A few days ago at a promotional event, I had the chance to sample an Impossible Burger, the popular Vegan “hamburger” whose mission is to make meat obsolete by 2035. Initially, I was impressed by the resemblance of a plant based burger to an actual burger, however, after I learned the ingredients they use to make Impossible Burgers, I regretted my decision to partake in this burger coups d’état.
But before I get into a discussion of why eating Impossible Burgers is probably bad for you, I do want to give them some props because I believe their heart is in the right place.
The Impossible Burger is environmentally friendly, that much cannot be disputed. Raising cattle the way we do does real damage to our planet, and it has to stop, at least at its current trajectory. The industrial farming system is unsustainable, environmentally ruinous, and cruel to both animals and humans alike which means plant based alternatives to animal foods will be a must in the years to come. Companies like Impossible Foods that create tasty plant based comfort food are badly needed.
I just wish they hadn’t made their plant based salvation burger with gross ingredients, common food allergens, and Frankenstein yeast byproducts.
Just because it’s made of plants doesn’t mean it’s good for you.
Impossible burger designed to look like real burger
As I allude to above, the Impossible Burger is designed to look and taste just like a real burger. This means the inventors were challenged to use plant matter to make a moist, “bloody” patty, with the same texture as real meat. To be fair, I must admit the Impossible Burger is reminiscent of a real burger, it has a texture and color that looks like ground beef, the problem is it uses truly gross ingredients to get there, ingredients that could be just as bad for people’s health as eating a real burger every now and again.
In fact, there was some controversy as to whether the FDA would even approve the ingredient, called soy leghemoglobin, that makes the Impossible Burger “bleed.” Soy leghemoglobin releases a protein called heme which gives the burger it’s meat like traits.
The FDA was was concerned about soy leghemoglobin, because well, it’s never been consumed by humans!
Seems reasonable to me, and keep in mind, this is coming from an organization that has zero qualms about high fructose corn syrup and genetically modified crops, so it’s not like there is a high bar to get the FDA’s blessing.
Genetically modified ingredients
So, to make this soy concoction, the Impossible Burger folks must be ripping through a ton of soybeans, right? No! They get their Frankenstein soy from yeast. According to this Wired Article, “one acre of soybeans yields just a kilogram of soy leghemoglobin,” so the Impossible Burger team created a workaround.
It’s hilariously complex, but Wired does a good job of summing up the process:
Technicians take genes that code for the soy leghemoglobin protein and insert them into a species of yeast called Pichia pastoris. They then feed the modified yeast sugar and minerals, prompting it to grow and replicate and manufacture heme with a fraction of the footprint of field-grown soy.
Ok, so we aren’t even eating soy from soybeans, we’re eating a soy / yeast byproduct combination made from soy leghemoglobin genes?
The first thing I thought of when I read about the yeast’s role in creating the Impossible Burger is what do these yeast derived proteins do to the microbiome?
We don’t know.
Further, the heme protein isn’t the only protein the yeast make. They make 40 others, all of which end up in the Impossible Burger. Who knows what these additional proteins do in the human body.
On their FAQ page, under the question “do you produce heme by genetic modification?” the Impossible Burger team answers a simple “Yes.”
Case closed if you’re not a GMO person.
Safe in rats – what about people?
At this point, you may be saying “John what do you know, you’re just some startup guy, not even a nutritionist. Bill Gates is backing the Impossible Burger, so this soy stuff they’re getting from yeast must be safe.”
Possibly, possibly not.
Is soy leghemoglobin safe?
No one knows for sure, and the answer likely varies from person to person, however, the Impossible Burger team did feed unbelievable amounts of soy leghemoglobin to rats and found there were no adverse effects over a 28 day period. (R) We don’t have studies in humans to see how people will react to the ingredients in the Impossible Burger.
Then there’s the Gluten
But it’s not just the Frankenstein soy that raises red flags, it’s the wheat. The Impossible Burger isn’t gluten free, which means that it is off limits for the growing number of people with gluten sensitivity or celiac disease.
The second ingredient in the burger, after water, is Textured Wheat Protein.
Whole foods plant based?
The scions of the plant based movement, the T. Colin Campbell’s and Caldwell B. Esselstyn’s of the world, are advocates of a whole foods, plant based diet, not a processed foods plant based diet. The idea is that mother nature knows best, we do better the closer we get to consuming whole plant foods. While it is 100% Vegan, the Impossible Burger strays pretty far from this ideal. Creating genetically modified soy proteins in a test tube is a far cry from a macrobiotic plate. While some may do just fine with Impossible Burgers as a staple, I think it’s fair to assume that many individuals will be sensitive to soy leghemoglobin. After all, soy is one of the most notorious food allergens and humans have never consumed this particular soy preparation. Maybe it’s just me, but I’d much rather eat a plant based burger made to “bleed” with beets rather than genetically modified soy.
When will we learn?
In closing, I want to emphasize again that I admire the mission, as well as the ambition, of the Impossible Burger team. Kudos to them for trying to tackle such a big problem.
However, in their quest to make a plant based burger to rival the traditional burger, they overlooked a basic principle of the plant based movement: that the food supply is making people sick.
Consuming large amounts of factory meat has caused Americans to develop a host of chronic diseases, but so has the rise of GMO crops and the use of pesticides like glyphosate. Many people develop autoimmune conditions when faced with the intestinal permeability that is a hallmark of eating wheat, GMO produce and processed foods.
So, yes, make a plant burger, just next time make it with actual plants.