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The plant-based burger craze is sweeping the nation, but consumers should be wary of consuming them as part of a healthy meal.
From Burger King to White Castle, Impossible Foods is sweeping the nation with their wildly popular Impossible Burger. You can find this meaty, juicy—yet plant-based—burger in all kinds of dining establishments across the country, but they haven’t made it to grocery stores just yet.
Since we currently can’t buy Impossible Foods’ plant-based patties for ourselves, most of us don’t know exactly what these burgers are made of or how they stack up nutritionally. But we should—especially for those choosing these burgers as a “healthy” vegan option at their favorite restaurant or fast-food joint. Because while they may be meatless—making a better environmental impact, their nutritional impact may not be all that different from a traditional burger after all.
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What is the Impossible Burger?
Impossible Foods was founded by Pat Brown, a startup founder in Sillicon Valley, back in 2011. Brown had been a vegetarian for decades and eventually became a vegan in the early 2000s. What started as a passion for solving climate change helped expose him to the environmental issues caused by animal farming and created Impossible Foods to disrupt the meat industry, Engadget reported.
The first Impossible Burger launched in 2016, and the Impossible Foods team has since cleaned up the recipe to include less fat and sodium—it used to pack 14g and 580mg, respectively. Even so, this leaner version still packs a pretty hefty amount of both.
Impossible Burger Nutrition
Below, find the current nutrition facts for one four-ounce patty from the latest Impossible Burger recipe, which is now being served at all available locations as of April 2019:
- Calories: 240
- Total Fat: 14g
- Saturated Fat: 8g
- Sodium: 370mg
- Total Carbohydrates: 9g
- Dietary Fiber: 3g
- Total Sugars: <1g< strong>
- Protein: 19g
- Calcium: 15% DV
- Potassium: 15% DV
Source: Impossible Foods
This burger is a great source of plant protein, but is it actually made from plants? Kind of. Let’s check out the ingredients list to get a better determinant on the Impossible Burger’s real health benefits.
Impossible Burger Ingredients
The Impossible Burger has a pretty interesting ingredient list to produce its iconic meaty texture. Below you will find the list of ingredients from the new recipe:
Water, Soy Protein Concentrate, Coconut Oil, Sunflower Oil, Natural Flavors, 2% or less of: Potato Protein, Methylcellulose, Yeast Extract, Cultured Dextrose, Food Starch Modified, Soy Leghemoglobin, 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.
In summary, the Impossible Burger is made with lots of soy, oils, and nutrient additives. While it is vegan, it’s certainly no wholesome veggie burger!
Interested in learning more about plant-based eating?
How Does the Impossible Burger Compare to a Beef Burger?
Is the Impossible Burger really a healthier choice than beef? Impossible Foods compares their product to a 4-ounce, 80/20 ground beef patty, so we’ll use that as our benchmark:
- Calories: 210
- Total Fat: 14g
- Saturated Fat: 6g
- Cholesterol: 70mg
- Sodium: 90mg
- Total Carbohydrates: 9g
- Dietary Fiber: 0g
- Total Sugars: 0g
- Protein: 20g
- Calcium: 0% DV
- Potassium: 9% DV
The Impossible Burger is a good source of fiber, calcium, and potassium, an added bonus for a protein source. It also has zero cholesterol. To compare, a regular burger patty contains almost a quarter of your daily cholesterol limit.
However, the Impossible Burger is higher in saturated fat and sodium, something most of us should limit. Consuming too much saturated fat from both plant and animal sources is strongly associated with weight gain, heart problems, and a host of chronic diseases. Saturated fat and sodium—especially at these levels—shouldn’t make up very much of one’s diet, whether you eat beef or Impossible burgers.
Final Verdict: The Impossible Burger Is Not Healthy
While seeing The Impossible Burger on a menu can feel like a godsend to vegans and vegetarians at a restaurant, this burger should be treated as an indulgence in the same way a healthy omnivorous eater would view a standard cheeseburger. It’s fine on occasion, but the Impossible Burger shouldn’t be seen as a go-to meal for health purposes.
