Faux Meats: Good for the Planet – But What About Your Health?

Are you curious about the surge in popularity of plant-based burgers like the Impossible and Beyond Burgers? Wondering our thoughts on these new food products? This article provides insights and recommendations that will help you make the best decisions for your health and your principles. 

Eating it up…

Both Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat (makers of the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger, respectively) are astoundingly-fast-growing businesses. Beyond Meat took the IPO step earlier this year – a Forbes contributor, in September, called them ‘probably the hottest stock in the world’ and described it as ‘the top-performing IPO of the year and one of the best of all time.’ ‘I’ve never seen anything quite like this…’ ponders this same expert. 

Between them, these two plant-based burgers are now offered in fast-food outlets, restaurants and supermarkets across the US and internationally – Subway, Dunkin’, Burger King, Hard Rock Café, Cheesecake Factory, Applebee’s, TGI Friday’s, and Disney World are among those offering these plant-based burger alternatives. McDonald’s and KFC are rumored to be in testing phase. 

The meat of the issue

Health is usually tipped as the primary driver for choosing plant-based meat products. Curiosity, environmental and ethical concerns are strong motivators too. It’s not just vegans and vegetarians who are opting for plant-based, faux meats – nearly half of those who buy plant-based meat products do not otherwise avoid meat. 

Our focus in this article is do the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger live up to the health hopes of their consumers? 

Spoiler alert – we don’t think they do. Here’s why, and what plant-based burgers we would recommend instead…

The rub with the Impossible and Beyond Burgers

1. Ultra-processed

One way to identify foods according to their degree of processing is to use the NOVA classification system, the most prominent system used in scientific investigations and by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. NOVA recognizes four levels of processing of foods: unprocessed or minimally processed, processed culinary ingredients, processed foods and ultra-processed foods.

According to the NOVA scale, ultra-processed foods are “formulations of ingredients, mostly of exclusive industrial use, that result from a series of industrial processes, many requiring sophisticated equipment and technology”. Ultra-processed foods can be identified by meeting at least one of the following characteristics:

  • Food substances never or rarely used in kitchens: these include hydrolyzed proteins and protein isolates that are fractionated, refined, or otherwise chemically manipulated from whole foods.
  • Classes of additives whose function is to make the final product palatable or more appealing: these include flavors, colors, emulsifiers, thickeners, etc. 

According to the NOVA classification, both the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger are considered ultra-processed food products. Here is a list of their ingredients, which shows the use of fractionated whole foods, ingredients with other types of industrial processing, flavors, and additives. 

Impossible Burger Beyond Burger 
Ingredients: 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. Sourced from Impossible Foods 11-03-19Ingredients: Water, Pea Protein Isolate*, Expeller-Pressed Canola Oil, Refined Coconut Oil, Rice Protein, Natural Flavors, Cocoa Butter, Mung Bean Protein, Methylcellulose, Potato Starch, Apple Extract, Salt, Potassium Chloride, Vinegar, Lemon Juice Concentrate, Sunflower Lecithin, Pomegranate Fruit Powder, Beet Juice Extract (for color) Sourced from Beyond Meat 11-03-19

This is how the Impossible Burger is made:

2. Similar Nutrient Facts to Fast Food Burgers

Most of you will be aware that in Functional Medicine we don’t consider the Nutrition Facts box to be the be-all-and-end-all of a food’s health value. There’s a whole host of nutrition information not covered by it after all. However, it is readily available and often compared. So let’s take a look – how do the Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger stack up in the Nutrition Facts box?

To do this evaluation we added, for comparison, another processed, fast-food burger, the Big Mac with no bun. Is it a fair comparison? Impossible Foods seems to think so – their website says: The Impossible Burger is made from proteins, flavors, fats, and binders, like almost every burger you’ve eaten in your life. They themselves are comparing their product to processed burgers. 

