It's interesting to me that a plant-based burger can cause such a fuss, but I'm receiving enough emails about it that I decided to see what the 'controversy' is all about.
A google search for information and opinions on the Impossible Burger yielded over 38,000,000 results, which indicates that a lot of people are interested in and writing about this food.
The company’s website states that the burger was developed for people who love meat, and that the burger 'delivers all the flavor, aroma and beefiness of meat from cows'.
However, it is not meat, and 'it's just plants doing the impossible'. The company states that 'meat-eaters don't love "veggie burgers" or "fake meat." Yes, Impossible meat is plant-based, but it wasn’t made for vegans. It’s actually made for people who love meat."
The website does seem to cater to meat-eaters with comments like these: "Some of our most magical moments together happen around meat: Weekend barbeques. Midnight fast-food runs. Taco Tuesdays. Hot dogs at the ball park."
?Indeed, some of the best reviews online of the Impossible Burger are from meat eaters who are looking for something like the real thing. For example, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue visited the company’s headquarters, tried one, and reported that it tasted very good and was a good facsimile of real beef.
Many, however are critical of the burger for a variety of reasons. One is the use of leghemoglobin, which comes from the roots of soy plants. Through a process that involves genetic engineering (the insertion of soy DNA into genetically engineered yeast), heme is created.
And heme gives red meat its color and actually allows the Impossible Burger to 'bleed' like a real burger. While this particular product involves genetically engineering plant materials with other plants materials, some people think there should be no genetically engineered foods for any reason ever.
Another concern is that the plant heme was tested on rats in order to prove safety. There were no other viable alternatives since new ingredients cannot be tested on humans. CEO Pat Brown justified what he called an 'agonizing decision' by stating that it was a necessary step in reaching 'the billions of people around the world who love meat and dairy foods' and who 'will not be persuaded to stop consuming these foods by pleading or arguing or encouraging them to try a plant-based diet'.
Demand for vegan food
Brown rightly states that the demand for animal foods is increasing faster than population growth and that the increasing availability of plant-based options has not reduced this demand significantly. Brown says that he has been a vegetarian for over 40 years and a vegan for the last 14 years, which lends credibility to his stated intention, which is to do good things for people and for the environment.
Consistent with this intention, the Mission section of the website states that, 'using animals to make meat is a prehistoric and destructive technology'. The company uses plants to make meat 'so that we never have to use animals again'.
The company presents data showing that one Impossible Burger uses 96 percent less land, 87 percent less water, and 89 percent fewer emissions and a burger made from cows. Making burgers from plants means 'we can eat all the meat we want, for as long as we want. And save the best planet in the known universe'.
Critics also point out the nutrient breakdown of the Impossible Burger. One burger contains 240 calories with 40 percent of calories from fat. The burger contains no saturated fat or cholesterol, but the fat content is high. Those concerned with protein need not worry; the burger contains 19 grams of protein.
My biggest concern is that the burger contains 2350 percent of the RDA for thiamine (vitamin B1). While the Food and Nutrition Board has not established tolerable upper limits for thiamine, The FNB cautions that excessive intakes could have adverse effects. In other words, no one has researched the consequences associated with excessive thiamine intake.
After reviewing the various points of view, here are my conclusions:
- It seems that CEO Brown is trying to do a good thing – encouraging people to eat less animal foods.
- While some disagree with how he has gone about it, market research supports his strategy. Most people are not trying to eliminate meat; they are trying to reduce their consumption of it. The number of U.S. vegans doubled between 2015 and 2016, but in 2017 decreased by about half. On the other hand, most consumers state that they are concerned about and understand that their food choices affect the environment, and 20 percent are trying to reduce meat intake. Catering to the meat eaters with a product they are willing to eat makes sense from a business standpoint, and also from the standpoint of trying to eventually change eating habits.*
- Burger King and several other fast food restaurants are introducing the Impossible Burger, which offers vegans an option when visiting one of these places. Remember that most people who eat a plant-based or vegan diet are surrounded by people who do not, which is how they end up eating in fast food restaurants. More plant-based options in these places makes life easier for them.
A step in the right direction
High-traffic locations also offer a lot of meat eaters the opportunity to try the burger, and the massive amount of publicity alone may drive some to do so. I think that some of these people may be motivated to try other plant-based options if they like this one. This is a good thing.
- The product is high-fat and contains too much thiamine, but this is not an issue for people who occasionally eat an Impossible Burger. People who follow our dietary recommendations consume foods like this as treats, not as part of the daily fare. For most people, an occasional Impossible Burger is not a threat to their health.
- Last but not least, I hope the barrage of criticism settles down soon. Some of it makes the plant-based community look unreasonable. And enough of it might discourage other companies from introducing similar products. Remember that anything that results in people eating less animal food is a step in the right direction.
*Mary Ellen Shoup "Euromonitor: What’s the driving force behind plant-based eating?" Food Navigator May 19 2019