Impossible Foods, which made headlines for its meatless burgers that “bleed” like real meat, is set to become a household name, courtesy of a partnership with Burger King and their Whopper sandwich.
The new Impossible Whopper bills itself as 100% Whopper, 0% Beef. Instead of a hamburger patty made with beef, the burger will feature an Impossible patty, which is made mostly of soy protein, potato protein, coconut oil, sunflower oil and heme, derived from genetically engineered yeast.1
While it’s currently only available at 59 restaurants in St. Louis, Missouri, the plan is to expand it to Burger King’s 7,200 stores if the initial roll out goes well.2
It’s not the first time the meat substitute has been featured at a fast food restaurant. White Castle released an Impossible Slider in nearly 400 stores in 2018, and the company says you can find Impossible products in more than 5,000 restaurants in the U.S., Hong Kong, Macau and Singapore, in locations ranging from fine dining establishments to food trucks and theme parks.3
However, the Burger King rollout could be the move that makes Impossible meat mainstream. With a flavor that’s reportedly similar to beef, Burger King says it’s not necessarily trying to cater to vegetarians or vegans but rather to meat eaters looking to cut back on beef.4
But while at first glance it may seem like fake beef is an ideal solution to many of the problems with conventional meat, ultimately creating fake food is not the answer.
What Is an Impossible Burger?
The Impossible Burger is a meat alternative that’s unlike others on the market due to the addition of soy leghemoglobin, or heme. This, the company says, it what makes meat taste like meat, and, in plants, leghemoglobin is the protein that carries heme, an iron-containing molecule.
Originally, Impossible Foods harvested leghemoglobin from the roots of soy plants, but deemed that method unsustainable. Instead, they turned to genetic engineering, which they use to create a yeast engineered with the gene for soy leghemoglobin.
“This process allows us to make heme at scale with the lowest achievable environmental impact,” according to the company.5 The full ingredients list of their “new” recipe, which was released in January 2019, is as follows:6
“Water, Soy Protein Concentrate, Coconut Oil, Sunflower Oil, Natural Flavors, 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. Contains: Soy”
Impossible Burgers Are Highly Processed
In the U.S., consumers are increasingly seeking out wholesome, real, minimally processed food. The Impossible Burger is the opposite — a highly processed fake food (but one that’s disguised as something good for you). Where in nature can you find ingredients like genetically engineered yeast, soy protein concentrate, modified food starch and soy protein isolate? The answer is nowhere, and therein lies a key part of the problem.
Friends of the Earth (FOE), a grassroots environmental group, released a report that posed critical questions about the growing trend toward animal product alternatives. In it they pointed out the highly processed nature of these products:7
“Various ‘processing aids’ are employed to make some of these products, including organisms (like genetically engineered bacteria, yeast and algae) that produce proteins, and chemicals to extract proteins.
For example, chemicals like hexane are used to extract components of a food, like proteins (from peas, soy, corn etc.) or compounds (from genetically engineered bacteria) to make xanthan gum.
Currently, however, disclosure of these ingredients is not required. Other processing aids (e.g. bacteria, yeast, algae), including those that are genetically engineered to produce proteins, are also not currently required to be disclosed on package labeling. The lack of transparency makes it difficult to assess the inputs and impact of their use.”
Concerns Raised Over Impossible Burger Safety
While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ultimately declared that Impossible Foods’ soy leghemoglobin is safe, they originally had questioned whether it could have adverse effects for people with allergies. In fact, documents obtain by FOE via the Freedom of Information Act showed that the FDA said it had not provided proof of safety for the GE soy leghemeglobin used in its products.
Further, the use of GE yeast resulted in 46 unexpected GE proteins, and the FDA at the time warned Impossible Foods that the product would not meet generally recognized as safe (GRAS) status.
Despite this, the company released its Impossible Burger for human consumption.8 And as with all GE organisms, there is the possibility of escape and contamination of wild species in the environment. This may particularly be true of prolific organisms like yeast, which are difficult to contain.
“Because such organisms reproduce (and some can cross breed with related organisms or even, in the case of microbes, ‘swap genes’ with unrelated species through horizontal gene transfer) the escape of genetically engineered organisms could have negative ecological consequences,” FOE noted. “These include genetic contamination of wild species and disruption of natural ecosystems.”9
Is Lab-Grown Meat Any Better?
