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What Is the Impossible Burger, and Is It Healthy?

Health + Wellness
T.Tseng / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

By Jillian Kubala, MS, RD

The Impossible Burger is a plant-based alternative to traditional meat-based burgers. It's said to mimic the flavor, aroma, and texture of beef.


Some claim that the Impossible Burger is more nutritious and environmentally friendly than beef-based burgers. Others argue that certain ingredients in the Impossible Burger may not be optimal for your health.

This article explains what the Impossible Burger is, what it's made of, and whether it's nutritionally superior to beef-based burgers.

What is the Impossible Burger?

The Impossible Burger was created by Impossible Foods, a company founded by Patrick O. Brown in 2011.

Brown is a scientist and professor emeritus at Stanford University in California. He holds a medical degree and a Ph.D. and has worked as a research scientist for many years.

Through conferences, Brown tried raising awareness about how using animals for food harms the environment. However, this had little impact, so he created a business that produced plant-based alternatives to popular animal products.

Its signature product — the Impossible Burger — aims to perfectly mimic the taste of beef.

Impossible Burger Ingredients

Using carefully selected ingredients, Impossible Foods created a plant-based burger that some say perfectly resembles the taste, aroma, and texture of beef.

The original Impossible Burger contains the following ingredients:

Water, textured wheat protein, coconut oil, potato protein, natural flavors, 2% or less of leghemoglobin (soy), yeast extract, salt, konjac gum, xanthan gum, soy protein isolate, vitamin E, vitamin C, thiamine (vitamin B1), zinc, niacin, vitamin B6, riboflavin (vitamin B2), and vitamin B12.

In 2019, the company introduced a new recipe featuring the following changes:

  • uses soy protein instead of wheat protein, making it gluten-free
  • contains a plant-based culinary binder called methylcellulose to improve texture
  • replaced a portion of the coconut oil with sunflower oil to reduce saturated fat content

Heme, or soy leghemoglobin, is the ingredient said to set the Impossible Burger apart from other plant-based burgers. It adds to the flavor and color of the burger and makes it "bleed" like a beef burger does when cut.

It's also perhaps the most controversial ingredient in the Impossible Burger.

Unlike the heme found in beef, the heme in the Impossible Burger is genetically engineered by adding soy protein to genetically engineered yeast (1).

Though Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), some raise concern about its potential health effects (2).

Currently, the Impossible Burger is only available at certain restaurants and fast food establishments in the United States, Hong Kong, and Macau. The company also plans to sell the Impossible Burger in U.S. grocery stores from 2019.

Summary

The Impossible Burger is a plant-based burger option said to replicate the flavor, texture, and aroma of beef.

Impossible Burger Nutrition

There are nutritional differences between the Impossible Burger and beef-based burgers.

The following chart compares a 113-gram serving of the Impossible burger to an equal serving of a 90%-lean beef burger (3, 4).

Impossible Burgers are significantly lower in protein than beef-based burgers, yet they contain more fiber. Impossible Burgers are also higher in fat and contain carbohydrates, while beef burgers do not contain any carbs.

Furthermore, the Impossible Burger beats beef in many vitamin and mineral categories like folate, B12, thiamine, and iron.

However, it's important to note that these nutrients are added to the product, unlike the nutrients found in beef.

Impossible Burgers also contain a high amount of added salt, packing in 16% of the daily value for sodium in one 4-ounce (113-gram) serving.

Summary

The Impossible Burger is higher in certain vitamins and minerals than beef burgers, as they are added during processing. Impossible Burgers are also higher in salt and carbohydrates.

Impossible Burger Benefits

Impossible Burgers offer several health benefits.

High in Important Nutrients

The Impossible Burger contains an impressive amount of nutrients, as vitamins and minerals like iron, thiamine, zinc, niacin, riboflavin, and vitamin B12 are added during processing.

Some of these nutrients, such as vitamin B12, iron, and zinc, are especially important for those following plant-based diets, including vegans and vegetarians.

Vegans and vegetarians are at a greater risk of developing deficiencies in these nutrients than people who consume animal products (5, 6, 7).

What really sets the Impossible Burger apart from other vegan and vegetarian foods enriched with iron is that it provides heme iron. Heme iron is better absorbed by your body than the non-heme iron you get from plant foods.

Moreover, soy leghemoglobin has been shown to have an equivalent bioavailability to the iron found in meat, making it a potentially important source of highly absorbable iron for those who don't consume animal products (8).

The iron in the Impossible Burger has been approved by the FDA for use in food, although it's long-term safety is still unknown.

Suitable for Plant-Based Diets

The Impossible Burger is a good choice if you enjoy the taste of beef burgers but want to limit your intake of animal products.

In addition to being suitable for both vegetarian and vegan diets, it contains nutrients that many plant-based diets lack, such as vitamin B12 and heme iron.

Given that Impossible Burgers are offered at certain restaurants and fast food establishments, it's a tasty and easy, on-the-go meal choice for those following plant-based diets.

