More restaurants and supermarkets are adopting environmentally conscious, plant-based foods that taste, smell and look nearly identical to traditional beef burger patties.
In September, the Impossible Burger made its grocery debut in all 100 Wegmans grocery stores in seven states while Burger King continued to sell the plant-based Impossible Whopper nationwide.
Similarly, the company’s competitor Beyond Meat scored a 12-week test run of the Beyond Burger at select locations for one of the world’s largest restaurant chains — McDonald’s.
While these meatless burgers have been proven to be better for the environment, some question whether they’re nutritionally better than beef.
Here’s a deep dive into the nutrition label.
What are the ingredients in an Impossible Burger?
A first glance at the nutrition label shows Impossible Burgers are almost identical to traditional beef burgers.
They’re both about 240 calories and contain about 8 grams of saturated fat. However, a few key differences set them apart.
One difference is the amount of sodium in a traditional beef burger versus an Impossible Burger. Beef contains very little sodium, unless added independently when cooking, whereas Impossible Burgers contain 370 milligrams or 16 percent of the daily value.
According to the American Heart Association, the ideal intake of sodium per day is 1,500 milligrams.
Dr. Sue Klapholz, vice president of Nutrition & Health at Impossible Foods, says the company’s research and development team are working to decrease the amount of sodium and saturated fat in the product.
“Even if we think we can be healthy, we can always be healthier,” she said. “We’re always going to strive to be better.”
Klapholz argues that the Impossible Burger should have no problem fitting into a low sodium diet for people who have hypertension or are just looking for less sodium intake with their food.
Shalene McNeill, executive director of nutrition science, health and wellness at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, says that if meat-eaters are looking for a way to get more protein in their diet with less sodium – then just turn back to beef.
“You’re not getting any nutritional advantage; some would argue that you’re getting less quality because it’s not natural nutrients and has more sodium,” she said. “You could just eat the beef you love with a salad or butternut squash.”
The “not natural nutrients” McNeill referenced is the genetically modified heme iron that Impossible Burger adds to their product to create that juicy red color and beefy taste.
Heme is a high-quality iron that is naturally present in all beef. Impossible Foods was able to re-create that essential nutrient by taking the DNA from soybean plants, where heme is found in the root nodules, and inserting it into a genetically engineered yeast, according to its website.
The Food and Drug Administration approved the genetically modified heme as “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS, in July 2018.
Beyond Meat vs. Impossible Burger vs. traditional beef
Nutrition experts are divided on how meatless burgers fit into daily, balanced diets due to the lack of research surrounding the genetically modified heme iron created by Impossible Foods.
Beyond Meat does not include heme iron in its burger and instead, relies on plant-based iron. Heme iron is more absorbable to the body than plant-based iron, but a company spokesperson says Vitamin C is added to increase that absorbability.
When comparing the nutrition labels, the Beyond Burger has less saturated fat, more protein and fewer carbohydrates than the Impossible Burger.
In comparison to a traditional beef burger, both brand burgers have less protein, a lot more sodium and, of course, more carbohydrates.
Experts are still trying to figure out how meat-mimicking alternatives fit into the larger picture of the daily diet. McNeill argues the trend is actually creating mixed signals for people who want to eat healthier.
“We want you to incorporate vegetables and fruits because people aren’t eating enough of those,” she said. “But where that’s getting lost is that you don’t need to do that in place of meat. They’re a perfect match.”
However, Klapholz believes the Impossible Burger will surpass the nutritional benefits of beef in the future.
“As far as a product, we always want to be as healthy and nutritious or more than whatever we are replacing,” she said. “The cow is the cow – it’s not going to evolve to meet people’s nutrient needs.”
Vegans & vegetarians: What you need know
Vegans and vegetarians, who make up about 3 percent and 5 percent of Americans, respectively, might think twice about jumping into the meat-mimicking trend as they may be contributing to their carbon footprint.
For example, coconut oil is the source of the saturated fat in both the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger. This ingredient has to be imported into the United States.
A 2018 study for the Beyond Burger showed that it produced 90 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than a quarter pound of U.S. beef, even when the impact of importing and transporting raw ingredients was assessed, according to a Beyond Meat spokesperson.
The process is more environmentally conscious than livestock production, but vegans and vegetarians never contributed to the beef industry’s carbon footprint in the first place.
Could they unintentionally be contributing to a different carbon footprint by adding these meatless burgers to the menu?
Klapholz says it depends on what vegans and vegetarians are substituting in their diet. Other popular, meatless products frequently consumed by people with dietary restrictions also have to be imported to the United States.
She also adds that vegetarians and vegans are not the audiences that Impossible Foods want to target.
“Our target audience is the meat eater and over 90 percent of consumers identify as meat eating individuals,” she said. “Vegans and vegetarians are already doing the right thing.”
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