While Impossible Foods uses genetically engineered proteins in its products, other meat replacements, such as those sold by Memphis Meats, are grown in a lab via mass culturing stem cells from animals, often in a solution containing bovine serum, hormones, growth factors and other food additives.10
PR campaigns have gone so far as to call lab-grown meat “clean meat,” but research published in Environmental Science and Technology suggested it could actually require more intensive energy use compared to conventional meat.11 Unlike the Impossible burger, lab-grown meat is not currently being sold for human consumption — it’s far too expensive, though prices are dropping.
The first lab-grown burger cost more than $300,000 to make, whereas a pound of lab-grown meat now costs around $3,200. It’s still too pricy, but it’s possible it could reach competitive rates in the coming years.12
Agricultural giant Cargill Inc. and billionaires Richard Branson and Bill Gates are among those who have given millions to Memphis Meats. Other investors in Memphis Meats include General Electric CEO Jack Welch, venture capital firm DJF (which has also invested in Tesla, SpaceX and Skype) and billionaires Kimbal Musk (brother of tech billionaire Elon Musk) and Kyle Vogt (co-founder of a self-driving car startup).
It seems the idea of putting patents on the food system is appealing to a number of billionaire investors, but does the idea of an elite few controlling the food system sound appealing to you? No one can patent a natural cow, chicken or duck, but with the advent of lab-grown meat and genetically engineered meat alternatives, the resulting beef, chicken and duck is very much patentable — and fully controlled by its makers.
Impossible Foods Makes Questionable Sustainability Claims
One of the draws alternative meat companies use is promoting a sustainable image, but FOE states that many of these claims are questionable.
“The Impossible Burger is marketed as ‘sustainable,’ … despite the lack of data on energy consumption, emissions or dependency on industrial feedstocks like genetically engineered corn used to feed the genetically engineered yeast that produce key ingredients,” they noted, adding that these are “just a few of the confusing promotional claims being made.”13
The environmental group believes that any claims of environmental sustainability should be backed up by a full life-cycle assessment, starting with the product’s creation and ending with its disposal, that’s made publically available.
In 2018, Impossible Foods released a sustainability impact report that claimed their products used 75 percent less water and 95 percent less land, while generating 87 percent less greenhouse gases compared to conventional ground beef, however they currently can only produce enough product to meet 0.02 percent of the U.S. demand for ground beef.14
CAFO Meat Must Be Changed
It’s clear that alternatives are needed to the concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) involved in producing most meat. CAFOs are known to destroy communities by polluting waterways, creating toxic air pollution and sickening area residents.
CAFOs are directly contributing to the growing dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, which is a serious and increasing threat to marine life, while pesticide usage and other industrialized farming methods may be killing off insects at an alarming rate. Current animal rearing practices are inhumane, environmentally destructive and contributing to the growing threat of antibiotic resistance and foodborne illness.
All of these complex problems have a common thread, and that is that their solution lies in changing agricultural practices. But instead of focusing on the creation of highly processed fake meat products, the solution is to focus on changing agriculture from industrial to regenerative.
Why Animals Are Necessary for Sustainable Agriculture
A whopping 35 percent of cereal and soy harvested globally is fed to animals being raised on CAFOs.15 Because of the vast amounts of annual crops being grown for CAFO animal feed, conservation group WWF found that 60 percent of global biodiversity loss is due to meat-based diets straining resources.16
However, the solution isn’t to remove animals from the system but rather to include them in accordance with the laws of nature. Rather than housing livestock separately from other animals and crops, livestock are integrated into a symbiotic, complementary system that mimics the way nature works.
Allen Williams, Ph. D., a sixth-generation farmer and chief ranching officer for Joyce Farms, a well-known “grass fed guru,” explained, “The way we do this at Joyce Farms is by mimicking the dense herds of grazing ruminants that used to roam across America, grazing and trampling plants into the soil. This trampling provides an armor of plant life for the soil and feeds the soil microbes.”17
If you want to support truly natural, sustainable foods, support the farmers raising grass fed animals on biodynamic farms. On biodynamic farms:18
- Crops and livestock are integrated
- Animals are treated humanely, and all have access to the outdoors, free-range forage and plenty of space to move around
- At least 10 percent of farm acreage is set aside for biodiversity
- The farm must uphold standards of social responsibility
One of the key differences between organic and biodynamic farms is that the former may raise only one type of crop, or only crops or livestock. But biodynamic farming brings animals and plants together to form a living web of life, a self-sustaining ecosystem.
To save the planet and support your health, skip the fake meat alternatives and opt for real food that’s being raised the right way instead. When you shop for food, know your farmer or look for Demeter (biodynamic) and American Grassfed Association (AGA) certifications, which are both indicative of high-quality, sustainable and environmentally sound food.
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