Want to talk about an impossibility? Burger King now has an “Impossible Whopper,” made from an entirely veggie (and vegan) meat substitute called the Impossible Burger.
Yep, vegan burgers and fake meat of all kinds have finally hit the mainstream, at least in the US. Places like India, with Hindu based restrictions on beef, have always been ahead in that regard. But the question is: are these beef and other meat substitutes any better for you personally?
The Beef with Processed Foods
Just by definition, a cow burger and a veggie burger are, respectively, a whole food and a processed food. Exasperated vegans might be hopping up and down with rage at that statement, but it’s still true. Regardless of the wasteful and expensive raising, slaughtering, transporting and storing of beef burgers, they are still, we can reasonably assume, from cows and only cows (seasoning aside). Veggie burgers, though, really run the gamut.
Homemade veggie or vegan burgers, painstakingly prepared from boiled beans, fresh-cooked quinoa or rice, chopped or shredded root vegetables, and all the various and sundry add-ons are definitely a whole food; a sum of all its whole food parts. But that’s not what most people get when they either order or prepare a packaged veggie burger.
Order a burger or a fake chicken finger (yes, branching out a bit in the fake fast food item department), and you might be getting a fully processed food full of stuff you might not want to consume on a regular basis.
Take, for instance, Quorn, a meat substitute made from, frankly, fungus, most specifically called Fusarioum venenatum. According to nutritionist and raw chef Greta Sidhu-Robb, it can be problematic.
‘While the fungus is edible, it can have some adverse reactions for some people. This means that excessive Quorn consumption is not always advised,” warns Sidhu-Robb in an article for the Metro UK.
Something like tofu, on the other hand, might be better tolerated, although it still has some challenges.
“Tofu is a good source of protein and contains all nine essential amino acids and acts as a valuable source of iron and calcium,” explains Sidhu-Robb. “Soy is high in polysaturated fats, fibre, vitamins and zinc which is beneficial to the immune system. On the whole, if carefully planned, meat alternatives can form the crux of a healthy diet and are far less dense in saturated fats and calorie value than meat. They certainly have benefits over fatty meats. It is, however, vitally important to know whether your body is suited to certain diet changes. For example, tofu is not suited to somebody with kidney or gallbladder stones owing to its high amount of oxalates.”
And then there’s seitan, which is fake meat made of wheat gluten. There are Chinese restaurants in California’s San Gabriel Valley that specialize in entire menus of the stuff, and it masterfully masquerades as all sorts of meat, from pork to duck. However, it’s pure gluten, so for some, seitan is really Satan.
The Protein Count Isn’t a Concern
Americans, remaining true to the country’s farming roots, believe in hearty foods and plentiful protein. (Recall the dinner scenes in the Laura Ingalls Wilder classic, Farmer Boy, in which Almanzo Wilder eats his own weight every day.) The issue? Many people now only move from office chair to couch every day. We simply don’t “need” that much protein, even though it’s still a dietary obsession.
Meat and dairy have always been protein mainstays, and they are both excellent suppliers of it. But, nutritional site Spoon University finds that protein works just fine from veggie sources, too.
“Protein is actually bioavailable in a lot of plant products and is a good source of fiber,” Spoon University explained. “1/2 cup of black beans, lentils or peas is equivalent to 7 grams of lean protein. 1/4 cup of tempeh and 1/2 cup of tofu is also equivalent to 7 grams of medium fat protein.”
If you’re looking to switch to a vegan diet, you might want to check your vitamin B12 levels, since that’s a nutrient harder to obtain from a vegan diet. You can take supplements, or even get a shot.
And Then There’s The Impossible Burger
Unlike Boca burgers, or Quorn, or any of the other vegan “burgers” on the market, the Impossible Burger stands out, both for its incredible imitation of a beef burger, and for its unprecedented level of processing.
In fact, the Impossible Burger is actually genetically engineered, like a super GMO. In order to imitate beef down to the bloody quality of it, scientists exploited heme. Heme (think hemoglobin) is an iron-containing molecule found in meat and muscle, but can be found in plants like soy. The problem for the Impossible Foods team was that they would need an impossible amount of soy to produce a meaty amount of heme.
So, they manufactured it.
In the company’s own words: “We make heme using a yeast engineered with the gene for soy leghemoglobin. First, we grow yeast via fermentation. Then, we isolate the soy leghemoglobin (containing heme) from the yeast, and add it to the Impossible Burger, where it combines with other micronutrients to create delicious, meaty flavor.”
So, fine. It probably isn’t any more processed and manipulated than most breakfast cereals. The next question: Is the Impossible Burger healthier for you than beef?
The Impossible Burger needs not just the bloody quality of meat it gets from all that heme, it also needs a hefty amount of fat. But not beef fat; it uses coconut oil, which isn’t healthy at all because its fat is the very unhealthy, saturated kind.
“An 85 percent lean beef burger, which is what you see in restaurants, has about 6 percent saturated fat,” Elisabetta Politi, M.P.H., R.D., L.D.N., the nutrition director of the Duke Diet & Fitness Center in Durham, North Carolina said to Runners World. “An Impossible Burger has 8 grams of saturated fat in a four ounce patty, because it contains all that coconut oil.”
And Scientific American has more to add about the health detriments of the Impossible Burger, counting heme as a hazard.
“Heme iron may be a double-edged sword, however. Athough it’s very bioavailable, it’s also a highly reactive molecule which, in excessive amounts, could lead to cell damage. Studies have found that those who eat the most red meat have higher risks of colon cancer and other diseases compared to people who eat other types of meat or no meat at all. One of the working theories points to high intakes of heme iron as the culprit,” said Scientific American.
The Environment and Moderation
So, again, we ask: Are vegan burgers better for you and the world?
If you’re worried about the environment, though, eating veggie burgers rather than beef does matter. Even the Impossible Burger uses far less land, water, and resources, and certainly produces fewer greenhouse gases than those notoriously gassy cows.
It’s also a good option when you might be forced to eat fast food. Sure, there might not be a lot of difference in nutrition (or lack thereof) between a regular and an Impossible Whopper, but maybe it’ll make you feel better environmentally. And certainly if you’re vegan, it gives you one more viable option in “food deserts.”
In the end, everything in moderation is probably a good practice. Too many Impossible Burgers probably aren’t much better for you than regular old hamburgers; a ton of soy might make you unbearable to others later that night. It’s all about making healthy choices that work long term.
“Enjoying a Boca Burger or fake bacon once in a while won’t kill you, just like a real beef burger or bacon, but keeping everything in moderation (including moderation) is key,” Spoon University said.