Should You Trade In Your Beef Burger for a Bloody Plant-Based Impossible Burger?
Impossible Foods wants you to trade in your beef burger for a plant-based burger and aspires to make your transition seamless. Unlike its plant-based peers, the Impossible Burger ‘bleeds’, cooks, and smells like meat thanks to its secret ingredient, heme.
Should you make the switch? Can meat lovers have their cake and eat it too?
Since its exclusive launch through top chefs (such as Chef David Chang at Momofuku Nishi) and boutique burger chains such as Umami burger, the Impossible Burger has gone mainstream. Impossible Foods is one of several plant-based burger companies fuelling a plant-based fast-food feeding frenzy, at chains such as White Castle (Impossible Slider), A&W (Beyond Meat) and Burger King (Impossible Whopper).
With such wide reach, it’s a great time to ask yourself whether you should make the switch. The answer, it turns out, depends on what you care about.
Impossible Foods, and many other companies offering plant-based meat alternatives, have their roots in environmental and ethical motivations. The impact numbers reflect these priorities.
On the environmental front, the answer is a clear win for plant-based burgers.
This table shows the resources needed to produce Impossible burgers versus beef burgers (per kilogram). Impossible’s patties require far fewer resources across the board, with figures ranging from 87% reduction water consumption to 96% reduction in land occupation.
Given that Americans alone consume 14 billion burgers per year, if only one in ten people make the switch, we would see 1.4 billion times the impact numbers above.
It’s the same story on the animal welfare front.
McDonalds alone goes through about 70,000,000 pounds of beef per year, or approximately 190,000 pounds of beef daily. We’re talking hundreds of thousands of cows sacrificed in the name of burgers.
On the health front, the plant-based advantage is fuzzy at best.
The nutritional profile of the Impossible Burger patty is remarkably similar to that of a standard ground beef patty served in restaurants (20% fat / 80% lean). This is no surprise, because this patty was the Impossible’s muse. The burgers become even more similar when you pile on the sauces and the bun.
Can you tell which patty is the Impossible patty?
The answer? Burger A is the Impossible Burger. You can tell because it contains dietary fiber (only found in plants). The other giveaway is the cholesterol in Burger B — cholesterol is only found in meat and animal products.
The nutritional differences are summarized here:
- Fats: An Impossible patty contains somewhat less fat, at 14 grams per patty compared to the 23 grams in a standard ground beef patty. Both burgers are relatively high in saturated fats (8 grams vs 9 grams).
- Cholesterol (a type of fat): Impossible patties don’t contain any cholesterol — no surprise because this type of fat is not found in plants. A typical ground beef patty contains about 80 mg of cholesterol
Note: The relevance of dietary cholesterol to heart health is controversial. In the 2015–2020 US Dietary Guidelines, the 300 mg daily max was removed).
- Carbohydrates: An Impossible patties contain 9 grams of carbs (15% of calories). Ground beef contains none.
- Dietary Fiber: An Impossible patty contains 3 grams (about 10% of RDA). Ground beef patties don’t contain any dietary fiber.
- Sodium: An Impossible patty contains 370 mg of sodium (about one sixth of max daily intake). Ground beef contains 70 mg per patty.
When considering the healthiness of a burger, we need to look beyond the patty. In fact, the patty often only accounts for a small fraction of the calories, carbs, sodium, and fat in a saucy restaurant burger. When you factor this in, the modest nutritional differences become even smaller.
The reality is that we don’t fully understand why greater intake of whole plants tends to be associated with better health outcomes (see Harvard Health summary). We suspect it’s a combination of factors including: high fiber and water content, low levels of saturated fats (with some exceptions), moderate protein content, and high levels of phytochemicals such as antioxidants. Unfortunately, many processed plant-based foods don’t offer these same benefits.
We also don’t fully understand why red meat consumption tends to be associated with poor health outcomes. It’s not clear how much of this link is causative. There are plenty of good theories, but none of them are airtight, and rest on observational studies. Unfortunately, we can’t always do the perfectly controlled human trials that we need to get crystal clear answers.
Public health outcomes are another consideration, and may favour a plant based choice.
Given the animal-based origins of many food-borne diseases, a shrinking animal livestock industry could lead to fewer outbreaks. Similarly, a shift away from beef (and other livestock) could help stem the rising tide of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, by reducing the contribution of animals (that are routinely fed antibiotics). In addition, eating charred meats has been linked to increased risk for certain cancers (read more at cancer.gov)
Last but not least, comes taste.
Impossible’s burger appears to be the most realistic plant-based burger on the market. My unscientific survey of friends and family supports this view, as does Burger King’s April Fool’s Day video and Impossible Foods’ extensive market testing and many awards. Yet, tastes are personal and some people reject even subtle differences from their trusty favourites. On the flipside, for some plant-based eaters, the similarity to beef is not necessarily a good thing.
The bottom line is that trading in beef burgers for plant-based burgers is a big win on the environmental and animal suffering fronts, but may not move the needle on the health front.
Given this scorecard, I hope that omnivores will try making the swap, and find it to be seamless and delicious. As for those who are already plant-based, I hope that you won’t see the increasing availability of vegan fast food as a reason to eat more of it. The odd fast-food indulgence is harmless, but should be seen for what it is — an indulgence.
Congratulations, Impossible Foods on taking this giant step towards your lofty mission!
Disclosure: I have no formal affiliation with Impossible Foods, but am grateful to consider its founder and CEO, Dr. Patrick Brown, a dear friend and mentor. I had the good fortune of being in Pat’s lab during my graduate studies a lifetime ago!
I am formally trained in human genetics (PhD) and spent the first decade of my career working in cancer research, drug development, and personalized medicine.
This new chapter of my career is dedicated to helping others to live their healthiest lives. I also love helping people happily dial up the plants on their plate.
For more nutritional insights — and healthy, simple, recipes , check out my website (Fueled by Science).