Battle of the Burgers: Impossible Burger vs Beyond Burger vs Beef

How do the leading plant-based burgers stack up on taste, environment, and health?

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Next-generation veggie burgers are taking off in a big way, with Impossible burger and Beyond burger leading the pack. Both plant-based patties mimic the taste and texture of meat, and promise fewer downsides than the real deal.

Which burger is best?

Let’s see how the plant-based leaders compare to each other, and to beef, across taste, environment, and health.

Taste

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Both Beyond and Impossible burgers are excellent ground beef imposters, offering similar taste, texture, and even a bit of sizzle. They are nothing like a traditional bean, rice or mushroom-based patty.

Which plant-based patty is the most realistic?

Most journalists (e.g. Today.com) have reported that Impossible has an edge when it comes to meatiness; my own informal testing of (non-vegan) family members reached the same conclusion.

“Impossible is the most like a beef burger by far.” New York Times

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Impossible’s edge likely stems from its magic ingredient, heme. Heme is an iron-binding small molecule that is abundant in red meat — and in your own red blood cells, where it belongs to the hemoglobin complex. It plays a major role in the uniquely “meaty” taste and aroma of meat, and the way it transforms on the grill. Plants normally contain low levels of heme, but Impossible dials them up to levels that are on par with red meat.

While the Impossible burger may be meatier, that doesn’t mean it’s everyone’s first choice. Taste preferences are highly personal, and it’s not just meatiness that matters. In fact, some vegans find that the Impossible Burger tastes and feels too close for comfort. Furthermore, the experience of any burger depends in a big way on the way it’s cooked and dressed.

“Umami Burger’s Impossible Burger and the Impossible Whopper couldn’t taste more different. Uproxx

Environment

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Both Beyond and Impossible burgers provide major environmental wins over beef. Any minor differences between the two patties pales in comparison to the gulf between beef and plants.

Compared to a standard beef patty, it takes one tenth or less the amount of water and land, with less than one tenth of the greenhouse gas emissions to make a plant-based patty (see Impossible & Beyond).

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This dramatic impact reflects beef’s exceptionally high resource requirements relative to other foods. From an environmental perspective, swapping beef for a plant-based protein source is one of the most profound dietary changes possible.

Health & Nutrition

Beyond and Impossible burgers share a very similar nutritional profile, reflecting their common muse — an 80% lean, 20% fat ground beef patty (most beef sold in the United States is 20% fat or more).

Similarities between Beyond and Impossible burgers

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Like ground beef, both Beyond and Impossible burgers are high in protein, high in fat, and low in total carbohydrates (including sugars and dietary fiber).

Both plant-based burgers also provide the same essential vitamins and minerals as beef. In fact, Canadian regulations require that simulated meat products are fortified if needed to ensure they don’t fall short on key vitamins and minerals. In the United States, such fortifications are voluntary and only Impossible Foods opted to add the relevant vitamins and minerals.

Nutritional requirements for simulated meat products in Canada: Folic acid, iron, magnesium, potassium, zinc, copper, thiamine [vitamin B1], riboflavin [vit B2], niacin [Vit B3], vitamin B12, pyridoxine, d-pantothenic acid.

The strong iron levels across all three burgers is noteworthy, given that iron deficiency is the world’s most common mineral deficiency — and is not limited to vegetarians and vegans. A standard beef burger provides 2 mg iron, whereas the plant-based burgers provide 4–5 mg of iron. As context, adult women of reproductive age need about 18 mg or iron per day, and adult men need roughly half of this.

Iron absorption: The amount of iron we absorb depends on how it’s delivered. Most of the iron in beef is in the form of heme iron, which is highly bioavailable (readily absorbed). The Impossible burger is unique among plant-based foods in that much of its iron is highly bioavailable heme iron (similar to beef). The iron in a Beyond patty is all non-heme iron, which is considerably less bioavailable.

The two plant-based burgers also offer several potential advantages over beef by virtue of their more favourable fat profiles.

Trans Fats. Both plant-based burgers are free of trans fats (trans fatty acids), which are associated with increased cardiovascular risk. While it’s not often advertised, a standard ground beef patty contains 1.3 grams of trans fatty acids (TFAs). The World Health Organization recommends limiting consumption of trans fats to under 2.2 grams per day or 1% of total energy intake.

