The Promise and Problem With the Impossible Burger

The Impossible Burger bleeds like a real burger when cut open. This is because of a controversial ingredient that almost got them taken off the shelves in the U.S. by the FDA.

They claim this ingredient makes the Impossible Burger taste and feel like real beef, but is healthier and environmentally friendly. But is it?

Read on and you’ll be shocked what you learn, especially about the levels of glyphosate measured in the Impossible Burger.

Impossible burger vs. beef burger nutrition facts

Follow The Money

By positioning their burgers as real meat substitutes, plant based meat companies get a much larger financial opportunity. 

This provides a bigger market of possible consumers than plant-based eaters. Much like Beyond Meat (11 billion market cap), Impossible Foods is following the money. 

To date they’ve raised $1.3 billion over 12 rounds of funding.

The Impossible Burger is a feat of engineering. It is so engineered that they found 46 proteins never before tested in food. 

The secret ingredient is Soy Leghemoglobin, which is engineered by a lab by adding soy to genetically modified yeast.

Since the Impossible Burger just launched in Canada, I haven’t gotten a chance to try it.

What I have had the chance to do is dig into the ingredients and nutrition in the Impossible Burger. They are shocking to say the least, with many things you’ve never heard of.

We’ll compare health factors and nutrition in the Impossible Burger to a beef burger.

I’ll also outline why the Impossible Burger may not be as environmentally friendly as they claim.

Is The Impossible Burger Healthy?

The calorie content is similar at 240 calories in Impossible vs. 230 in a beef burger. Impossible Burger has 14 g of fat while beef has 15 g.

Protein is similar at 19 g and 22 g respectively. Impossible Burger has 9 g of carbs and 3 g of fiber while the beef burger has none. 

Much like Beyond, the Impossible Burger is high in salt, giving you 16% of your daily intake, while beef has 2%.

The impossible burger fortifies it’s ingredients with added vitamins and minerals. This is great, especially compared to Beyond Meat, who does not.

You can cover many of your nutritional needs with the impossible burger. 

However it’s important to note that fortified foods often do not provide the same levels of vitamins and minerals as real foods. Why? Our bodies do not absorb synthetic vitamins the same way we do from whole foods (1).

The Impossible burger has 33% of your recommended daily intake of iron compared to 11% for beef. 

Impossible Burger vs. beef burger vitamins , minerals, iron, B12

The iron source they use is soy leghemoglobin, which also gives the burger it’s red tinge. While it’s genetically engineered, it is a heme based iron source, meaning it is as bioavailable as meat based iron sources.

The Impossible Burger has added B vitamins including B12, which you cannot get on a vegan diet. A beef burger has around 38% of your daily needs for B12 while an Impossible Burger has 130%. 

In terms of price, the impossible burger is around $12 per pound in the USA while beef is a bit over $3 per pound. The burger is not for sale at Canada retailers yet so there’s no way to tell the price.

As you’ll see below, there are 21 ingredients in the Impossible Burger. Many of these are highly processed binders, MSG mimicking flavour additives and preservatives.

It is difficult to argue that the Impossible Burger is not highly processed. 

Impossible Burger Ingredients:

Water, Soy Protein Concentrate, Coconut Oil, Sunflower Oil, Natural Flavors, and 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.

The hot button topic with Impossible Foods is the use of genetically modified (GM) soy and the soy-yeast compound that is responsible for the bleeding red colour of the Impossible Burger when cut.

Water - You need water because soy protein absorbs a lot of moisture.

Soy Protein Concentrate - Genetically modified and highly processed form of soy that removes the carbohydrates. 

Three processes are used for carbohydrate removal: acid leaching, aqueous ethanol extraction and moist heat-water leaching (2). 

Soy itself is a bit controversial. Why? It contains estrogen-like compounds called phytoestrogens and isoflavones. They can mimic the effects of estrogen in our cells. This doesn’t necessarily mean negative effects in humans. Aside from a few case studies, there are no real hormonal issues related to eating soy.

Coconut Oil - Not much concern with coconut oil. It is higher in saturated fat, but not enough to be concerned as we know that saturated fat is not the demon we thought in the 60s.

