Food & Nutrition

Here’s What’s Really in an Impossible Burger

There’s one key ingredient that makes the seemingly impossible possible.

It wasn’t all that long ago that the idea of plant-based meat sounded like something out of a sci-fi movie, and even after the Impossible Burger made it a reality in 2016, many people believed this futuristic “meat” was nothing but a passing curiosity. Yet even if people weren’t entirely sure what ingredients went into an Impossible Burger (how can plants taste so much like meat?!), the impossibility of the Impossible Burger appealed to everyone: vegans, vegetarians, and omnivores who were interested in incorporating some meatless meals.

Since Impossible Burger came onto the scene, meatless meat has proven that it is more than a trend; with growing concerns about the environmental impact of beef, plant-based meat may very well be the future of meat. In 2018, the global plant-based meat market was valued at USD 12.4 billion. Thanks to the growing interest in foods made with plant-based ingredients, and key partnerships between companies such as Impossible and chain restaurants and fast food brands, it is estimated that the plant-based meat industry will be worth USD 13.8 billion by 2027.

What is Impossible Burger’s “secret ingredient”?

"Impossible Foods" burgers on a shelf in a grocery store

ANGELA WEISS/Getty Images

The numbers have proven that America has gone crazy for the Impossible Burger, but what exactly are the ingredients that make it taste like a dead ringer for meat? One of the main Impossible Burger ingredients that makes it so much like real meat is called heme. The Impossible website describes heme as a molecule found in every living plant and animal that people always eat and crave. This iron-rich molecule is mostly in red meat, and it helps the Impossible Burger mimic the “bleeding juices” of real burgers. According to the company’s website, Impossible uses the heme-containing protein from the roots of soy plants and inserts it into a genetically engineered yeast.

“Yeast are relatively easy to genetically modify so that they can spit out precise waste products,” says food scientist Emily Wagener. “This is why they are a solid choice for producing ‘magical’ products, like the special heme protein that makes meat ‘meat.’”

The genetically-modified yeast goes through a fermentation to make lots of heme, similar to how the Belgians make beer. Wagener notes that aside from producing heme, yeast has another important part to play as an Impossible Burger ingredient. “Yeast extracts are a key component in many savory food products for their ability to impart a lovely umami flavor,” she says.

What are the other Impossible Burger ingredients?

Other Impossible Burger ingredients include plant-based ingredients—but it’s not 100 percent veggies. The ingredients include: water, textured wheat protein, coconut oil, potato protein, natural flavors, 2 percent or less of: leghemoglobin (soy), yeast extract, salt, konjac gum, xanthan gum, soy protein isolate, vitamin E, vitamin C, thiamin (vitamin B1), zinc, niacin, vitamin B6, riboflavin (vitamin B2), and vitamin B12.

How many calories are in the Impossible Burger?

One single 4-ounce Impossible Burger patty has 240 calories. So the question remains: Is meatless meat healthier? A 4-ounce Impossible Burger patty contains the following nutrients (listed alongside the percent of their recommended daily allowances):

  • 14g fat (18% RDA)
  • 8g saturated fat (40% RDA)
  • 0mg trans fats
  • 0mg cholesterol
  • 370mg sodium (16% RDA)
  • 9g carbohydrates (3% RDA)
  • 3g dietary fiber (11% RDA)
  • Less than 1g sugar
  • 19g protein (31% RDA)
  • 170mg calcium (15% RDA)
  • 4.2mg iron (25% RDA)
  • 610mg potassium (15% RDA)
  • Thiamin (2350% RDA)
  • Riboflavin (15% RDA)
  • Niacin (50% RDA)
  • Vitamin B4 (20% RDA)
  • Folate (30% RDA)
  • Vitamin B12 (130% RDA)
  • Phosphorus (15% RDA)
  • Zinc (50% RDA)

Is Impossible Burger good for the environment?

Make no mistake about it: All plant-based burgers are better for the environment than beef, which is one of the leading contributors to climate change. When forests are cleared to make room for farms and livestock, large stores of carbon are released into the atmo­sphere, which heats up the planet.

Cattle emit large amounts of methane gas, which is 30 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in our atmosphere and warming the planet. Raising livestock also consumes a tremendous amount of resources—they drink about one-third of all freshwater and eat about 34 percent of all crops grown globally.

“The most popular plant-based alternatives, Beyond and Impossible Burgers, produce about 90 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions in comparison with beef,” says Stephanie Feldstein, director of the population and sustainability program at the Center for Biological Diversity, a non-profit group that aims to protect endangered species. “They reduce land use by at least 93 percent and water use by 87 percent to 99 percent. They also generate no manure pollution.”

However, there is some controversy surrounding Impossible Burgers and the effects their ingredients have on the environment. Most notably, plant-based meat uses genetically-modified yeast to achieve its “impossible” flavor. There’s also the fact that, even though they’re made from plants, Impossible Burgers are still a highly processed food.

Impossible Burger vs. Beyond Meat

Packages of "Impossible Burger" and "Beyond Meat" sit on a shelf for sale in a grocery store

ANGELA WEISS/Getty Images

There are a ton of new plant-based meats hitting the market (with more to come!), but the two biggest players in the game are Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat. Both are phenomenally popular, do a great job of mimicking the taste of beef, and are nutritionally on par with real meat, but there are some notable differences between the two.

Impossible uses soy as its main protein source, but Beyond Meat is built on pea protein, and instead of using heme to make it “bleed,” Beyond Meat uses beet extract to give its burgers a reddish, beefier appearance. Beyond Meat burgers also have less saturated fat than both Impossible and beef burgers.

As far as animal welfare is concerned, the burgers from Impossible and Beyond Meat are both vegan, but Impossible admitted to using animal testing to certify its heme protein was safe for human consumption. Because of this, Impossible Burger can not be certified vegan, even though it is 100 percent free of animal products. Beyond Meat, on the other hand, has had its products certified as vegan by the Vegan Action Foundation.

Speaking of certifications, Impossible Burger is certified kosher by the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (OU) and halal by the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America (IFANCA). Beyond Meat is also kosher and halal, with its certifications coming from Organized Kashrut (K) and Islamic Services of America (ISA). Next, here’s what would happen if an entire country went vegan overnight.

Sources:

  • Science Direct: “The water footprint of poultry, pork and beef: A comparative study in different countries and production systems”
  • Anthropocene Magazine: “We can feed the world—if we reclaim our crops from livestock”
  • Bloomberg: “Cutting down on cow burps to ease climate change”
  • Medium: “Heme & Health: The Essentials”
  • AlltheResearch.com: “Global Plant-based Meat Market – Segment Analysis, Opportunity Assessment, Competitive Intelligence, Industry Outlook 2016-2026”
  • World Resources Institute: 6 Pressing Questions About Beef and Climate Change, Answered
  • Impossible Foods: “The Agonizing Dilemma of Animal Testing”
  • Emily Wagener, food scientist at International Flavors & Fragrances
  • Stephanie Feldstein, director of the population and sustainability program at the Center for Biological Diversity

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