Here’s the comparison:

Nutrient Facts comparison between plant-based burgers and a Big Mac patty without bun 

Per 100g (per single burger in parentheses) *Big Mac pattyImpossible BurgerBeyond Burger
Calories (kCal)236 (330)257 (290)221 (250)
Protein (g)13 (18)17 (19)18 (20)
Fats (g)18 (25)12 (14)16 (18)
Saturated fat (g)6 (9)7 (8)5 (6)
Carbohydrates (g)5 (7)6 (7)3 (3)
Sodium (mg)450 (630)327 (370)345 (390)

*Note that the serving size for a Big Mac patty is 140g, while both the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger are smaller, at 113g. The data above are therefore adjusted for comparison to be the equivalents per 100g.

There’s not really much of a difference between all three once you normalize for serving size. Ingredients in a Big Mac patty by the way? 100% beef. Not that we’re recommending it (for other reasons)! 

3. Ingredients not thoroughly scrutinized (applies to Impossible Burger)

Heme is the magic compound in the Impossible Burger, making it taste and bleed as a beef burger would. Although you don’t see it on the ingredient list, it’s there within soy leghemoglobin (SLH). Impossible Foods makes SLH by first genetically engineering yeast to contain the SLH gene. They then grow the yeast via fermentation and then isolate the SHL and add it (and the heme within it) to the burger mix. 

In July 2019, the FDA posted a Rule document amending the color additive regulations to allow for the use of SLH as a color additive. In it it states that: “Impossible Foods made its own determination, to which we had no questions, that the use of soy leghemoglobin preparation to optimize flavor in ground beef analogue products intended to be cooked is generally recognized as safe (GRAS).” They state that their decision was made based on results from a 14-day and two 28-day rat studies that showed “no evidence of mutagenic activity or increased chromosomal aberrations in cells.”

The Center for Science in the Public Interest criticized the FDA’s approval of SLH calling it a ‘barebones’ review of safety. CSPI Senior Scientist Lisa Lefferts said: “FDA’s guidance recommends long-term safety testing for additives like soy leghemoglobin, which fall in the agency’s highest ‘concern level’ category due to the extent of exposure. Instead, FDA relied heavily on a short-term (28-day) study, which provides no evidence of long-term safety.”

Other industrially produced ingredients once approved with GRAS status have had that status reversed as better data became available: partially hydrogenated oils, are perhaps the best known. In 2018, the FDA banned seven artificial flavors commonly used in baked goods, ice cream, candy, beverages and chewing gum, that were found to cause cancer in lab animals. Companies were given a rather generous 24 months to find substitute ingredients. 

4. Potential pesticide residues (applies to Impossible Burger)

Since the Impossible Burger uses soy that is genetically engineered to withstand glyphosate (the main active ingredient in Round Up), several groups have posited the concern that the burgers may contain pesticide residues. 

Impossible Foods has published reports from their six batch tests showing that glyphosate was not detected above 0.005 ppm (essentially a ‘negative’ result). The consumer advocacy group, Mom’s Across America (MMA) published their own testing done in April this year contradicting the Impossible Foods findings – the MMA tests, done through Health Research Institute Laboratories, showed glyphosate levels of 11.3 ng/g (equivalent to 0.0113 ppb). Impossible Foods has heavily contested MMA’s publication with scorching, defamatory tactics.

We’d say the jury’s still out about pesticide exposure from Impossible Burgers. Beyond Burgers, incidentally, are non-GMO (non-genetically engineered) verified and so have less of a concern (but not no concern) about potential pesticide residues.

While we’re on the subject, are vegan diets really a health panacea?

Health is often a major reason for choosing to restrict or avoid meat. However, in our clinic, we routinely see that poorly-implemented vegan diets lead to nutrient insufficiencies (seen on lab tests as well as through other indicators), are harmful to health and can perpetuate the very diseases our patients were trying to address or prevent. 

Vegan diets are not alone there – any diet poorly implemented can have similarly-negative results. Our goals are always to help patients implement the healthiest version of diets, respectful of their wider principles and dietary preferences. 

Where blood sugar and insulin dysregulation are factors however, (type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, PCOS/hormonal imbalances, overweight/obesity, cognitive impairment, and cancer are some relevant examples), vegan diets can in some cases be too high in carbohydrates and too low in other nutrients to be effective therapeutically. 