Sunflower Oil - A staple in almost all processed and packaged foods. High in omega-6 fats. A bit concerning seeing that this is the 4th ingredient. Apparently it is used to cut down on saturated fat from coconut oil.

Natural Flavors - also known as Autolyzed Yeast. Common in processed meat products. Also a sodium bomb. It is commonly used as an alternative to MSG to make glutamic acid. Glutamic acid has many of the same addictive properties as MSG due to it’s savoury, umami taste. 

Potato Protein - Isolated from potatoes. Has a great amino acid profile. 

Methylcellulose - A binding ingredient to hold things together and improve texture. 

Yeast Extract - Used in plant based foods to mimic meat flavour. Adds flavour and lots of sodium. Also used to make MSG mimicking flavours.

Cultured Dextrose - Preservative used to keep bacteria from growing on food products.

Modified Food Starch -  Another preservative used for thickening, stabilizing, or emulsifying. It extends the shelf life of foods and allows them to withstand extreme temperatures (hot and cold).

Soy Leghemoglobin -  The most controversial ingredient in Impossible Foods. It adds to the flavour and colour of the burger and makes it “bleed” like a beef burger does when cut. This is genetically modified soy. 

How Soy Leghemoglobin is made in a lab

It is genetically engineered by adding soy to genetically modified yeast (3). The mixture is fermented to create a heme-like compound. 

Impossible Foods was in some hot water with the FDA over this ingredient over it’s concerning negative health effects (4). 

Salt -  16% of your daily value.

Soy Protein Isolate - Similar to soy protein concentrate (above) but has even more of the fiber and carbohydrates washed out using alcohol or water solution. 

Fortified Vitamins and Minerals:

Mixed Tocopherols (Vitamin E), Zinc Gluconate, Thiamine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B1), Sodium Ascorbate (Vitamin C), Niacin, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B6), Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Vitamin B12.

I think you and I agree that a whole foods based diet is generally a good thing. Unfortunately there are not a lot of whole foods in the Impossible Burger. 

But there is something else in the Impossible Burger...

11 Times More Glyphosate in Impossible Burgers

Health Research Institute Labs measured the glyphosate levels in the Impossible Burger at 11X higher than the Beyond Meat Burger (2). 

This is because they use genetically modified soy which is sprayed with Roundup from Monsanto.

roundup and glyphosate found in impossible burger

We can’t just sweep this one under the rug, since we know how damaging glyphosate is.

Glyphosate is the main ingredient in Roundup. Monsanto sprays 250 million pounds of this stuff per year in the USA alone.

The State of California stated that glyphosate is known to cause cancer while the World Health Organization says it is “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

There are countless class action lawsuits about Roundup causing cancer, including a $2 billion judgment to a couple with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. 

GMO’s also have serious health implications for fertility, liver function and infant mortality (3, 4, 5). They also increase allergen risk to GMO foods and even non-GMO foods (6, 7). 

Impossible also found 46 untested proteins in their burger. These are a result of the fermentation process used to make Soy Leghemoglobin.

The final heme compound they extracted was only 73% Soy Leghemoglobin. What about the remaining 27%? These are new proteins that we haven’t tested.
impossible burger gmo soy

Dr. Michael Hansen, senior scientist at Consumers Union, mentioned that "none of these proteins have a formal safety assessment. They’ve never been in the human diet before Impossible introduced them with the burger."

Will You Save the Planet By Eating Impossible Burgers?

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Impossible Foods does a great job educating would-be consumers on their website. There are many facts and figures to support their mission. Impossible Foods even have a fancy calculator showing how much greenhouse gas emissions you save by eating an Impossible Burger. 

The Impossible Burger claims that it uses 96% less land, 87% less water and requires 89% fewer GHG emissions to make.

The basis for these numbers is a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), an environmental accounting system which determines the environmental impact to produce and dispose of a food.

Impossible’s LCA is flawed in that it fails to accurately measure two of the three claims they make. I’ll outline them below.

1. Water Use

Guess what 99% of the water footprint for cattle is attributed to? Feed. Drinking water and the water for processing operations and cleaning account for 1% of the water footprint of cattle (8). 