The burger’s high level of saturated fat is the biggest detriment to its perceived health halo, along with its sodium content and lack of whole food ingredients. We advise looking for vegan patties that have a bean, whole grain, or vegetable base for a truly nutritious plant-based burger—try these healthy veggie burger recipes.
But in Impossible Foods’ defense, the company does not promise any potential health benefits of their products in their mission statement. Instead, the company’s primary goal is to “make our global food system truly sustainable.” Keep this in mind the next time you order the Impossible Burger. While you can feel good about making a sustainable and environmentally-friendly choice, it’s best to enjoy this plant-based patty in moderation.
What Is the Impossible Burger and Is It Even Healthy?
These plant-based “meat” patties are selling out faster than they can be made, but are they actually healthier than beef?
Americans have a growing appetite for meatless meals, with nearly 40 percent of us actively trying to eat more plant-based foods. Somewhat ironically, we also have an equally enormous appetite for beef, as USDA stats indicate we consume 54 pounds per year—or about four quarter pounders a week.
Put the two together in the plant-based Impossible Burger, which is made to look and taste like meat, and you have a recipe for a runaway success. The Impossible Burger, which hit grills back in 2016, is now available in about 7,000 restaurants around the country, and quickly fell into short supply after partnering with Burger King to create the Impossible Whopper in April of this year. And with more and more runners out there following a plant-based diet like Michael Wardian or even a vegan diet like Scott Jurek, we tapped some top nutrition experts to give us the real deal on this fake beef.
What Is an Impossible Burger?
The Impossible Burger was developed to save the Earth, as the parent company Impossible Foods’ mission statement clearly says: “Animal agriculture occupies almost half the land on earth, consumes a quarter of our freshwater, and destroys our ecosystems. So we’re doing something about it: We’re making meat using plants, so that we never have to use animals again.”
To accomplish that mission, the company went to work engineering (literally, the Impossible Foods team consists of over 100 scientists, engineers, and researchers) a completely vegan burger that looks, smells, and most importantly, tastes like a beef patty hamburger.
What Are the Ingredients in an Impossible Burger?
First, there’s the protein—the essential nutrient in any burger. The original 2016 Impossible Burger was made with texturized wheat protein, which the company replaced with soy protein concentrate for version 2.0 that launched this past January and served exclusively as of April. The soy swap was designed to deliver a higher-quality protein. It also made the new patty gluten-free, something the company said customers wanted.
Then, the engineering chefs added fats, such as coconut and sunflower oil, to give the burger a juicy sizzle on the grill. They also added fillers and binders like methylcellulose and modified food starch to hold it together, as well as myriad other additives (we’ll get to more on those in a bit) to make the burger look, feel, and taste just right. As you can see, there are a lot of ingredients that go into mimicking meat:
2019 Impossible Burger Ingredients
Water, Soy Protein Concentrate, Coconut Oil, Sunflower Oil, Natural Flavors, 2 percent or less of: Potato Protein, Methylcellulose, Yeast Extract, Cultured Dextrose, Food Starch Modified, Soy Leghemoglobin, 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.
The magic ingredient that separates the Impossible Burger from just any garden-variety veggie patty is the heme. Heme is an iron-containing molecule. You find it in hemoglobin in blood and in myoglobin in muscle. It’s what makes blood red and helps carry oxygen around an animal’s body. It’s also what makes meat taste like meat. Turns out plants have it, too.
Impossible Burger found that soy roots contain a compound called leghemoglobin, which also carries heme. By making a patty with soy leghemoglobin, the food scientists found they could infuse a meaty flavor into a plant-based burger.
Problem was that Impossible Foods realized they would need literally an impossible amount of soy to generate enough heme to make their burger business remotely sustainable—or environmentally friendly, which was the whole point. So they figured out a way to genetically engineer it.
