Impossible Foods, which made headlines for its meatless burgers that “bleed” like real meat, is set to become a household name, courtesy of a partnership with Burger King and their Whopper sandwich.
The new Impossible Whopper bills itself as 100% Whopper, 0% Beef. Instead of a hamburger patty made with beef, the burger will feature an Impossible patty, which is made mostly of soy protein, potato protein, coconut oil, sunflower oil, and heme, derived from genetically engineered yeast.
While it’s currently only available at 59 restaurants in St. Louis, Missouri, the plan is to expand it to Burger King’s 7,200 stores if the initial rollout goes well.
It’s not the first time the meat substitute has been featured at a fast food restaurant. White Castle released an Impossible Slider in nearly 400 stores in 2018, and the company says you can find Impossible products in more than 5,000 restaurants in the U.S., Hong Kong, Macau, and Singapore, in locations ranging from fine dining establishments to food trucks and theme parks.
However, Burger King rollout could be the move that makes Impossible meat mainstream. With a flavor that’s reportedly similar to beef, Burger King says it’s not necessarily trying to cater to vegetarians or vegans but rather to meat eaters looking to cut back on beef.
But while at first glance it may seem like fake beef is an ideal solution to many of the problems with conventional meat, ultimately creating fake food is not the answer.
What Is an Impossible Burger?
The Impossible Burger is a meat alternative that’s unlike others on the market due to the addition of soy leghemoglobin or heme. This, the company says, it what makes the meat taste like meat, and, in plants, leghemoglobin is the protein that carries heme, an iron-containing molecule.
Originally, Impossible Foods harvested leghemoglobin from the roots of soy plants but deemed that method unsustainable. Instead, they turned to genetic engineering, which they use to create a yeast engineered with the gene for soy leghemoglobin.
“This process allows us to make heme at scale with the lowest achievable environmental impact,” according to the company. The full ingredients list of their “new” recipe, which was released in January 2019, is as follows:
“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, Soy Protein Isolate, Mixed Tocopherols (Vitamin E), Zinc Gluconate, Thiamine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B1), Sodium Ascorbate (Vitamin C), Niacin, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B6), Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Vitamin B12. Contains Soy”
Impossible Burgers Are Highly Processed
In the U.S., consumers are increasingly seeking out wholesome, real, minimally processed food. The Impossible Burger is the opposite — a highly processed fake food (but one that’s disguised as something good for you). Where in nature can you find ingredients like genetically engineered yeast, soy protein concentrate, modified food starch, and soy protein isolate? The answer is nowhere, and therein lies a key part of the problem.
Friends of the Earth (FOE), a grassroots environmental group, released a report that posed critical questions about the growing trend toward animal product alternatives. In it they pointed out the highly processed nature of these products:
“Various ‘processing aids’ are employed to make some of these products, including organisms (like genetically engineered bacteria, yeast, and algae) that produce proteins, and chemicals to extract proteins.
For example, chemicals like hexane are used to extract components of food, like proteins (from peas, soy, corn, etc.) or compounds (from genetically engineered bacteria) to make xanthan gum.
Currently, however, disclosure of these ingredients is not required. Other processing aids (e.g. bacteria, yeast, algae), including those that are genetically engineered to produce proteins, are also not currently required to be disclosed on the package labeling. The lack of transparency makes it difficult to assess the inputs and impact of their use.”
Concerns Raised Over Impossible Burger Safety
While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ultimately declared that Impossible Foods’ soy leghemoglobin is safe, they originally had questioned whether it could have adverse effects for people with allergies. In fact, documents obtained by FOE via the Freedom of Information Act showed that the FDA said it had not provided proof of safety for the GE soy leghemoglobin used in its products.
Further, the use of GE yeast resulted in 46 unexpected GE proteins, and the FDA at the time warned Impossible Foods that the product would not meet generally recognized as safe (GRAS) status.
Despite this, the company released its Impossible Burger for human consumption. And as with all GE organisms, there is the possibility of escape and contamination of wild species in the environment. This may particularly be true of prolific organisms like yeast, which are difficult to contain.
“Because such organisms reproduce (and some can cross breed with related organisms or even, in the case of microbes, ‘swap genes’ with unrelated species through horizontal gene transfer) the escape of genetically engineered organisms could have negative ecological consequences,” FOE noted. “These include genetic contamination of wild species and disruption of natural ecosystems.”
Is Lab-Grown Meat Any Better?
While Impossible Foods uses genetically engineered proteins in its products, other meat replacements, such as those sold by Memphis Meats, are grown in a lab via mass culturing stem cells from animals, often in a solution containing bovine serum, hormones, growth factors, and other food additives.
PR campaigns have gone so far as to call lab-grown meat “clean meat,” but research published in Environmental Science and Technology suggested it could actually require more intensive energy use compared to conventional meat. Unlike the Impossible burger, lab-grown meat is not currently being sold for human consumption — it’s far too expensive, though prices are dropping.
The first lab-grown burger cost more than $300,000 to make, whereas a pound of lab-grown meat now costs around $3,200. It’s still too pricy, but it’s possible it could reach competitive rates in the coming years.
Agricultural giant Cargill Inc. and billionaires Richard Branson and Bill Gates are among those who have given millions to Memphis Meats. Other investors in Memphis Meats include General Electric CEO Jack Welch, venture capital firm DJF (which has also invested in Tesla, SpaceX, and Skype) and billionaires Kimbal Musk (brother of tech billionaire Elon Musk) and Kyle Vogt (co-founder of a self-driving car startup).
Does it seem the idea of putting patients on the food system is appealing to a number of billionaire investors but does the idea of an elite few controlling the food system sound appealing to you? No one can patent a natural cow, chicken or duck, but with the advent of lab-grown meat and genetically engineered meat alternatives, the resulting beef, chicken, and duck are very much patentable — and fully controlled by its makers.
Impossible Foods Makes Questionable Sustainability Claims
One of the draws alternative meat companies use is promoting a sustainable image, but FOE states that many of these claims are questionable.
“The Impossible Burger is marketed as ‘sustainable,’ … despite the lack of data on energy consumption, emissions or dependency on industrial feedstocks like genetically engineered corn used to feed the genetically engineered yeast that produces key ingredients,” they noted, adding that these are “just a few of the confusing promotional claims being made.”
The environmental group believes that any claims of environmental sustainability should be backed up by a full life-cycle assessment, starting with the product’s creation and ending with its disposal, that’s made publically available.
In 2018, Impossible Foods released a sustainability impact report that claimed their products used 75 percent less water and 95 percent less land while generating 87 percent fewer greenhouse gases compared to conventional ground beef, however they currently can only produce enough product to meet 0.02 percent of the U.S. demand for ground beef.