The reason why this is important is because feed production uses predominantly ‘Green Water.’ Greenwater is precipitation or rain water (9). 

The LCA counts all the rain and snow that falls on cattle occupied land and feed occupied land throughout the whole year. Even though we grow feed for 3-4 months out of the year and rotate grazing cattle on different pastures throughout the year as well. 

All of this goes into the footprint for a hamburger. The rain doesn't care if cattle are on the land or not. It will fall anyways. These are grossly inflated numbers intentionally meant to mislead you. 

It also fails to account for how cows only eat part of the plants that grow with that green water. They also pee on the pasture, cycling the green water back into the land. 

2. Land Use

Land use assumes we use land for one thing only. In reality land can be used for many things throughout the year. Such as crop rotation. 

The land use LCA also doesn’t account for ‘ecosystem services,’ which are crucial to sustainability. These are the benefits that we get from nature and wildlife that would inhabit this space without cattle.

Most importantly, Impossible Foods LCA doesn’t mention that not all land is equal. The majority of grazing land for cattle is not suitable for growing crops

Try planting vegetables on the dry dirt you see in Texas or Northern Africa. It won’t go well because that land is not suitable for anything else but grazing cattle. In fact, grazing cattle are a great way to turn otherwise unusable land into nutrient rich protein.

All that said, I agree that the Impossible Burger is an environmentally friendly alternative to factory-farmed beef. But well managed cattle from farms who practice regenerative agriculture is a different story.

What is Regenerative Agriculture?

carbon footprint between impossible burger and pasture raised beef burger
Regenerative agriculture is a holistic farming method that rehabilitates farm land. It’s mandate is to positively impact climate change by:

  • Regenerating top soil
  • Improving biodiversity
  • Improving the water cycle
  • Providing ecosystem services
  • Rebuilding healthy soil

A regenerative cattle farm (White Oak Pastures) commissioned an LCA by the same firm that conducted the LCA on the Impossible Burger (10).

They showed that they can offset 100% of their grass fed beef emissions. 

Here are the net total emissions per pound of beef vs. Impossible Burger:

  • Beef: -3.5 pounds of carbon emissions per pound of beef
  • Impossible Burger: +3.5 pounds of carbon emissions per pound of Impossible Burger

How is this possible? Read my primer on farming systems and soil health below.

Soy Farming vs. Regenerative Beef Farms

soil ecosystem
This is all about soil health.
Regenerative farming creates a massive carbon sink to capture all emissions that these operations create. 

The key to creating a carbon sink is soil. You need healthy soil that is rich in nutrients to capture carbon. 

Cattle or other large ruminants (sheep, goats, bison, even giraffes) graze on land that can’t be used for crops. They gradually improve the soil quality of this land by walking on it, urinating and pooping on it. This puts nutrients back into the soil. 

Grazing cattle forage and eat some of the grass and cover crops which further stimulates their re-growth. 

The cattle are rotated to a different area of pasture, leaving this section to grow and flourish. More wildlife is attracted to the area (referred to as ecosystem services) and the area thrives. 

The organic carbon in soil is elevated, allowing for net positive carbon emissions. As you can see from the informative images from Diana Rodgers and Ridge Shinn, it is a beautiful system.

Look for Diana's new film, Sacred Cow, explaining the case for better beef.

How Soy is Farmed

monocropped soy
Soy is monocropped via large industrial farming operations. Canada in particular farms a lot of soy, like 2,051,000 hectares worth in 2020 (
11).

Monocropping is a farming strategy where you grow a single crop on the same land year after year. While efficient and cost effective in the short-term, monocropping is incredibly damaging to soil health. 

Year after year, monocropping operations take from the soil without giving back.

These farms strip the nutrients from soil by using large tillage operations, making it unhealthy and unusable in the future. 

Since the soil is severely degraded, these monocrop operations have to use pesticide and herbicides to continue to get any yield. And a lot of it.

FAO estimates we have 60 years of soil harvests left before we kill our soil for good (12). 

Regenerative agriculture can transform this damaged land. And further minimize the damage from years of tillage, pesticide and herbicide use. 