In the company’s own words: “We make heme using a yeast engineered with the gene for soy leghemoglobin. First, we grow yeast via fermentation. Then, we isolate the soy leghemoglobin (containing heme) from the yeast, and add it to the Impossible Burger, where it combines with other micronutrients to create delicious, meaty flavor.”
Is the Impossible Burger Healthy?
Environmental issues aside—because unpacking how much healthier an Impossible Burger is for the Earth than a beef burger is another story—are Impossible Burgers healthier for us humans?
In a word, “No,” says Elisabetta Politi, M.P.H., R.D., L.D.N., the nutrition director of the Duke Diet & Fitness Center in Durham, North Carolina.
“I don’t think it’s any healthier. As a nutritionist, I tell people that if we want to find a way to address obesity and diabetes, it’s to go back to the way our grandparents ate,” Politi says. “I’m not saying that genetic modification is wrong, but I think it’s disconcerting to make up food. I would not consider this wholesome food because it’s something that has gone through a lot of changes and was created in a lab by the food industry.”
Besides the genetically modified ingredients, it’s not really healthier from a nutritional standpoint either, Politi says, particularly in the realm of saturated fat. Though Impossible Foods lowered the amount of saturated fat in the recent recipe change, it still contains higher amounts than a beef burger.
“An 85 percent lean beef burger, which is what you see in restaurants, has about 6 percent saturated fat,” Politi says. “An Impossible Burger has 8 grams of saturated fat in a four ounce patty, because it contains all that coconut oil.”
Though the health implications of eating saturated fat is a topic of ongoing medical debate, The American Heart Association still recommends eating no more than 5 to 6 percent of your total daily calories from saturated fat, which is about 13 grams in a 2,000 calorie diet. (Of course regular runners may have higher daily caloric needs, so would have a higher saturated fat allowance, as well.)
As far as the other macronutrients, it also has considerably less protein—29 grams in a beef burger compared to 19 grams in an Impossible Burger—as well as more carbohydrates—0 grams in a beef burger compared to 9 grams in the impossible burger.
The Impossible Burger also has a lot more sodium with 370 milligrams, or about 16 percent of the recommended daily ceiling versus 82 milligrams in a beef burger.
When it comes to vitamins and minerals, the Impossible Burger does have a few benefits that a beef burger does not, Audra Wilson, R.D., L.D.N., C.S.C.S., bariatric dietitian at the Northwestern Medicine Metabolic Health and Surgical Weight Loss Center at Delnor Hospital in Geneva, Illinois, says.
“It has more thiamine, B12, and iron than the beef burger,” Wilson says. “The addition of soy leghemoglobin increases the amount of heme iron in the Impossible Burger, making it a standout among plant-protein sources. The iron typically found in plant-based food sources is non-heme iron, which is not as readily absorbed as the heme iron found in animal food sources,” she says.
The fiber content is another plus. Beef burgers contain no fiber. The Impossible Burger delivers 3 grams, or about 11 percent of the daily-recommended amount, which may help make the Impossible Burger filling and satisfying, despite being lower in protein, Wilson says.
Where Can You Find Impossible Burgers?
Right now, Impossible Burgers are being sold in over 5,000 restaurants in the United States, Hong Kong, Macau, and Singapore with more and more spots adding them to their menus every day. You can find locations here. Though widely available in restaurants since 2016, the Impossible Burger first appeared in grocery stores this fall, when it debuted at all 27 outlets of Gelson’s in Southern California. At the end of September, the brand announced availability in 100 Wegmans grocery stores in seven states and at two Manhattan locations of Fairway Market. A 12-ounce package of Impossible Burger costs around $8.99.
