground beef; a common name for beef burgers

meat: the muscle of an animal (especially a mammal) used as food

Did you know? (Ag Facts)

  • May 28th is National Hamburger Day
  • Americans eat an estimated 50 billion hamburgers each year.9
  • Gregory Sams is credited for creating the first commercially sold “VegeBurger” (veggie burger) in 1982.10

Background Agricultural Connections

Plant-based protein is on the rise and alternative burgers are showing up on fast-food menus. As more and more meatless alternatives become available, consumers may be faced with various questions and concerns. What is a plant-based burger? How does the Impossible Burger compare to a Beyond Burger? Are meatless burgers a healthier alternative?

Many consumers have enjoyed plant-based proteins—like veggie burgers—for years, but why the sudden surge of popularity? Companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have revolutionized the plant-based industry by creating meatless burgers that actually look, cook, smell, and taste like beef. These taste- and lookalike burgers also come advertised as a more environmentally friendly protein alternative, and a possible solution to feeding our growing population.


Humans began eating beef (domesticated cattle) in 6,500 B.C. Beef cattle have since played an important role in agricultural production. Because of their ruminant digestive system, cows have the unique ability to upcycle human-inedible forages and byproducts. Feeds like grass, cottonseed meal, and distillers’ grain are upcycled into high-quality cuts of protein, iron, and zinc. What most consumers don’t realize is that all cattle spend the majority of their lives eating grass and forage products. Calves are raised with their mother on pasture or grass until they are between 6-12 months of age. After weaning, cattle are then fed grain and/or more forages to a finishing weight (1,200-1,400 pounds) for harvesting. A 1,200-pound steer will produce about 500 pounds of meat including steaks, roasts, and ground beef.5 The remaining byproducts from the beef carcass are used for common objects such as leather, pet foods, cosmetics, detergents, glue, and brake fluid.

The Beyond Burger

Beyond Meat began in 2009 and their plant-based “Beyond Burger” debuted in 2016. The protein in a Beyond Burger comes from a combination of pea, mung bean, and rice protein. The red color of the meat—to resemble beef—comes from beets. Other ingredients in this popular patty include water, expeller-pressed canola oil, refined coconut oil, natural flavors, cocoa butter, methylcellulose, potato starch, apple extract, salt, potassium chloride, vinegar, lemon juice concentrate, sunflower lecithin, and pomegranate fruit powder. Beyond Meat advertises a plant-based protein that is soy, gluten, and GMO free.

The Impossible Burger

Impossible Foods was founded in 2011 and their plant-based “Impossible Burger” first hit fast-food menus in 2019. The Impossible Burger is a stand-out from other plant-based burgers because the burger patty “bleeds” like a regular beef burger. This is done using an iron-containing molecule found in every living plant and animal known as heme. Scientists discovered that heme is what gives meat its aroma and flavor. It is also what humans crave when eating meat. Soy leghemoglobin (legume hemoglobin) is a protein found in plants that carries heme. In the past, researchers at Impossible Foods harvested leghemoglobin directly from the roots of soy plants; however, they soon realized they could produce much more leghemoglobin using fermentation. Leghemoglobin is now harvested using a yeast engineered with the gene for soy leghemoglobin. The genetically engineered yeast ferments and multiplies, creating large amounts of soy leghemoglobin which contains heme. The heme is then isolated from the yeast and mixed with other ingredients to create the meaty flavor in the Impossible Burger. This process of using genetically engineered yeast allows Impossible Foods to produce heme on a large scale without digging up soy roots, promoting soil erosion, and releasing carbon from the soil.11

Other ingredients mixed with the soy leghemoglobin (heme) include: water, soy protein concentrate, coconut oil, sunflower oil, natural flavors, 2% or less of: potato protein, methylcellulose, yeast extract, cultured dextrose, food starch modified, salt, soy protein isolate, mixed tocopherols (Vitamin E), zinc gluconate, thiamine hydrochloride (Vitamin B1), sodium ascorbate (Vitamin C), niacin, pyridoxine hydrochloride (Vitamin B6), riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Vitamin B12.12

Are plant-based burgers a healthier alternative?

There are many burger options available to consumers whether they are plant-based or made from beef. While plant-based and meatless burgers are a good alternative, they might not meet the same amino acid, vitamin, mineral and antioxidant levels that are found in an eight-ounce piece of red meat.2 Consumers can get 100% of the daily intake of vitamin B12 from one serving of red meat, while a Beyond Burger will account for 20% of the daily intake of B12.2 The sodium content of each burger varies as well. A Beyond Burger contains 380 milligrams (mg) of sodium, the Impossible Burger contains 370 mg of sodium, and a freshly ground beef burger (85% lean) contains 90 mg of sodium.2 Plant-based burger patties, however, contain significantly less cholesterol when compared to a beef patty. Consumers should be aware of the production and processing methods of each burger, as well as ingredients and nutrient content so they can select a burger that fits their dietary needs and preferences. Those who are allergic to soy should avoid eating plant-based products that contain soy leghemoglobin.