Saturated and Unsaturated Fats. Compared to beef, plant-based burgers offer both different types and sources of fats. Both plant-based burgers contain lower levels of saturated fats and higher levels of polyunsaturated fats — a swap that may produce favourable changes in cardiovascular risk markers (e.g. LDL cholesterol levels). Both plant-based burgers contain coconut oil for its saturated fats, which play a role in their decadent to mouthfeel and cooking properties. Beyond burgers use these plant-based saturated fats more sparingly, at five grams per patty versus eight grams for Impossible (only a tad lower than the nine grams of saturated fat in an 80/20 ground beef patty).

Saturated fats in context: The World Health Organization suggests limiting saturated fats to no more than 10% of calories (about 20 grams for a 2,000 calorie diet). The three gram difference between a Beyond and Impossible burger is equivalent to what you’d get from a tablespoon of coconut milk, less than a teaspoon of coconut oil, a cup of 2% milk, and half a slice of cheese (dairy or non-dairy). Explore nutritional data for any food at USDA’s Food Central Database.

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On the “minus” side, both plant-based burgers contain more sodium than beef (350–370 mg), compared to 75 mg of sodium in an unseasoned beef patty. The gulf between beef and plant-based patties shrinks considerably when you consider the full burger. In fact, most of the sodium in a burger comes from the seasonings, sauces, cheese, and bun.

Sodium in context. Dietary guidelines in Canada and the United States recommend 1500 to 2300 mg of sodium per day. Thus, a plant-based patty provides about one sixth of the daily max. The numbers are far higher when you consider the whole burger — it’s not unusual for a fully dressed fast food burger to contain over 1000 mg of sodium (see chart).

If you’re worried about sodium, I recommend digging into the main sodium culprits, as they may not be what you expect (e.g. processed meats, breads, tomato sauces, soups, sauces). Most North Americans consumer nearly double the recommended sodium levels, at 3400 mg per day.

Last but not least, both plant-based burgers offer a few non-nutritional benefits over beef.

They both offer a lower risk of food-borne illness because they avoid the fecal contamination risk inherent in beef products. They also both offer a substantial public health benefit by virtue of their antibiotic-free nature; current livestock practices are a major contributor to global antibiotic resistance challenges (read more here).

Differences between Impossible burgers and Beyond burgers

The handful of differences between the two burgers stem from specific ingredient choices that reflect divergent company philosophies and marketing strategies. As you consider these differences, I urge you to separate science from marketing.

Heme. Impossible Foods is the first company to add heme to a plant-based product. As discussed above, this ‘magic ingredient’ contributes to both the meaty taste of the Impossible burger, the way it transforms upon cooking, and gives Impossible burgers an advantage for iron absorption. Impossible Foods makes plant-based heme using fermentation, the same process used to produce medicines (like insulin) and other food ingredients like chymotrypsin (for cheese). They could equally have extracted heme from the roots of soy plants but opted to make it in the lab instead of harvesting fields of soy.

Heme safety. Impossible’s heme ingredient went through rigorous FDA approval despite the fact that it’s the same stuff in our bodies, and that humans have been eating it forever.

Protein source. Impossible uses soy protein as their primary protein source whereas Beyond uses pea protein. The impact of this difference, and even the difference between this and beef, is negligible — all three offer the same twenty amino acids, though in slightly different proportions.

Based on Beyond’s bold “soy free” label, this choice may reflect the customers they are wooing — those who worry about the phytoestrogens in soy. Despite its persistence, the myth that soy is unsafe has been clearly debunked by science, as described in my article on soy and health. Ironically, processing destroys almost all of the isoflavones in soy, making Impossible burgers a relatively poor source.

Protein quality. Impossible has a slight advantage in protein quality because soy is the best plant-based protein in terms of amino acid balance and bioavailability. Using the universal standard protein quality metric known as protein digestibility-corrected amino acid scores (PDCAAS), purified soy protein products tend to score very close to perfect. At the same time, this difference is so small that it won’t move the needle healthwise.

Fun Fact: Food manufacturers are supposed to use the PDCAAS factor to adjust from grams of protein to percent daily value.

