Plant-based meats are trending like crazy right now. With all of the new options, we’re faced with many more decisions on what to eat. Some people feel especially puzzled by the new plant-based “burgers” and are asking the key question. Is plant-based meat healthy for us?
Just the other day one of my health coaching clients said that he considered trying the Impossible Whopper at Burger King. But he wasn’t sure whether it was healthier than a regular Whopper. That inspired me to do a dive deep into researching and writing this article to help answer that question.
Let’s look at the top two plant-based burgers, Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger.
What is the Impossible Burger?
The Impossible Foods website shows the company’s mission is “To save meat. And Earth.” They promote a plant-based diet to save land, water and produce less greenhouse gas.
To achieve their mission, the company hired a team of scientists to make the Impossible Burger in a lab and they came up with something unusual. The product’s two key ingredients are genetically engineered soy leghemoglobin (heme to make the patty “bleed”) and genetically engineered soy protein. [Ref 1]
As you formulate your opinion on whether the plant-based meat is healthy, you should check out the Impossible Burger’s long ingredients list:
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.
Genetic engineering is not a minor thing. It involves manipulating the DNA of a plant in such a way it becomes cheaper and faster to produce.
Since soy leghemoglobin is a relatively new invention, we lack long-term studies on human safety. For now, we don’t know it’s a full impact on our health, so I can’t say much about it.
On the other hand, we know a lot about genetically engineered soybeans, which have been around for decades. They are known for being able to tolerate being sprayed with glyphosate (Roundup weed killer). I don’t know how much glyphosate is in the Impossible Burger or if the amount is safe. However, in 2015, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen (causes cancer). [Ref 2] Also some studies have linked glyphosate to non-Hodgkin Lymphoma [Ref 3].
The Impossible Burger is highly processed and very high in fat. It contains large amounts of coconut oil (a saturated fat) and sunflower oil. Studies show that a low-fat plant-based diet is beneficial. For instance, it has been shown to reduce cholesterol and decreases the risk of heart disease and diabetes. [Ref 4]
Many processed foods are overloaded with sodium. The original Impossible Burger contains 370 mg of sodium. However, the final amount varies based on the restaurant where it is purchased. It can be very high. For example, the Impossible Whopper contains 1080 mg of sodium. Unfortunately, large amounts of sodium are linked to high blood pressure, a leading factor in heart disease and stroke.
How does Beyond Burger Compare?
Beyond Burger is another plant-based burger created in a lab. Their website shows that their mission is to address human health, climate change, constraints on natural resources and animal welfare.
Instead of heme, it contains beet juice to simulate blood. Another difference is that Beyond Burger is strictly non-GMO and it uses a pea protein rather than soy protein.
Beyond Burger ingredients list:
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).
The Beyond Burger is highly processed and very high in saturated fat. It also contains a considerable amount of sodium (390 mg). For all of these reasons, it is tough to make the case that these products are healthier for us.
The UN Environment’s Sixth Global Environmental Outlook (2019) indicates that meat production uses 77% of the worlds agricultural land and the livestock industry is a major contributor to greenhouse gas levels, a leading cause of climate change. [Ref 5]
Another problem with raising livestock is that the process consumes huge amounts of fresh water, our most precious resource. For example, the World Economic Forum reported that the production of a single beef burger patty requires over 600 gallons of water. This is because the farmers irrigate crops to feed the animals, which are drinking water as well. The whole process is unsustainable as lakes and rivers are running dry due to climate change and excessive water usage. For example, the once-powerful Colorado River is drying up at an alarming pace.
Water scarcity is an increasing global problem. At the current water consumption rates, we will not have enough fresh water to handle the world’s population, which is predicted to increase by another 2 billion people by 2050.
Another astounding statistic:
The average U.S. diet currently takes 1,320 gallons (4,997 liters) of water a day to produce. [Ref 6]
The UN report indicates that humans will be required to eat less meat to avert the looming impact of climate change and water scarcity and restore health to the planet. In that way, plant-based meat appears to be better for the environment than beef. But ideally, our food ought to be good for both our health and the environment.
Good for People and Good for the Planet
A healthier and more sustainable diet means eating less meat and more plants. The most nutrient-rich plants are unprocessed fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. Such foods are the foundation of whole-food plant-based nutrition. These are real plants produced by nature.
The proven health benefits of whole food plant-based nutrition are vast. This type of food has been shown to prevent and reverse our #1 killer, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes as well as preventing excessive weight gain. [Ref 7] [Ref 8 ] [Ref 9].
If that was all it did, wouldn’t it be worth it?
As we face predictions of worsening climate change and water scarcity, we must take steps now to change that narrative. Whole food plant-based nutrition can positively impact climate change, save water, and improve animal welfare. [Ref 5]
Whole food plant-based food is the way forward. We can create healthier eating habits and improve the future of the planet.
If are you experiencing diabetes and are ready to change for the better, I invite you to join the free Facebook Group Natural Solutions for Diabetes.
There you will learn how a healthy plant-based lifestyle can potentially allow you to take control of your blood sugar naturally. Join a like-minded community for support and tips on healing yourself without meds so you can have more energy and lead a productive life.
Join the Facebook Group today.
Ref 1. Does It Contain Genetically Modified Ingredients? Impossible Foods website. Accessed September 20, 2019. https://faq.impossiblefoods.com/hc/en-us/articles/360023038894-Does-it-contain-genetically-modified-ingredients-
Ref 2. Guyton, K. Z. et. al on behalf of IARC, 2015. Carcinogenicity of tetrachlovinphos, parathion, malathion, diazinon, and glyphosate.Lancet Oncol. 2015 May; 16 (5):490-1.
Ref 3. Zhang L, Rana L, et al. Exposure to glyphosate-based herbicides and risk for non-Hodgkin Lymphoma: A meta-analysis and supporting evidence. Mutation Research/Reviews in Mutation Research in Science Direct. Vol 781. July-September 2019, 186-206. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1383574218300887
Ref 4. Esselstyn CB Jr. In Cholesterol Lowering Moderation Kills. Cleve Clinic J of Med 200 Aug; 67(8):560-564. http://www.dresselstyn.com/site/study05/
Ref 5. Global Environment Outlook 6. UN Environment website. March 2019. https://www.unenvironment.org/resources/global-environment-outlook-6
Ref 6. Thirsty Food. Fueling Agriculture to Fuel Humans. National Geographic website. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/freshwater/food/
Accessed September 22, 2019.
Ref 7. Esselstyn C, et al. A way to reverse CAD? The Journal of Family Practice. July 2014. Vol 63 (7):257/
Ref 8. Mishra S, Xu J, et al. A multicenter randomized controlled trial of a plant-based nutrition program to reduce body weight and cardiovascular risk in the corporate setting: the GEICO study.Eur J Clin Nutr. 2013 Jul;67(7):718-24.
Ref 9. McMacken M, Shah S. A plant-based diet for the prevention and treatment of type 2 diabetes. J Geriatr Cardiol. 2017;14(5):342-354.
Carla Hightower, MD, MBA is a physician, health coach, workplace wellness consultant, and speaker. She helps people heal themselves with food. Through wellness workshops and courses, she helps companies create healthy, energetic teams.
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Thanks Dr Hightower. Very informative. The Impossible Burger tastes ok. I was suspicious of its health benefits, & you give helpful insight.
Dr. Jones, I’m glad that the blog post gave you useful information to help with these products. I enjoy shining a light on the topic. Thank you for reading and supporting the blog!