Interest Approach – Engagement

  1. Project the Meat or Meatless PowerPoint on the board. Show slide 1 with four photos of different burgers.
  2. Ask students to number 1-4 on a piece of paper.
  3. Instruct students to evaluate each burger and try to correctly match the picture to the type of burger it is.
  4. Once students have selected their matches, have them prepare supporting statements and reasonings for their choices.
  5. Using random selection, ask various students to share their guesses and reasonings with the class.
  6. Consider asking the following questions to lead a class discussion as students offer their reasonings:
    • What qualities of the burger did you consider when studying each burger?
    • Was there one burger that was easy or obvious to identify?
    • Which burger would you be willing to try?
  7. Reveal the correct burgers (slide 2) to the students. Did anyone guess all four correctly?
  8. Discuss similarities and differences between the four burger options.
  9. Consider asking the following questions to lead a class discussion:
    • Do you think all four burgers (patties) taste the same?
    • The Impossible Burger is plant-based, but well-known for “bleeding” like a real beef patty. Why is that?
    • How does each meat compare nutritionally?
  10. Inform students that they will explore meat and meat alternatives in order to determine similarities and differences between the two. 


Activity 1: Gallery Walk

  1. Divide the class into groups of four students. Give each group one Burger Gallery Walk activity sheet. Inform students that the burger found on their activity sheet is the type of burger they will be researching.
    • Note: For a medium or large class, more than one group should be assigned the same burger to keep the groups in a functional size. 
  2. Supply each group with a large chart or poster paper, markers, and access to the internet for research.
  3. Instruct students to research their assigned meat/meat alternative. Remind students to use credible sources online for research. Ask students to consider and include the following information on their poster (also outlined on their activity sheets):
    • How long has this meat/meat alternative been available?
    • How is it produced? (e.g. beef cattle are typically raised in feedlots where their diet consists of corn and grain. When the animal reaches 1,200-1,400 pounds, it is harvested for meat.)
    • What are the benefits of producing and consuming this type of burger?
    • What are the challenges to producing this type of burger?
    • What are the ingredients used to make this burger?
  4. Encourage students to make their posters visually appealing for the gallery walk. Ask students to include pictures, diagrams, timelines, and anything else that helps answer the questions.
  5. As students finish their posters, have each group display their work on a wall somewhere in the classroom. When everyone is complete, the students will participate in a gallery walk. During the gallery walk, students will ask questions and provide feedback to other groups.
  6. To set up the gallery walk, split each group in half. Two of the students from each group will walk through the gallery. The other two students will remain by their group poster. The rotating students will evaluate other posters in the classroom and discuss similarities and differences between their meat or meat alternative.
    • Note: If you have two groups assigned to each type of burger, conduct a separate gallery walk rotation for each set of four burgers. This will ensure that each group only sees each type of burger once.
  7. Provide each group with sticky notes. Students rotating through the gallery should use sticky notes to ask questions or provide feedback about other posters. Instruct students not to repeat comments and questions already found on each poster. Each comment should be unique.
  8. Determine a time limit for each group rotation (about 3-5 minutes) and allow students to rotate through all the posters in the gallery until they have visited all four types of burgers.
  9. Ask the students who participated in the gallery walk to now switch with the other two members of their group. These students will now complete the gallery walk the same way.
  10. After everyone has completed the gallery walk, bring the class back together for a class discussion. Using slides 3-6 on the PowerPoint, review each of the meats with the class.
  11. Allow students to improve and update their posters, if needed.