To understand Impossible’s decision to switch from wheat to soy in their Impossible Burger 2.0, check out their blog.

Unsaturated fats. Impossible burgers contain more polyunsaturated fats (from sunflower oil) while Beyond burgers contain more monunsaturated fats and more omega-3 fatty acids (from canola oil). There are pros and cons to each oil, and it’s hard to say that one is a clear winner for health.

Vitamins and Minerals. In the United States, Impossible burgers provide generous amounts of several vitamins and minerals that Beyond burgers do not (zinc and B vitamins, including B-12). This difference stems from the fact that Impossible adds specific vitamins and minerals to their products in order to match beef. Beyond does so in Canada (in order to comply with Canadian regulations) but not not do so in the US, and it’s not clear why not. Given their emphasis on a “simple” ingredients, I wonder if they are leery of an ingredient list that appears “unnatural” — despite being a health boon?

Fortification Impact? Whether or not the vitamins and mineral differences matter depends on who’s eating the burger. Those who are are getting ample amounts of these nutrients elsewhere won’t benefit nearly as much as those who have shortfalls to fill.

Marketing versus Science. Beyond Meat clearly wants you to believe that its products are the healthier choice, and makes a point of labeling them as “natural” and “GMO-free”. Yet, science tells us clearly that GMOs are safe, and that natural does not necessarily mean better or safer. Ironically, the beef industry uses these same arguments in its effort to persuade people that beef is healthier than plant-based burgers.

When it comes to health, nutritional profile is our best metric — not the number of ingredients, how many syllables they contain, where they were made, and by whom. These rules of thumb can be useful in some contexts, but not when science tells us otherwise.

Learn more about common nutritional myths: Plant Based Burgers: Facts and Fallacies (Fueled by Science).

Other Considerations

While nutritional data can give us a rough sense of how healthy a food is, we need human trials to truly see how things play out in the real world. The first controlled human trial of plant-based “meat” compared to animal-based meat was published this year, and offered encouraging results in terms of cardiovascular risk (see study). When (if) such trials eventually emerge for Impossible burgers, my guess is that the results will be similar — and will depend a lot on the bigger picture nutritional picture, not just the patty.

SWAP Meat trial results: Those who ate two or more servings of Beyond Meat products (burgers or other products) daily every day for two weeks saw a beneficial change in blood lipids (LDL cholesterol), compared to those who consumed two or more servings of matched animal-based meat products. The study was run by investigators at Stanford and funded by Beyond Meat (read more).

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If you really want to move the needle healthwise, you’ll need to think beyond the patty. A 250 calorie patty represents only a fraction of the calories, sodium, and saturated fat in a fully dressed burger. Regardless of which patty you choose, a fast food burger won’t qualify as a “health food”. If you prepare the burger at home, on the other hand, on a whole wheat bun with carefully chosen toppings, you have yourself a nutritionally sound package.

For further discussion of health considerations of plant-based burgers and beef, check out my sister article: Plant-based Burgers and Your Health: Facts and Fallacies.

My Bottom Line

The winning burger depends on your preferences and your priorities.

Environmentally, both Beyond and Impossible burgers offer a huge win over beef; their differences are subtle compared to the gap from beef to plant-based.

Healthwise, both plant-based patties likely offer modest personal health benefits over beef, as well as public health benefits. The differences between the two are not substantial enough to declare a clear winner. If health is your primary concern, you’ll want to consider not just the patty, but how it’s dressed, and include plenty of fiber-rich, less processed plant-based ingredients in your diet.

The most substantial differences between the plant-based leaders are in taste and company philosophy, two attributes that are highly personal.

My husband is a typical target customer — he loves the taste of beef, but avoids it for personal reasons, and has a penchant for fast food. He finds Impossible burgers to be far more realistic, but truly enjoys both burgers. As for me, I occasionally enjoy either plant-based patty but am just as happy with a bean burger. At the same time, I’m hardly the target customer as I don’t miss or crave the taste of ground beef.

Philosophically, my husband and I (both scientists) feel much more aligned with Impossible Foods. We respect Beyond Meat’s mission, but dislike the fact that they propagate false fears around genetically modified foods (GMOs) and foods that aren’t “natural”.

