Since the advent of the meatless trend, it’s seemed impossible for health food manufacturers to replicate a meatless burger that, well, tasted like a burger.
Plant advocates and vegetarians have long tried to replicate the American staple we all love: the burger. But every attempt has resulted in shoddy imitations that simply haven’t met the mark. Until now. Enter the Impossible Burger, the meat-free patty that can purportedly fool even the biggest meat aficionados.
Impossible Foods, the Silicon Valley-based startup behind the burger, has raised $396 million to date. Some of its big name funders include Bill Gates, Google Ventures and Viking Global Investors. In 2016, the burger made its way from the lab into the real world, where today it can be found at eateries such as Fatburger, The Counter and Umami Burger, and even in fast food chains like White Castle. In 2017, Impossible Foods won a Tasty Award for best food startup. This past April, the Impossible Burger went international to the Asian market.
One of the most well-received meatless burgers of all time?
The Impossible Burger is definitely making a splash into the public eye. With increased production among its multiple factories, the company is producing 500,000 pounds of the meatless burger per month. Restaurants reported that adding Impossible Burgers to their menu brought in 13% more guests when compared to other locations that didn’t offer it, increasing gross sales by 30%.
Despite the hype, we’re sure you have questions. For one, is the Impossible Burger actually healthy? To understand that, we need to first understand the meatless trend.
What’s wrong with meat?
Beef in particular has gotten a bad rap for its carcinogen-forming nature. But the reality is that all meats, when cooked, form a carcinogenic compound that has been linked to the development of everything from breast cancer and stomach cancer to colorectal and prostate cancer. So then it’s not too surprising to learn that plenty of studies show that vegetarians have the lowest risk of cancer. The World Health Organization (WHO) found that poor diet is the cause of at least 30% of U.S. cancer cases. Meat consumption has also been linked to difficulty maintaining healthy body weight and a greater risk for heart disease and diabetes. With such a dire outlook for meat eaters, it’s no wonder the anti-meat agenda has been building.
Despite the statistics, the sales of alternative meat products aren’t putting meat farmers out of business just yet. To date, meatless sales fall well below the $49 billion meat and chicken sales. But it’s expected that sales will increase 17% per year through 2021, when they will hit $863 million.
So is the Impossible Burger a healthy alternative?
Impossible Foods claims that the burger not only looks and cooks like a real burger, but actually tastes like it—complete with a texture that could fool even the harshest critic.
As we all know, just because a fad food meets certain criteria, like gluten-free, doesn’t mean it’s healthy. So in the case of the Impossible Burger, does meatless equal healthy? Nutritionally, this burger resembles 80% lean ground beef, with similar protein and calories values. The burger’s taste and smell come from the genetically-formulated plant heme.
Made from a base of wheat, soy and potato protein, this burger certainly won’t make it to the list of gluten-free goodies for anyone with wheat or soy sensitivities. The “magic ingredient” that achieves that oh-so burger-like taste and smell is heme, an iron-rich molecule found in animal tissue and plants—though plants have a form that is less readily absorbable. The Impossible Burger has created its own version of heme by combining soybean roots and genetically engineered yeast. Therein lies the secret— and potentially, the problem.
While heme isn’t a problem in itself, in large amounts it has the potential to damage cells—and damaged cells offer a starting point for cancer growth. Some studies suggest heme might be the reason that meat eaters tend to have higher risks for cancer and premature death in the first place. And the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer reported “strong evidence” that eating heme could cause the internal formation of carcinogens.
Like most alternative foods meant to imitate something else, these burgers are filled with ingredients separated from their origins, like proteins removed from their original plant source. The highly-processed nature of these “plant-based” burgers leaves them a bit short on real nutritional value.
Vegan foods are generally made with more salt than their authentic counterparts. The Impossible Burger has five times more sodium than an unseasoned beef patty, upping the risk that the burgers are a stroke in the making.
Healthy for the environment, but should you eat it?
If you are going meatless to do your part in saving the 10 billion animals killed every year to feed America’s meat obsession, then these burgers might be a fine alternative. Their production also leaves a smaller carbon footprint than cattle farms and production. In fact, the Impossible Burger uses up to 95% less land and 75% less water than ground beef. So if you’re advocating for the environment, the beefless burger could be worth trying.
But if you’re considering adding them to your diet to minimize your risk of cancer or other diseases, the Impossible Burger is probably not your best option.
If you’ve already eliminated meat from your diet, or are considering doing so and are worried about how to maintain your protein intake, have no fear. Vegetarian sources like quinoa, amaranth and nuts can provide a hearty dose of protein, as can supplementing with trusted protein powders. And whatever you do, if you care about your health, don’t blindly fall prey to the notion that the next big “health craze” is actually healthy.