The Bottom Line
If you want to eat less meat, the Impossible Burger has some positive attributes. But it’s not necessarily healthier than a beef burger, because it’s actually higher in saturated fat and lower in protein. It’s also highly processed, which means it’s not necessarily a particularly healthy food in general. But that doesn’t mean it’s unhealthy, either, says Wilson.
“If you are looking to find a replacement for animal proteins in your diet or implement a meatless Monday, this burger may just be the ticket,” she says. “Though it has less protein than beef, as plant protein sources go, it’s a good choice. It also has fiber and nutrients like vitamin B12 and iron.” You may also opt to simply pair it with a high-protein snack like hummus.
If you are watching your carb intake, keep in mind that an Impossible Burger does contribute to your daily carbohydrate count, Wilson says. “Carbohydrates are important for runners so the additional intake may aid in meeting macronutrient goals during training, but others trying to lose weight may find a more carb-friendly protein with animal protein sources.”
What Is the Impossible Burger—And Is It Even Healthy?
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The Impossible Burger Is *Everywhere,* but Is It Truly Healthy? Here’s What an RD Thinks
Remember when veggie burgers were pretty much synonymous with hockey pucks? The plant-based eating scene has changed a lot in the past few years, as proven by the notorious Impossible Burger. The 100-percent vegan burger mimics the texture, taste, and look (it’s even red in the middle) of your standard beef burger. But whether it’s good for you or not… many healthy eaters are still scratching their heads on that one.
In the latest episode of You Versus Food, registered dietitian Tracy Lockwood Beckerman, RD, shares her official verdict on the health merits of the Impossible Burger&mdashand how it compares to its “just like meat” rival, the Beyond Burger.
In the pro column, the Impossible Burger has the same amount of protein as a beef burger, along with some key vitamins and minerals. “The Impossible Burger contains a ton of vitamin B12 and 25 percent of iron, which are both fab for energy,” Beckerman says. It also contains thiamine, which supports the body’s nervous system.
Obviously, meat-based beef is a good source of iron in its own right. Beckerman says to replicate that in a plant-based version, Impossible Burger includes soy leghemoglobin, an iron-containing molecule found in soy plants. While this ingredient has been met with some controversy (and was subject to some extra FDA oversight before it was approved), Beckerman emphasizes that soy is not bad for health, despite what many may think.
Okay, so it’s clear that the Impossible Burger has some good nutritional elements. But that still leaves the question of how it fully compares to the Beyond Burger and regular ‘ol beef. Watch the full episode to see Tracy compare and contrast the options and to find out which one comes out on top.
The consensus on real meat versus fake meat
There's no real scientific consensus on this topic yet, as vegan meat is too new for health officials to make a conclusion -- that's something scientists can do only after plenty of peer-reviewed, third-party (meaning not conducted by a vegan meat company) research has accumulated.
And even then, things can change: The last couple generations of Americans have spent their lives fearing red meat, only to find out that saturated fat really isn't as bad as we thought.
Also, the decision to eat vegan meat in place of real meat is more than a question of nutrition. Many people decide to eat a vegan diet out of moral and ethical values, such as animal welfare or environmental health.
Eating a plant-based meat substitute a few times a week probably won't hurt you, just like eating beef a few times a week won't hurt you. Fake meat is best treated like real meat: Use it as a protein source, not as a substitute for vegetables.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.
Why do you think these “burgers” are so trendy right now? They’re everywhere!
There’s always going to be a new food trend some new product people have been promised will be better for their health. I think it’s good that people are starting to think about the way our food system impacts the environment (that’s why I wrote my upcoming book Food Fix). There are lots of things happening right now demanding we focus our attention on that problem, like devastating fires, declining soil quality and quantity, and pollution in our air, land, and water.
Being vegan is better for our environmental and climate problems. (However, growing rice and soy produces greenhouse gas emissions, too). But it is not better than eating food or animals from a regenerative farm. Savvy food marketing and misinformation tells consumers otherwise. People think they’re doing the right thing for their health and the planet, so these fake burgers have gained popularity.
