Silicon Valley prides itself on being the center of futuristic innovations. But when Big Tech starts disrupting the food supply, I feel compelled to share my thoughts. Today, I’d like to address a specific food technology advancement: the plant-based burgers produced by Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. They look and taste like the real deal. But are these plant-based burgers healthy for you?
First, The Bigger Picture
Here’s some context to explain the genesis of these brands. Americans eat an average of 2.4 hamburgers per week. This beef-consumption habit involves a lot of cows, and the majority are raised indoors in crowded, unsanitary conditions. In addition to unsavory factory-farm conditions, cows have a detrimental impact on the environment. First, they emit greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane. Second, they feed on alfalfa, a non-essential crop that uses considerable water resources to grow, especially in drought-stricken western states.
A Noble Innovation?
What if we could eliminate the cow and climate-related problems, and develop meatless burgers that have the mouthfeel, texture, and taste of beef? That’s the idea behind Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. At first glance, these plant-based, technology-driven innovations appear noble. But let’s dig a bit deeper.
Processing: How are Impossible and Beyond Burgers Made?
The food we eat is grouped into four distinct levels that highlight the degree of processing. This categorization is known as the NOVA Food Classification System.
Within NOVA, food processing means any “physical, biological, and chemical processes that occur after foods are separated from nature, and before they are consumed or used in meal prep.”
Group 1 represents unprocessed or minimally processed foods. There is no added sugar or salt. Several of the whole foods on this list are part of the Blue Zone diet where the world’s healthiest people reside.
Some examples are fresh/frozen fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, fresh herbs, grains, eggs, lentils, beans, fresh/chilled/frozen meat, poultry and fish, plus tea and coffee.
Group 2 represents processed culinary ingredients that are used in cooking and baking to enhance taste. Some examples are oils, fats, salt, and sugar. This group should be consumed in moderation.
Group 3 represents processed food products that are manufactured by adding salt, sugar, oil, and other ingredients to Group 1 foods. Some examples are beef jerky, hot dogs, bacon, lunchmeat, beer, and wine.
Group 4 represents ultra-processed foods that are industrial formulations often made from a medley of extracted substances, derivatives of fats and starches, or the synthesis of substances in a food lab. Some examples are pre-prepared entrees, most candy and confections, carbonated sodas, salty snacks and chips, many packaged baked goods.
Are plant-based burgers good for you? Let me begin to address that question by saying that Impossible and Beyond fall firmly in Group 4, the ultra-processed and least desirable category.
Ingredient Line: What’s Inside These Plant-Based Burgers?
Impossible Foods – if you enjoy lab-made concoctions with extensive ingredient lines, this product shines brightly. Fourteen (14) ingredients total, not counting the addition of vitamins and minerals.
“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. Vitamins and Minerals: Zinc Gluconate, B1, B6, B2, and B12.” Source: Impossible’s Website
One ingredient that stands out is soy leghemoglobin, Impossible’s version of animal meat heme that provides the taste and the red color that “bleeds.” Impossible’s heme is made by fermenting yeast that has been genetically modified to include DNA from soybean plants. Protected by patents and developed in a lab, I wonder about Impossible’s heme and overall formulation. Their extensive intellectual property gives them an air of secrecy. This means there’s a lack of total transparency for consumers. It prompts the question again: are these plant-based burgers healthy?
Beyond Meat – Unlike Impossible Foods, Beyond does not contain heme. Rather, it uses beet juice to give the red appearance and “bleed” found in meat. This approach allows them to market their product as non-GMO.
Beyond’s includes a smorgasbord of 18 ingredients, not counting vitamins and minerals. Instead of soy as the protein source, Beyond uses peas and rice.
“Water, pea protein, expeller-pressed canola oil, refined coconut oil, rice protein, natural flavors, dried yeast, cocoa butter, methylcellulose, and less than 1% of potato starch, salt, potassium chloride, beet juice color, apple extract, pomegranate concentrate, sunflower lecithin, vinegar, lemon juice concentrate, vitamins and minerals (zinc, B3, B6, B12, calcium pantothenate.” Source: Beyond’s Website
As I’ve discussed before, the majority of packaged food marketing obscures the truth. And that’s the case with Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. They use the term “plant-based” to imply there’s a health benefit. But when you look at the ingredients and nutritional profile associated with their plant-based concoctions, it’s a total joke.
In a world without food marketing, a healthful plant-based diet consists of unprocessed or minimally processed plants. Yep! Whole foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, olive oil, whole grains, beans, and legumes. The exact opposite of ultra-processed ingredients originally formulated in a lab.
To replicate the mouthfeel, texture, and taste of meat burgers, Impossible and Beyond rely on high levels of saturated fat from coconut oil, as well as a heavy dose of sodium. This is a page right out of the Big Food playbook with its heavy reliance on salt, fat, and sugar to tantalize the taste buds.
Bottom line: don’t let this plant-based marketing fool you!
Impossible Foods is Marketing to K-12 Students
Pat Brown is the founder and CEO of Impossible Foods. He’s a pediatrician and a well-respected scientist. Pat is intent on reaching young people in two ways. First, he wants to educate them on the negative environmental and climate impacts of animal-derived products. Second, he wants his plant-based meat products on K-12 breakfast and lunch cafeteria menus. What??!!
In 2021, Impossible Burger and Impossible Sausage both received a Child Nutrition Label from the Department of Agriculture. Going through this rigorous approval process (really?) enabled the nutritional value of Impossible’s faux meat products to be codified for easy use in public school district menu planning.
Appealing to youngsters and teens through the “save the earth” angle is extremely clever. It circumvents closer scrutiny of the ingredient line and nutrition label by youth and teens who don’t know any better. But shame on the Department of Agriculture for allowing Impossible Foods in schools. And shame on the schools for allowing Impossible’s ultra-processed products through its doors.
Final Thoughts – Are These Plant-Based Burgers Healthy?
By now, my POV is clear. The Impossible and Beyond plant-based burgers are not healthful. Basically, these ultra-processed products are junk food. Group 4 products on the NOVA Scale are not meant to be consumed on a regular basis. At best, they are a treat.
In order to really save Mother Earth, you can do two things:
1) Make your own meatless burgers. Pick from an array of ingredients such as lentils, beans, mushrooms, nuts and seeds. Discover some recipes and start experimenting.
2) Eat meat fewer times per week and in smaller portion sizes. According to ProPublica, if every American ate meat one less day per week, we could see water savings each year “equal to the entire annual flow of the Colorado River.”
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.