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Are new plant-based beef alternatives really better for you?

July 2, 2020 (Updated: August 3, 2021)
Lily Moran

Veggie burgers have been around for a while, and while many brands offer an acceptable alternative to traditional beef burgers, most people would agree that “meaty” and “juicy” are two words that would never be used to describe them.

Until now…

If you’ve stepped foot into certain burger chains across the country, you’ve likely noticed the “Impossible Burger” on the menu. This plant-based burger boasts a meat-like flavor and consistency—it “bleeds” like rare beef when you cut or bite into it—even though it is 100% meatless.

These characteristics can largely be attributed to heme, an iron-containing molecule found in every living thing on the planet. In people and animals, heme is a component of hemoglobin, and it’s responsible for the distinct metallic flavor and smell of blood.

Heme is also found to a lesser degree in plants. The key ingredient in the Impossible Burger is sourced from the root of the soy plant. The company isolates this gene and uses genetic engineering to multiply it many times over.

According to the company, Impossible Foods’, website, “We started by using the heme-containing protein from the roots of soy plants. It’s called soy leghemoglobin. We took the DNA from soy plants and inserted it into a genetically engineered yeast. And we ferment this yeast—very similar to the way Belgian beer is made. But instead of producing alcohol, our yeast multiply and produce a lot of heme.”1

This meat-free burger is marketed as not only a healthier choice, but also a more environmentally responsible one. Let’s look at each of these points.

Is Plant-Based Meat Safe and Healthy?

Shockingly, approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is not required for most new food ingredients. Impossible Foods did run their own tests and concluded that soy leghemoglobin was safe, but they took it a step further and sought the FDA’s blessing in 2014, to provide extra assurance to consumers.

That backfired, as the FDA initially refused to confirm its safety and instead requested more information. Millions of people eat soybeans with no issue, but the plant’s roots, from which the heme is extracted, aren’t generally consumed. The FDA had reservations, citing concerns about allergies and other potential adverse effects.

Another concern had to do with the soy leghemoglobin that was being extracted from the genetically modified yeast. It turns out it’s not 100% pure, and contains additional strains of unidentified yeast proteins. Impossible Foods argued that based on centuries of safe consumption of whole yeast, these substances are likely safe.

They provided the FDA with results from a study in which rats were fed substantially more soy leghemoglobin than the amount found in a burger, without any obvious adverse effects. This sufficiently squelched any of the FDA’s concerns, and they deemed this ingredient “generally recognized as safe” for human consumption in the summer of 2018.

While the government and the company itself says lab-created meat is safe, it’s really too soon to know for sure. After all, this is the first time ever that soy leghemoglobin (not only that—a genetically engineered form of this molecule) has been introduced into our food supply. Because it didn’t affect rats doesn’t mean it can’t affect people five or ten years down the line.

What is pretty clear, though, is “faux meat” will never be healthier than high-quality, sustainably farmed, grass-fed meat. You don’t have to love or even eat meat to understand that the body will always respond better to real food than laboratory-created concoctions.

And while it may be “plant based,” that is exactly what the Impossible Burger is…a lab-created experiment. Case in point….the ingredient list on one of these burgers: Water, soy protein concentrate, coconut oil, sunflower oil, natural flavors, potato protein, methylcellulose, yeast extract, cultured dextrose, modified food starch, soy leghemoglobin, soy protein isolate, and various vitamins.2 It is the very definition of a genetically modified, highly processed food.

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What’s the ingredient list on a plain, old hamburger? Beef.

Certainly there is a major difference in the quality of meat, and some burgers (fast food, for instance) could qualify as science experiments with all the chemicals, preservatives, and other additives. But by and large, eating beef from cows that have been raised on pasture, allowed to roam around and eat their natural diet of grass, is infinitely healthier and more nutritious than eating beef sourced from confined cows forced to eat an unnatural diet of grains and pumped full on antibiotics.

Which brings up the next point…

Is “Faux Meat” Environmentally Friendly?

Impossible Foods and competitors (such as Beyond Meat, which is sold in grocery stores rather than as a menu item in restaurants) claim plant-based burgers are better for the planet because they have less environmental impact.

It is true—industrial scale farming of livestock is taking a toll on the earth. Livestock occupies ¼ of the Earth’s land. The production of animal feed uses ⅓ of farmable land. The transport of meat is responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions.3

But to say this plant-based burger is more environmentally friendly is a bit misleading. For one, the food manufacturing industry in general uses massive amounts of energy (which leads to carbon dioxide emissions) and materials (in this case, genetically engineered yeast).

If you want to make a positive impact on the environment with dietary changes, choose to go meatless a few days of the week. But rather than eating processed meat-like foods, go for organic fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils, and other whole foods that come directly from the earth—better yet, a local farm or your own garden.

And if and when you do eat meat, opt for grass-fed, pasture-raised varieties. Cows raised on grasslands instead of restricted feedlots provide some benefit to the environment. These animals are perfectly happy grazing land that is unsuitable for growing crops, giving that otherwise unusable land a purpose. Their grazing aerates the ground, encouraging the growth of more grass, and in turn, more oxygen into the atmosphere. Grazed land also has more carbon stored in its soil than other land—forestland included. Stored carbon slows global warming. Even the cows’ manure is beneficial when left in the fields. It simply integrates back into the soil and fertilizes it.

All food production—whether it’s agriculture, livestock farming, or manufacturing of processed foods—has some impact on the planet. The goal is to minimize it as much as possible by making responsible choices.

Bottom line: “Faux meat” is definitely an interesting and intriguing concept. Lots of people will try the Impossible Burger and its competitors (Beyond Meat, etc.) out of sheer curiosity—and doing so once in a while isn’t going to hurt you (unless of course you have an allergy to gluten, wheat or soy—then avoid them fully). But making a habit of eating any kind of highly processed, manufactured food on the regular—whether it’s chips, Cheetos, sodas, or plant-based burgers—isn’t doing your body and overall health any favors. For ultimate wellness, stick to real food.


  1. Impossible Foods. Heme + Science. Last accessed May 21, 2019.
  2. Impossible Foods. FAQ. Last accessed May 21, 2019.
  3. Stanford Report. New report reveals the environmental and social impact of the “livestock revolution.” March 16, 2010. Last access May 22, 2019.

Disclaimer: Please note the date of last review or update on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.

Updated: July 2, 2020
Originally Published: June 5, 2019

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