Disclosure: I have no formal affiliation with either company but have a personal connection to Impossible Foods. I did my PhD in genetics with the founder of Impossible Foods, Dr. Pat Brown, while he was a professor of biochemistry at Stanford University. Five years later, he left his multi-decade research career to solve what he viewed as humanity’s most urgent problem — feeding the planet sustainably.

Availability

The Impossible Burger is widely available in the US, both in fast food restaurants (including Burger King), and in grocery stores. In September 2020, they launched in Canada at selected restaurants and are now rolling out in retail.

Beyond Burger is widely available in the United States and Canada, including dozens of chains (e.g. Carl’s Junior, A&W) and retailers. See company website product locator.

Related Articles

About Me

I’m a scientist and mother of three young children. I completed my PhD in genetics at Stanford and spent the first decade of my career working in cancer research, drug development, and personalized medicine.

My new career chapter is dedicated to empowering others to make well-informed healthy choices, rooted in facts not fears. I’m also passionate about helping people to fall in love with the plants on their plates.

See more of my work, including articles, videos, podcasts, and healthy recipes at: https://FueledbyScience.com

Appendix

Vitamins and Minerals

  • United States: See micronutrients on the ingredient labels for Impossible Burger 2.0 and Beyond Burger.
  • Canada: Due to regulatory requirements for “simulated” products, additional fortifications are required. Here are the micronutrient profiles for the Canadian products.
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Ingredients

This table provides a high level comparison between the ingredients used by Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat to create their plant-based burgers. For more gory details, including added vitamins and minerals, check out the full lists below.

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Beyond Burger ingredients USA (Beyond Website, Nov 2020):

  • Main Ingredients: Water, Pea Protein, Expeller-Pressed Canola Oil, Refined Coconut Oil, Rice Protein, Natural Flavors, Cocoa Butter, Mung Bean Protein, Methylcellulose, Potato Starch, Apple Extract, Pomegranate Extract, Salt, Potassium Chloride, Vinegar, Lemon Juice Concentrate, Sunflower Lecithin, Beet Juice Extract (for color).
  • No added vitamins or minerals

Beyond Burger ingredients Canada, Nov 2020*

*Source: email inquiry & packaging (not available on website )

  • Water, Pea Protein, Canola Oil, Refined Coconut Oil, Rice Protein, Natural Flavours, Dried Yeast, Mung Bean Protein, Methylcellulose, Potato Starch, Potassium Chloride, Apple Extract, Vinegar, Lemon Juice Concentrate, Colour Blend (Vegetable Glycerine, Water, Maltodextrin, Ascorbic Acid, Beet Juice Extract), Salt, Sunflower Lecithin, Pomegranate Fruit Powder, Colour blend (Lycopene Extract from Tomato)
  • Added vitamins and minerals: Niacin [B3], Pyridoxine Hydrochloride [B6], Thiamine Hydrochloride [B1], Riboflavin [B2], Folic Acid [B9], Cynacobalamin [B12], Calcium Pantothenate, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, Biotin, Zinc Sulphate, Ferric Orthophosphate.

Impossible Burger 2.0 ingredients USA (Impossible Foods, Nov 2020)

  • 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, Mixed Tocopherols (Antioxidant), Soy Protein Isolate,
  • Added vitamins and minerals: Zinc Gluconate, Thiamine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B1), Niacin, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B6), Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Vitamin B12.

Impossible Burger 2.0 ingredients Canada (Impossible Foods Nov, 2020)

  • Water, Soy Protein Concentrate, Coconut Oil, Sunflower Oil, Potato Protein, Methylcellulose, Soy Leghemoglobin, Glutamates, Natural Flavours, Sugars (Cultured Dextrose), Salt, Modified Plant Starch, Yeast Extract, Mixed Tocopherols (Antioxidant), Soy Protein Isolate, Thiamine Hydrochloride (Flavour)
  • Added vitamins and minerals: L-Tryptophan, Zinc Gluconate, Niacin (Vitamin B3), Ferric Phosphate, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B6), Calcium Pantothenate (Vitamin B5), Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), and Vitamin B12.

Written by

Scientist (PhD Genetics @Stanford) * Mother * Passionate about science-based healthy choices * Lifelong learner * Founder: Fueled by Science

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