As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review or update on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.
To the comment by azure, grazing cattle is leading to the extinction of the few wild animals left in the USA, and every single thing you said about growing plants using up water and pesticides, means that great, you support everyone going vegan immediately, because it takes far more plants and water, to cycle through animals to produce food for humans than if we just ate the plants directly.
I find it depressing that the author of this article did not even mention that eating animals is barbaric and inhumane, and that this is perhaps also a great reason not to do so, especially when study after study has shown that people who eat plants and not animals have less cancer, heart disease, obesity and live longer and healthier lives, so there is no justification whatsoever to eat animals or their secretions in 2019.
The current meme on social media which I am sure uses this article to support its ‘argument’ about how some veggie burgers are processed, so we should all just carry on eating animals and their secretions while the amazon burns and we run out of water and the ice caps are melting and our waterways are choking with animal manure so that whatever fish humans haven’t already killed directly will die from this and other human-caused pollution, and so on, is patently absurd, with its implicit suggestion that all vegans eat are beyond burgers. Some of us eat the odd veggie burger here and there, some of us never eat veggie burgers, and some of us eat them all the time. Furthermore, some vegans don’t even eat the impossible burger since one of its ingredients was tested on animals.
300 billion animals are killed PER DAY around the world (this includes fish) for food, and all of this suffering, pollution, death and violence is completely unnecessary. Be part of the solution, be peaceful, be loving, be vegan. Thanks for reading.
This article is extremely misleading. The Beyond Burger and 70% lean ground beef have exactly the same saturated fat content. And although the Impossible Burger has more saturated fat than ground beef, it overall has less fat in total. There is also no mention that plant-based options are cholesterol-free, which is another major benefit.
I have been told that fetal calf blood is used in the manufacture of these “plant based” burgers. Is this correct?
A plant based burger show works well on the digestive system
“Since diets higher in saturated fat are associated with increased rates of both heart disease and premature death”
NOTHING wrong with Saturated Fat. It’s a complete myth. You should be discredited.
You neglected to mention plant based burgers have FIBER in them, which helps keep our hearts healthy! Sure the graphic shows this, but readers might not know the connection…as a dietitian I thought you would elaborate on that? And since beef and turkey has ZERO fiber and still have saturated fat, I would think plant based is HEALTHIER all around!
“The bottom line: Meatless burgers are good for the planet, but not always good for our health” Depends on where the saturated fat these very processed burger comes from doesn’t it? What if it’s palm oil? Which has been demonstrated to increase LDL levels? And is known to be produced in environmentally destructive ways, i.e, by clear cutting/burning tropical rain forest to create fields for creating palm plantations, i.e, mono crops, that exhaust the soil. Not so “good for the earth” then is it?
While I think CAFOs are environmentally destructive & very hard on cattle (just as some chicken farms that crowd chickens into too small areas and require that they receive continual low levels of antibiotics to increase their growth rate & not become ill from overcrowding (easy for illness to spread), I think there are parts of the world, including the US, where grazing animals (including buffalo) are the best use of the land. It was poor land use practices plus drought (poor practices made the effects of the drought worse, just as farming practices made the late 1800’s drought in MN, Dakotas far worse then it would otherwise have been) that dried up prairies that had been plowed and planted. Had those lands been left for grazing (not overgrazing) by buffalo or cattle, it’s likely the effects of drought would’ve been lessened.
