As far as healthy food swaps go, choosing a turkey burger over a beef burger is right up there with subbing regular french fries for sweet potato ones.
Or that’s how we often see it anyway — a perception rooted in the larger assumption that ground turkey is always healthier than ground beef.
But how different are these ground meats really?
Ground turkey vs. ground beef: Is turkey really healthier?
“When it comes to any kind of ground meat, turkey included, one of the most important things to consider is the protein to fat ratio,” says Amanda Beaver, wellness dietitian at Houston Methodist.
For instance, 80:20 ground meat is 80% protein and 20% fat.
Ground turkey and ground beef each come in a variety of different percentages, and Beaver notes it wouldn’t be fair to compare 90:10 ground turkey to 80:20 ground beef — or vice versa.
Once their fat percentages are accounted for, though, you might be surprised to find that the nutritional profiles of ground turkey and beef are fairly similar.
You do find slight differences if you look closely enough, however.
“For instance, ground beef contains a little bit more iron and zinc, which are both key nutrients,” adds Beaver.
You also find that their fat profiles differ slightly too.
“Ground turkey contains less saturated fat than ground beef, giving it a more beneficial fat profile,” says Beaver. “In its place, ground turkey instead contains more polyunsaturated fat, which is a protective, healthier type of fat.”
Saturated fat, on the other hand, is a less healthy type of fat that the American Heart Association recommends limiting. (Related: Why Healthy Fats Are Important & Where to Get Them)
“The topic is somewhat controversial, but studies continue to link eating more saturated fat to adverse health effects later in life, including having higher cholesterol and an increased risk of developing heart disease” Beaver explains.
In addition, the American Institute of Cancer Research recommends limiting red meat to 12-18 ounces per week because high red meat intake is associated with an increased rick of colorectal cancer.
For this reason, Beaver says that it’s a good idea to curb the amount of saturated fat you consume. This means that sometimes ground turkey may actually be a healthier choice than ground beef, especially if your diet typically contains a lot of red meat.
What about everything else added to turkey burger patties, though?
For anyone that’s tried to form a ground turkey patty at home, you already know that even a healthy turkey burger recipe almost always calls for breadcrumbs.
So compared to a ground beef patty, which comes to shape with just rolling and flattening, a potential turkey burger nutrition concern arises. Could the high-carb co-ingredient take your turkey burger patties into the less-than-healthy territory, especially since they’re going to be served between two pieces of bread?
“When you look at the amount of breadcrumbs compared to the amount of ground turkey in the patties, it’s actually pretty miniscule,” says Beaver. “That one-fourth cup of breadcrumbs, panko or crushed crackers isn’t really enough to significantly contribute to a turkey burger’s nutritional profile, so it’s not something to worry about.”
Another option is subbing egg for the breadcrumbs.
“I actually like to add a little bit of both, since the egg helps bind the ground turkey together and the breadcrumbs offer some tenderness and likely some flavor, too,” Beaver adds.
So is a turkey burger really healthier than a beef burger?
We know that ground turkey has a slightly healthier fat profile than ground beef. We also know that the turkey patty co-ingredients don’t detract from the overall healthfulness of a turkey burger.
So, in the battle of turkey burger vs. beef burger, where do we stand?
“When considering which to choose, it’s not as if a beef burger is always the inherently unhealthier choice because of the saturated fat,” says Beaver. “I think it depends on your weekly intake of red meat as a whole.”
Yes, we want to limit how much saturated fat we consume, and moderating our beef intake is a good way to do that. But this doesn’t mean you can’t ever eat beef.
“If you’ve had beef every day this week already, maybe choose the turkey burger,” says Beaver. “But if you hardly ever eat beef and are craving a burger, I think you’re fine to order whichever type of burger you prefer.”
How to a build a healthy burger — whether turkey or beef
“Just because the burger is turkey does not automatically mean it is healthier,” Beaver adds.
Whether you go for turkey or beef, here are Beaver’s five tips for a healthy burger:
1. Choose 93:7 ground meat
Amid the variety of available protein to fat percentages, which is the optimal choice?
“I would say 93:7 ground meat is the right balance,” Beaver says. “You’re getting a good amount of protein, but you’re also still getting a reasonable amount of fat that doesn’t overdo it but still helps provide moisture and flavor. Plus, anything higher than that just doesn’t taste good, especially when you get into the 99:1 range with ground turkey.”
2. Watch out for the condiments
“The toppings and condiments are where we can really take a burger from a somewhat balanced meal into one that’s not particularly balanced,” Beaver warns.
The condiments Beaver says to watch out for include:
“This isn’t to say that you can’t ever add these condiments or toppings,” adds Beaver. “It’s just a reminder to be mindful that your burger has now become more of a treat than an everyday meal.”
You can also try making some healthier substitutions, too. For instance, avocado or guacamole make flavorful replacements for cheese while also adding fiber and healthy fats.
3. Don’t overthink your bun choice, but do consider bun size
With burger buns, the options seem endless: sourdough, brioche, country, potato, pretzel, multigrain, whole wheat.
Does it matter which you choose?
“Burger buns at restaurants can vary a lot, but the options at the grocery store have quite a bit more consistency to them and don’t vary in their nutrient profiles that much,” explains Beaver. “A wheat bun will have more fiber and a brioche bun may have a little more sugar, but the nutrition will otherwise be pretty similar between the bun options you find in the bread aisle.”
Plus, Beaver says that a healthy burger is less about your bun choice and more about the size of the bun you’re served.
“Some restaurants have enormous, dense burger buns, and this is where the carb content can start to get pretty high,” says Beaver. “So more important than the type of bun you order, I recommend eyeballing the bun size and comparing it to the ones you’ve seen at the grocery store.”
If it’s much larger than usual, and you’re watching your carbs, you might consider limiting how much of the bun you eat.
4. Know how to boost the flavor when necessary
Turkey has a milder flavor than beef, so to add flavor without changing the nutrition profile, Beaver recommends reaching for seasonings you likely have in your spice cabinet, such as:
“These seasonings don’t add any fat or calories, they just add flavor,” Beaver says. “I actually recommend adding them to any burger you make, not just turkey burger patties.”
5. Don’t forget about ground chicken
If you haven’t found a turkey burger recipe you enjoy but still like the idea of eating less red meat, you might be looking for other burger alternatives. (Related: Are Plant-Based Burgers Healthy?
Beaver recommends a chicken burger as another beef burger substitute.
“Ground chicken is another meat that has less saturated fat than beef, so it can give us an option beside just ground turkey when it comes to eating less red meat,” says Beaver. “A lot of people find they actually really like chicken burgers!”
And given that turkey burger patties aren’t just ground turkey — they require co-ingredients to hold their shape and moisture — does ordering a turkey burger even end up being the healthier choice we all want it to be?