Will Eating Impossible Burger’s Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions?

Let’s compare livestock emissions to global emissions for a sec because the claims Impossible Foods’ make don’t add up.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that agriculture accounts for 9% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Of this 9%, cattle farming is responsible for 2% (13). 

Compare this to 29% for transportation and electricity and 22% for industry and 12% for commercial/residential. These numbers are for the U.S., I couldn’t find up to date numbers for Canada.

However, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN) claims that livestock agriculture is responsible for 14.5% of global emissions (14).

What’s going on here?

It turns out that the large number (14.5%) is due to developing nations being inefficient at raising and processing livestock. 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that 70 – 80% of global livestock related greenhouse gas emissions stem from developing countries.

This brings me to the following question.

Will Removing All Cows Solve Climate Change?

what is regenerative agriculture?
We’ve all seen the resource use and GHG emissions graphics from Impossible and Beyond. In reality, these seemingly dramatic differences in environmental footprints don’t scale to anything. 

For example, you could eliminate 100% of cattle in the USA and get less than 1% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (15).

Why? You account for what you replace the cattle with on that land. The land won’t go unused.

My point is that things are not as simple as they seem. Impossible Burger uses reductionist strategies to paint a picture that beef is the problem, when it is not.

Yes we should pay attention to emissions, but we need to focus on all of agriculture and how food gets to your plate. This is more important than rearranging the food items on your plate and thinking you are making a difference. You are not.

Cars vs. Cattle

In 1909, there were 312,000 vehicles registered in the U.S. Now there are 263,610,219 or an increase of 27.3% vehicles per person. Again, I couldn’t find numbers for Canada. 

What about cattle during this period?

Between 1909 and 2015 the number of cattle per person in the U.S. has gone down by 58%. 

The idea that cattle are responsible for our climate change is convenient but doesn’t add up. It is used to fuel the agenda of brands like Impossible Foods. They need a villain in order to grow their brand. It is genius marketing. They paint themselves as the knight in shining armour, coming to save the planet.

As it stands, you can buy the Impossible Burger in the U.S., Canada, Singapore, Hong Kong and Macau. 

I’m unsure of Impossible Foods’ plans to expand, but at $12 per pound U.S., is it a viable solution for the developing world who are responsible for GHG cattle emissions? 

Dr. Frank Mitloehner, professor and air quality specialist at UC Davis puts is well in his quote below:

"Solving the world’s climate change crisis is a weighty topic, and it is highly improbable (if not “impossible”) that an imitation beef burger is our savior. It is also a dangerous assertion, because it takes away focus from major polluters and our progress toward climate solutions."

Frank does incredible work dunking the myths around livestock and greenhouse gas emissions.

The Bottom Line

The ethical eater is torn. Do you keep eating meat, go full Carnivore or switch to the Impossible Burger or other plant based meat alternatives?

There are some great plant based burger substitutes, I’m just not sure Impossible is one of them.

They contain high levels of glyphosates and GMO’s that we know present increased risk for cancer, liver issues, fertility concerns and allergy risks.

Relying exclusively on soy based products is not the best idea. Soy farming is incredibly damaging to soil health, native ecosystems and our environment at large. 

The Impossible Burger is a miracle in engineering, but is it a food we should eat? Research shows that eating whole foods provides more nutrition, vitamins and minerals than equal amounts of these vitamins in synthetic forms. Our body knows how to absorb nutrition from real food. 

Impossible does a great job adding vitamins and minerals to their burger, but they are all synthetic forms. 

Lastly, the processing that goes into making the Impossible Burger makes me nervous. We don’t know the long-term effects of some of the ingredients. 

So how do you eat in a way that covers your nutrition and enjoyment while causing the least environmental damage?

It’s a tricky balance fraught with cognitive dissonance. 

I believe that limiting meat consumption in general to high quality, regeneratively farmed sources is a good first step.

Image via Diana Rodgers
Image via Ridge Shinn
Image via Getty Images
Image by Erich Westendarp

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"Amazing!

Great taste and texture. Will be purchasing this again. Works great on its own for sipping and also in soup!"

Adrienne L