Last week, the Center for Food Safety, a watchdog group that opposes genetically engineered foods, called on the Food and Drug Administration to recall the Impossible Burger product from grocery stores, citing safety concerns because of its use of genetically engineered heme, an iron-rich molecule found in meat and plants, for use as a color additive.
Impossible Foods’ chief communications officer, Rachel Konrad, called the allegations “false and frankly ridiculous.“ She added: “The FDA has acknowledged multiple times that the Impossible Burger’s key ingredient is safe to eat. The FDA has also acknowledged multiple times that Impossible Foods’ rigorous safety testing meets or exceeds extensive federal requirements.”
There seems to be consensus that a pivot to plant-based meat would reduce greenhouse gas emissions and avoid the animal cruelty associated with traditional animal agriculture. But is the Impossible Burger, which is kosher and halal certified but not organic, good for you? Here’s how it compares to an average same-sized beef hamburger that is 80 percent lean beef to 20 percent fat.
Price: The retail package of Impossible ground plant-based meat is a 12-ounce block and costs $8.99, which would be $12 per pound if it was sold that way. That is about three times more expensive than most conventionally raised ground beef in the supermarket, which sells for a little over $3 a pound.
Financials: The plant-based market is still in its infancy: While the total plant-based market value has surged to $4.5 billion, U.S. cattle production alone accounted for $67.1 billion in cash receipts in 2018. While Impossible doesn’t disclose its financials, the company has raised $750 million since its founding in 2011, much of that money spent in research and development.
Top Five Ingredients: Water, soy protein concentrate, coconut oil, sunflower oil and natural flavors.
Calories: A four-ounce serving, which is a pretty skimpy burger, clocks in at 240 calories. That’s in the range of a beef burger, depending on the fat content. This is the 2.0 version of Impossible, the formula rejiggered largely to reduce saturated fat; the original had 290 calories. This is the patty alone — bun, condiments and accouterments are additional calories.
Cholesterol: Impossible contains no cholesterol. To compare, a regular beef patty contains about 80 mg, a quarter of your daily cholesterol limit.
Fat: 14 grams, including 8 grams of saturated fat, which is generally considered less healthy than unsaturated fat. This is comparable to a beef burger, and mostly due to the coconut oil. Earlier this year, Impossible replaced a portion of the coconut oil, which has the highest saturated fat content among plant-based oil, with sunflower oil, which is an unsaturated fat. The oils give the patty a plush mouth feel and make it sizzle on the griddle.
Sodium: 370 milligrams of added salt, which is 16 percent of your daily recommended amount — so fairly high. A beef burger does have a small amount of naturally occurring sodium (3 ounces of cooked lean beef contains about 55 milligrams of sodium), but a beef burger’s total sodium depends on how much it is seasoned.
Protein: 19 grams or 31 percent of the daily recommended amount, which is about the same as a regular 4 oz. beef burger.
Heme: This is the most controversial ingredient. It adds to the flavor and color of the burger and makes it “bleed” like a beef burger. Heme, or soy leghemoglobin, is found most abundantly in animal flesh and is the catalyst for hundreds of chemical reactions that occur while a burger is cooking. Unlike the heme found in beef, the heme in the Impossible Burger is made by taking the DNA from the roots of soy plants, inserting it into genetically engineered yeast and then fermenting that yeast (much the way Belgian beer is made). Soy contains estrogen-like compounds called isoflavones that some findings say can promote the growth of some cancer cells, impair female fertility and mess with men’s hormones.
The rest: Impossible Burger beats beef in many vitamin and mineral categories like folate, B12, thiamin (2,350 percent of daily recommended?!), and iron, the product fortified to include nutrients a vegan or vegetarian might not otherwise get. It contains less than 1 gram of added sugar and 3 grams of fiber per serving (largely in the form of methylcellulose, a plant-based bulk-forming binder). Animal meat contains no fiber.