Hard to believe the irrigation (and pesticides) used to grow cotton and other water hungry crops in CA and elsewhere (AZ) is a better and more efficient use of water then raising cattle or buffalo on the prairies. Or any other area in the world where the resident peoples (whether nomads or a people who moved to/from grazing grounds with their animals (that would include those who raise reindeer) and whose societies lasted for generations (without environmental degredation). Or irrigation dependent crops grown in eastern OR irrigated by water from dammed rivers in the Pacific Northwest. Those same dams provide electrical power (“clean” energy) yet are responsible for the sharp decline in salmon populations, lamphrey eels (eaten and used in other ways by PNW native Americans and other edible species that once lived in the dammed rivers. The analysis in this article ignores the complexity of water use issues for agriculture, forestry, and maintaining commercial fish & other river/estuarine species (or that may spend part of their life in the ocean). Not to omit mention of how other societal practices, burning coal, other forms of pollution and USDA supported pesticide use (such as arsenic) has resulted in fish that aren’t safe to eat except occasionally and not at all by pregnant women (mercury in tuna, other fish at the top of the ocean/estuarine food chain/that live a relatively long time), even more so if they’re “farmed”, and rice whose consumption should be limited because of arsenic levels. Because arsenic was once used as a rice pesticide and it sticks around for a long long time (in the soil). More in brown rice in then white. Unless it’s been grown outside of the US or in a part of the US where arsenic based pesticides weren’t used as much. Then there’s the huge range & variety of pesticides (which includes herbicides) used to grow so many plant crops in the US at this time–I believe 32 are approved for use on one kind of legume. Surely a cost, like water consumption, that needs to be considered in an analysis of the costs of growing plant foods.
No one eats a burger – veggie or otherwise – as a “heathy” choice. It’s unclear why veggie burgers are constantly held to this high standard. Looking at these numbers plant-based burgers certainly seem to be roughly equally healthy as meat burgers, with the possible exception of the higher sodium content.
UNDER THE KNIFE
What is The Impossible Burger?
The Impossible Burger was created by a group of scientists, farmers, and chefs who wanted to create a 100% plant-based alternative to a beef burger, but that had the same appearance, texture, aroma, flavour and even sizzle.
Wha t is The Impossible Burger made from?
The core ingredients include: wheat protein, coconut oil, potato protein and heme.
And if you're asking - WTF is heme? It&rsquos the magic ingredient that sets The Impossible Burger apart from other plant-based offerings. Heme is what gives beef its pinkish colour and meaty taste (it&rsquos the component of haemoglobin in blood that makes it red). It&rsquos also present in other proteins, including myoglobin, which is found in animal muscle.
But, most interestingly, heme is found in plant proteins, too. Leghemoglobin, for example, also carries heme, and soy leghemoglobin, found within the roots of soy plants, apparently shares a very similar structure to myoglobin.
How is The Impossible Burger made ?
Because you would need a lot of soy to produce a small amount of soy leghemoglobin, the brains behind the Impossible burger turned to genetic engineering as a more sustainable alternative. Essentially, the soy leghemoglobin gene is inserted into a strain of yeast, and then grown via fermentation. The result: high volumes of heme, without the environmental impact.
Is the Impossible Burger good for you?
There been some concern about Impossible Burger&rsquos secret sauce&mdashsoy leghemoglobin. Soy leghemoglobin is found naturally in the roots of soybean plants and contains heme, which gives the burger the beef-like aroma, taste, and characteristic &ldquobleeding.&rdquo In animal products, heme is found in animal muscle.
Rather than grow bushels of soybeans, the scientists at Impossible Foods have genetically-engineered yeast to produce heme, which has raised some red flags for people wary of GMOs. While the company has performed tests, and the product is generally recognized as safe, the FDA gave the ingredient its official approval in July 2018, according to CNBC.
&ldquoThe truth is, it is such a new food, that we just don&rsquot know the long-term effects because there hasn&rsquot been time to study it,&rdquo says Yeung. So it's hard to say right now whether the GMOs used to create the IB's signature taste will have any impact on your health.
At the end of the day, you should treat it nutritionally like red meat, Yeung says. &ldquoI recommend consuming it no more than twice a week," she says. &ldquoFrom a nutrition perspective, if it comes down to eating a lean beef or turkey burger versus the Impossible Burger, I&rsquod choose the meat burgers, and the ingredients are all natural versus manufactured.&rdquo