Is the Impossible Burger Really Healthy?
Celebrated nutritionists Cynthia Lair, Dr. Steven Gundry, and Adam Drewnowski weigh in on the plant-based burgers that are sweeping the nation.
November 20, 2019
Hard Rock Cafe’s Legendary Burger made with the “Impossible Burger”
Americans consume more meat per capita than almost any other nation. This demand has been linked to a global degradation of climate and farmland—a connection that has been well reported and seems to have an impact on the way we choose to eat. For these and other health-conscious reasons, many people are exploring aspects of a vegetarian diet –now fashionably repackaged as a “plant-based diet.” But while consumers are more aware of their food choices and the politics of what’s on their plate, it is also true that quintessential American foods like burgers and fried chicken are hard to give up.
It felt inevitable, then, that businesses would see an opportunity in the marketplace and create real-tasting, plant-based “meat.” Enter the Impossible Burger, a vegan, plant-based burger reintroduced mass-market through fast-food chains with great fanfare this year, even Burger King couldn’t keep up with demand when it first rolled them out in August. Don’t want to eat meat, but can’t give up burgers? Boom—suddenly there’s a solution for you. But just because that burger is plant-based, is it really healthy?
The Meat of the Matter
Thinking critically about your food is important, whether you’re studying to be a nutritionist or not. Interestingly, Impossible Burger didn’t label their patty as a “healthy” option, even though at Burger King, the Impossible Whopper has fewer calories than its beef-ed up version. Noting that Impossible ‘meat’ has the same protein per pound as 80/20 ground beef, the company claims to have created an alternative, protein-rich, nutritious (defined as a “dietary source of iron, fiber, and calcium”) non-meat product that tastes like meat. Though it is lower in calories than its beef counterpart, the amount of fat per ounce is nearly identical. Everyone knows that fruits and vegetables are healthy, so it’s likely the shift of consumer attention to “plant-based” foods that has made it appear a more healthy option.
And a plant cocktail it is indeed. Made of soy and potato protein that creates the bulky, beef-like texture, and heme, a molecule made from fermentation of genetically-made yeast that adds a meaty taste, the Impossible Burger has hit a nerve because most people can’t tell the difference between it and meat. Fats, by way of coconut and sunflower oils, round out the ingredient list, emulating the juiciness of a beef burger.
All of this food, however, is processed in a lab, which can be a red flag for a health-conscious consumer. “There is nothing wrong with a more varied and more plant-forward diet,” says Adam Drewnowski, PhD, the Director at the Center for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Washington, “but highly processed plant-based meats are no substitute for the real thing.”
Steven Gundry, MD, former cardiac surgeon and author of The Plant Paradox, doesn’t mince words when asked about plant-based burgers like Impossible and Beyond Burger: “Both of these burgers…have been tested to contain glyphosate [an herbicide], which is a deadly disruptor to our healthspan,” he says. “The bottom line is that these are ULTRA-processed foods. And if we’ve learned anything, ultra-processed foods have no place in a health-promoting diet.” (On the other end of the spectrum are “whole foods”—minimally processed, unrefined foods closest to their natural state).
The truth is, all vegetarian ‘burger’ patties are processed in some way. Gardenburger, around since the 1980s and now owned by Kellogg, was developed by a vegetarian restaurant in Oregon and then later became a national product line. The first ingredients listed are rice, mushrooms, whole grain oats, and mozzarella cheese, making it a mostly whole food-based option—just not vegan due to the cheese. Even still, it does contain flavors, emulsifiers, and binders, all of which would be considered a processed food.
So, What is Considered Healthy Eating?
There is no one answer to what is “healthy” for every human, though there are some generally accepted rules that most of us follow. Vegetables are good. Fresh fruit is good. Protein is needed to build and repair tissue. Moderation is considered key.
It’s a moving target that really does come down to a personal choice and a personalized plan built for an individual by a nutritionist. Someone with a chronic illness will have different needs than someone wanting to lose weight. It’s really up to you to be educated and thoughtful about your approach to health through diet.
“We have a tendency to look at food categories in an open and shut way,” says Cynthia Lair, author of Feeding the Whole Family and founder of Bastyr University’s Bachelor of Science in Nutrition and Culinary Arts. “Bread is bad. Olive oil is good. Eating meat hurts the environment—but in truth, most foods can be placed on a continuum.”
Lair suggests to “learn where your food comes from. Support local producers. Pay for the best.” She likes small producers who are offering food that is not laden with chemicals and who treat animals humanely, both of which contribute positively to our overall health. “Never forget moderation always wins the diet game,” she adds.
Will the Best Burger Please Stand Up?
As a career-oriented nutritionist, you will be offering recommendations to patients and clients about their health. There is no one-size-fits-all plan: You must be a flexible and critical thinker, stay on top of trends, constantly question the marketing cycle of fad diets, and encourage the patients and clients you treat to do the same. Businesses are making plant-based burgers because of consumer-driven trends. They see an opportunity in the marketplace, just as you have an opportunity as an educator.
Want to know the best burger to recommend? Make it yourself and stick to whole foods. Opt for a recipe with clear, simple ingredients that you can make at home—a bean- or nut-based patty or a thin burger made from lean, organic ground meat like turkey, chicken, seafood, or even lean beef. And if you want to really want to tap into the occasional fast food plant-based burger, that’s OK, too—in moderation.
Where’s the Beef? How Plant-Based Burgers Stack Up
Most vegan and vegetarian burgers are made from a collection of ingredients—some variation on plant protein, fats, filler, and flavorings—that steer away from the actual ingredient they’re meant to mimic while trying to replicate taste and texture (no small feat!). Here, we dissect a few popular options, so you know what you’re getting with each patty.