May Be a More Environmentally-Friendly Choice

The Impossible Burger website claims that producing this plant-based burger uses roughly 75% less water, generates 87% fewer greenhouse gasses, and requires 95% less land than producing conventional ground beef from cows (9).

Indeed, research shows that cattle farming is the largest contributor to greenhouse gas and ammonia emissions in the livestock industry (10).

Greenhouse gas emissions from livestock farming contribute to global warming. This leads many climate experts to recommend that people eat a more plant-based diet in order to mitigate pressure on the environment (11, 12).

Summary

The Impossible Burger is an environmentally-friendly food packed with nutrients that vegan and vegetarian diets often lack, such as iron and vitamin B12.

Impossible Burger Precautions

Although the Impossible Burger offers some benefits, there are some downsides to consider as well.

Concerns Over Plant-Based Heme

Although soy leghemoglobin — the heme used in Impossible Burgers — was deemed GRAS by the FDA, its long-term safety is still unknown.

Current studies on soy leghemoglobin have only been conducted in animals and over short periods.

For example, a 28-day study in rats found that those fed the equivalent of 750 mg/kg per day of soy leghemoglobin, which is over 100 times greater than the 90th percentile estimated daily intake in humans, had no adverse effects (13).

However, it's currently unknown whether it's safe for humans to eat this man-made compound over longer periods.

Contains Potentially Allergenic Ingredients

The original Impossible Burger recipe contains wheat and soy, both of which are common food allergens.

In fact, 1% of the world's population has celiac disease, which is an immune reaction to gluten-containing grains.

What's more, it's thought that 0.5–13% of the general population has non-celiac gluten sensitivity — an intolerance to gluten that results in unpleasant symptoms like headache and intestinal issues (14).

While the new Impossible Burger recipe has swapped gluten-containing wheat protein for soy protein, the burger still contains ingredients that some people can't tolerate.

For example, an allergy to soy, while less common than an allergy to milk or wheat, is considered one of the eight most common food allergens for both adults and children (15).

Concerns Over GMOs

Impossible Foods does not hide the fact that the Impossible Burger contains genetically modified (GMO) ingredients like soy leghemoglobin and soy protein.

Most scientists agree that GMO foods are safe. However, some are concerned about the use of GMO crops that are resistant to commonly used herbicides like glyphosate and 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) (16).

Glyphosate has been linked to potentially harmful effects on humans, plants, and animals, leading many experts to demand further research on the possible hazards of this herbicide to both humans and the environment (17, 18, 19).

For example, glyphosate has been shown to harm hormonal function, and some studies have linked it to certain cancers like leukemia (20, 21).

Additionally, some studies have linked exposure to 2,4-D with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a type of cancer (22).

Summary

There are several downsides to the Impossible Burger, including its content of potentially allergenic ingredients and the use of GMO ingredients like soy leghemoglobin.

Is the Impossible Burger Healthy?

If taste and convenience are your only concerns, the Impossible Burger may be a good choice. However, if you want to eat a more nutritious plant-based burger, consider a more whole-food-based veggie burger.

There Are Healthier Plant-Based Burger Options

The Impossible Burger contains mostly soy or wheat protein, as well as added preservatives, salt, flavorings, and fillers to enhance its taste, shelf life, and texture.

Although these ingredients are considered natural, they aren't necessary for a healthy diet, and some people prefer to avoid them.

Another downside to the Impossible Burger is that any restaurant can put their own spin on it, meaning that other ingredients — aside from those listed on the official website — may be present in the final food product.

Other veggie burgers on the market usually contain similar ingredients. However, some contain more whole-food-based ingredients like lentils, quinoa, hemp, and black beans.

Fortunately, you can make healthier and more whole-food-based veggie burgers at home. Delicious plant- and nutrient-dense burger recipes can be found online and are often based on plant proteins like beans, grains, and nuts.

Plus, many recipes pack in fresh vegetables like sweet potato, onions, cauliflower, leafy greens, and spices to further elevate the nutritional benefits of the final dish.

The heme iron in the Impossible Burger is more bioavailable than non-heme iron in plant foods.

Luckily, if you eat a plant-based diet, you can instead meet your iron needs by eating nutrient-dense whole foods like legumes, nuts, seeds, and grains. Alternatively, you can take iron supplements.

Additionally, pairing plant-based iron sources with foods rich in vitamin C, as well as soaking, sprouting, or fermenting grains and legumes before eating them, are simple ways to naturally enhance the absorption of non-heme iron (23, 24).

Summary

While the Impossible Burger may be a good option for vegans and vegetarians on the go, you can make healthier plant-based burgers at home.

The Bottom Line

The Impossible Burger has made headlines for its impressive similarity to beef-based burgers.

It boasts high protein, vitamin, and mineral contents, including a genetically engineered, plant-based source of heme iron known as soy leghemoglobin.

However, there are concerns about some of its ingredients. These include soy hemoglobin and potentially allergenic protein sources like gluten and soy.

Although the Impossible Burger may be a tasty and convenient option on the go, you can make more nutritious plant-based burgers from whole-food ingredients at home.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Healthline.

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Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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