Our dietary toolkit is broad and evidence-based; applied in a highly personalized way to each individual that works with us. Barring some unique medical situations, plant food dominates our dietary plans, but not usually to the absolute exclusion of meat and fish.   

Let’s not give up on the goals

We agree that eating more plant foods is beneficial for health. Plants contain vitamins, minerals, fiber and powerful (and still not comprehensively understood) phytonutrients, which are essential for addressing the epidemic of chronic disease. High meat consumption, especially processed red meats like bacon, hot dogs, sausages, is associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer and overall mortality.  

We also concur that finding sustainable foods with low environmental impact is a pressing societal need. We fully recognize the interconnections between ecological and human health and have written and discussed those very issues before

However, we cannot conclude that an ultra-processed food source, especially one with questionable new ingredients, is the solution.

In fairness to Beyond Meats, we think their burger does come out on top in the comparison above, due to better ingredients and non-GMO status. They are, however, secretive about their production processes making it hard to evaluate, and ultimately still fall into the ultra-processed foods category. 

A smattering of the conclusions reached by research on ultra-processed foods (let’s call them UPFs now, for covenience) as a group is pretty convincing:

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, issues raised with UPFs are that they:

  • use chemically-manufactured ingredients not found naturally 
  • are nutritionally-imbalanced 
  • displace whole foods in the diet 
  • are often aggressively marketed without comprehensively or accurately informing the consumer. (For instance, the marketing for plant-based burgers is often more in line with natural, organic items whereas in fact they are highly processed.)
  • are, in general, associated with increased rates of chronic disease – obesity, cardiovascular, cancer, depression, asthma, gastrointestinal disorders and all-cause mortality

What would we recommend instead?

We recommend diverse, ‘clean’ and varied diets based on whole foods as much as possible. Our general guidelines include:

  • Aim for 8+ cups of varied and colorful, non-starchy vegetables per day.
  • Choose organic, whole food products whenever possible.
  • Choose grass-fed, free range, antibiotic / hormone free animal products whenever possible.
  • When opting for packaged foods, choose the least processed options available (e.g., short ingredient list, natural / recognizable ingredients, minimal preservatives / additives / flavorings / colorings). 

To find animal protein sources with a lower carbon footprint, check out our blog post, and to choose and source local food as much as possible, you can use this resource

An alternative to processed burgers, we hope you’ll consider making your own plant-based burgers. Here are some wonderful suggestions: 

And for the occasional meat burger, we like to mix it up with plant foods too. Check out our Beet Beef Burger for Methylation Support. It contains rosemary too, which has been shown to reduce heterocyclic amine (pro-oxidant, pro-carcinogenic compounds formed from grilling all types of foods) formation during cooking.

So, should I buy stock in Beyond Meat?

We’re clearly not in the business of financial advice! However, the same Forbes contributor cited above gave some relevant thoughts that further contextualize the market for plant-based meats and the choices we, as consumers, face. He fires a blazing caution to those who are considering jumping into the Beyond Meat stock craze. He braised it down to two main reasons why your fingers could get a little charred:

Firstly, despite first-mover advantages, plant-based burgers are replicable. Bigger companies are already developing and launching their own versions. Secondly, it’s a craze! The hysteria will fade away. The ‘next new thing’ will rise above it.

From our vantage point, we would simply add that if something doesn’t deliver on one of its primary promises – health – it won’t last in the long run. 

Thanks to Lindley Wells for her research contributions to this article. Lindley holds a degree in nutrition and integrative health from Maryland University of Integrative Health. Before entering the field of nutrition, Lindley studied environmental policy at Colby College where she focused on sustainable agriculture and domestic and international food regulation/policy. Lindley is deeply passionate about bringing food and nutrition education into schools and to get people of all ages back into the kitchen preparing their own healthful meals. Lindley’s areas of interest include the brain gut connection, eating disorders, culinary nutrition, mindfulness and stress reduction, and the prevalence and physiological impact of chemicals in everyday products. Lindley is a currently in training in our clinic as she works towards the Certified Nutrition Specialist credential.