Activity 2: Burgers From Different Points of View

  1. Write the numbers 1-6 on a beach ball or soccer ball.
  2. Now, stand in the middle of the room and hold the ball up for your students to see. Without rotating the ball, ask students in various points of the room which numbers(s) they can see. For example, ask a student in the front of the classroom what number he or she sees, followed by the same question to a student in the back of the room and so on. Each student will see all or part of different numbers.
  3. Ask your students, “Why, if you are all looking at the same object (the ball), are you seeing different numbers?” Explain that it is because each has a different “point of view.” Each student sees different numbers from their point of view. They may see an entire number or part of a number. There will be some numbers that they do not see at all.
  4. Use this object lesson to spring into a discussion about plant-based burgers and beef burgers.
  5. Ask students, “What different points of view should be considered when discussing plant-based burgers and beef burgers? How could this be a controversial topic?”
  6. Allow students to share and discuss different points of view related to plant-based protein and traditional beef.
  7. While holding the ball in the middle of the room, divide students into six groups based on where they are sitting. Ask each group which number they see best from their position in the classroom. The number that they see will be their assigned point of view. For example, if a group sees the number two best from their position in the classroom, they will have card #2 and their point of view will be a beef producer.
  8. Using the Plant-based Protein Point of View cards, assign each group a point of view to consider. 
  9. Instruct groups to study the information on their card and discuss their point of view as a group. What other facts and information could be added to support their point of view? Groups should research their point of view and find various artifacts (e.g. video clips, news articles, opinion articles, etc.) that would help defend their point of view in a presentation or class discussion.
    • Note: If time is short, the information on the card should give them the baseline information that they need.
  10. Allow students to present their material (point of view) to the class or set up your desks for a classroom discussion on each of the different points of view.
  11. As each group presents or discusses their point of view, remind students of the following:
    • It’s okay to agree to disagree.
    • When looking at or discussing issues, people may use facts, opinions, or personal biases to defend and persuade others to see her or his point of view.
    • Resolving issues and evaluating situations requires that we look at the viewpoints of others to arrive at workable solutions, to form realistic conclusions, or to make our own evidence-based decisions.  

Concept Elaboration and Evaluation

After conducting these activities, review and summarize the following key points:

  • Beef and the ingredients contained in plant-based burgers are produced on farms.
  • Food production systems are influenced by consumer choices.
  • There are many points of view to consider when comparing beef and plant-based burgers. Topics of consideration include ethics, available natural resources, nutrition, and food safety.

We welcome your feedback! Please take a minute to tell us how to make this lesson better or to give us a few gold stars!


Enriching Activities

  • Using the Compliments of Cattle poster, introduce students to all of the by-products we obtain from cattle. Discuss a hypothetical situation. If plant-based burgers decreased (significantly) the raising of cattle for beef, what other every-day items could be impacted?

  • Conduct a blind taste test with students to see if they can identify which burger contains a beef patty and which contains an alternative meat patty. Burgers could be obtained from a local fast-food restaurant if time and distance allows.

  • Listen to the AgFuture podcast, Alternative "meat" vs. traditional beef - Amanda Radke. Discuss the topics addressed in the podcast. Consider the following questions to engage your students in the podcast:

    • Why is consumer choice important? How does it relate to beef vs. plant-based proteins?
    • Plant-based proteins are advertised as environmentally and ethically superior to beef? Is this true?
    • Why can't the land used to graze cattle simply be converted to farm land to grow food?
    • What by-products would be lost if the cattle industry declined?
    • Should alternative meat companies be able to call their products "meat" or "beef?" Why or why not?
  • Show the video, Heme - The Magic Ingredient in the Impossible BurgerTM for students to learn more about one ingredient in the Impossible Burger that makes the plant-based burger more closely resemble a beef burger.

Suggested Companion Resources

Agricultural Literacy Outcomes

Science, Technology, Engineering & Math

  • Identify current and emerging scientific discoveries and technologies and their possible use in agriculture (e.g., biotechnology, bio-chemical, mechanical, etc.) (T4.9-12.e)

Food, Health, and Lifestyle

  • Explain how food production systems are influenced by consumer choices (T3.9-12.f)

Plants and Animals for Food, Fiber & Energy

  • Evaluate evidence for differing points of view on topics related to agricultural production, processing, and marketing (e.g., over-grazing and loss of plant species diversity; monocultures contributing to genetic vulnerability; use of fertilizers and pesticides increase crop production but may contaminate water sources; creating open space; farmland preservation; animal welfare practices; immigration issues; world hunger) (T2.9-12.d)

Common Core Connections

Speaking and Listening: Anchor Standards

    Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
    Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.
    Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric.
    Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

Writing: Anchor Standards

    Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.
    Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
    Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others.
    Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism.

National Standards


Food Products and Processing Systems Career Pathway

  • FPP.02.01
    Apply principles of nutrition and biology to develop food products that provide a safe, wholesome and nutritious food supply for local and global food systems.
  • FPP.02.02
    Apply principles of microbiology and chemistry to develop food products to provide a safe, wholesome and nutritious food supply for local and global food systems.
  • FPP.02.03
    Apply principles of human behavior to develop food products to provide a safe, wholesome and nutritious food supply for local and global food systems.
  • FPP.04.02
    Evaluate the significance and implications of changes and trends in the food products and processing industry in the local and global food systems.


Health Standard 5: Demonstrate the ability to use decision-making skills to enhance health.

  • 5.12.6
    Defend the healthy choice when making decisions.


Consider submitting a lesson or companion resource to the National Agricultural Literacy Curriculum Matrix.
National Agricultural Literacy Curriculum Matrix (2013) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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