The Impossible Burger: A Vegetarian Breakthrough Brought to You by Science

5 minute read
Originally posted here: https://mcgill.ca/oss/article/nutrition-environment-general-science/impossible-burger-vegetarian-breakthrough-brought-you-science

I’ve been eating veggie burgers for a long time. If it’s sold in Canadian grocery stores or fast food restaurants, there’s a good chance I’ve tried it. There are some I like more, and some I like less, but they all fall into one of two categories: fake meat and veggie.

I like a veggie burger that knows it’s made of veggies, not one that’s pretending it’s beef. Mostly because all fake meat patties seem to come out as bad imitations. But, that seems to be changing in a big way.

The Impossible Burger, made by Impossible Foods, is a plant-based burger designed to fry, bleed, taste and smell just like beef. Incredulous? So was I.

What makes this burger different? The same thing that makes Fireball taste so good and Buckleys taste so bad. Chemistry!

The molecule responsible for the “meaty” taste of meat is heme and it’s found in animal muscle cells in the protein myoglobin. Sadly, there are no non-animal sources of myoglobin, but there is something pretty close: leghemoglobin.

Leghemoglobin is found in the roots of legumes and can provide a “meaty” taste very similar to its animal-based brother. It’s not especially environmentally friendly or affordable to dig up bean plants for their roots, so Impossible Foods had to get creative. They genetically engineered yeast to make leghemoglobin, so that by growing the yeast in fermentation vats they were able to create all the heme needed to make a meaty tasting veggie burger.

Other than heme, the ingredients of an Impossible burger are pretty similar to any other fake meat product. Wheat and potato protein, coconut and soy oil, some binders. All perfectly safe (despitesome cries of outrageover soy and GMOs).

How does it taste? On a recent trip to New York I went out of my way to find one and was not disappointed. The texture isn’t perfectly meat-like (or at least how I remember the texture of meat) but the taste was very similar, as was the look. But don’t just take my vegetarian opinion on the matter, here’s what Michael Marshall, The Project Director of the Good Thinking Society, had to say on it:

“If I hadn’t known what the Impossible Burger was – and, more to the point, what it wasn’t – I’m not sure I’d have been able to tell. It definitely wasn’t the best burger I’ve ever had, but it also wasn’t the worst, and that’s pretty impressive given that the rest of them (at least, I hope the rest of them) had the head start of actually being a burger. Possibly the most remarkable thing about the Impossible Burger is that they’ve managed to make a meat-substitute that differs from meat so little as to be unremarkable. If you’re looking to reduce or cut out meat but fear you’ll miss the experience of eating meat, it’s a pretty solid substitute.”

Sadly, the Impossible burger still isn’t available in Canada. A rival product however is being pushed by A&W: The Beyond Meat Burger.

This meat alternative also makes claimsabout tasting, smelling and having a meat-like texture. However, as far as I can tell it contains similar ingredients to any other veggie burger, with some beet added to dye the uncooked patty red. A&W’s website proudly states (several times) that their product is GMO free, a big change from Impossible Food’s pride in their GM technology.

Never one to pass up a veggie burger, I obviously went and tried the Beyond Meat Burger too. I was, to put it nicely, underwhelmed. It didn’t taste like meat. It didn’t really taste like anything other than a typical cheap veggie patty, and I honestly think I preferred A&W’s old veggie burger. It was boring enough that I’ll probably just opt for some French fries next time we make a road trip stop at an A&W.

But it’s not all about taste, right? Maybe the Impossible burger is delicious but very unhealthy? Well, nutrition-wise the two new veggie burgers actually beat out their meat competitors in terms of protein and iron (two of the nutrients vegetarians often struggle to consume). The Beyond Meat Burger has a lot more fat than the Impossible burger, but is still on par with the meat burgers. Perhaps the biggest lesson to learn from comparing the burgers is that while veggie burgers tend to cost the same (or less) as meat ones, at least at A&W they’re much larger!

NutritionImpossible
Burger
(85 g)
Beyond
Meat
Burger
(113 g)
No Name beef
burgers
(113 g)
A&W
hamburger
(58 g)
Calories220270320150
Fat (g)13202712
Saturated fat (g)105135
Sodium (mg)43038043045
Sugar (g)1010
Protein (g)20201411
Iron (%)1525156

Even if you’re not passionate about finding the perfect veggie patty like I am, there are good reasons to care about the evolution of vegetarian meat alternatives.

The meat industry is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. Animals raised for meat expel 37% of all human-released methane. They also require enormous amounts of water. 1 ton (907 kg) of beef takes 16.7 million litres of water to produce, which is more than six times the 2.52 million litres required for a ton of soy.

Infographic made by Ada Mcvean

There is also the animal welfare aspect of the meat industry to consider, as well as the documented health benefits to minimizing your meat intake. Technologies like lab grown meat or ethically raised animals can help your conscience, but not your wallet or heart. Part of what makes meat-like alternatives so compelling is their affordability.

While there are issues with replacing all meat with vegetable proteins, such as plant sources lacking some nutrients and ethical issues of putting herders out of work, there is a lot to be gained by embracing a vegetarian diet (or just going veggie sometimes). The Impossible Burger, and other products I hope are available shortly, might be a simple way to do that.

Until then, I guess I’ll stick to grilling Portobello mushrooms. Not such an impossible task.