What's in this plant-based beef impostor, and is it good for you?

Brierley Horton, MS, RD

Photo: Impossible

If you haven't yet heard of the Impossible Burger, let us explain. This hearty patty is quickly carving out space on fast food and other burger joint menus, but the thing is, it's not actually a beef burger.

The Impossible Burger is an all-plant burger meant to taste and look just like a beef burger. Per Impossible Foods' website, it "delivers all the flavor, aroma and beefiness of meat from cows." The company's goal isn't to wean us Americans off of our most prized meaty moments, but instead to simply provide a plant product that truly doubles for the meat you were craving.

"Impossible Foods makes meat for meat lovers, without compromise in taste, texture or nutrition. We believe that producing delicious, affordable and nutritious meat, fish and dairy products from plants can satisfy people's cravings and feed the growing world population while consuming far fewer of Earth's natural resources," explained the Impossible Burger folks in an email.

What's in the Impossible Burger?

Here's a list of the main ingredients: soy and potato proteins, coconut oil, sunflower oil, heme and methylcellulose.

Soy is the predominant protein in the Impossible Burger. Potato protein plays nothing more than a supporting role. Then there's the combination of coconut and sunflower oils, which are what makes the patty "sizzle" when you cook it-and also what bumps up the burger's saturated fat content, which is slightly higher than other similar-size beef burgers.

Heme is a nutrient that Impossible Foods has turned into an ingredient. Heme is what helps carry oxygen through your blood. And in Impossible Foods' words, heme is what makes meat taste like meat. But instead of taking it from an animal's muscle (ahem, that would defeat the purpose of their mission!), they use a plant-based version of heme, which they get from yeast fermentation. This plant heme (listed in their ingredients as soy leghemoglobin) is how their burger looks, cooks and tastes like a beef burger. It's so crucial to their recipe that they've dubbed it "The Magic Ingredient in the Impossible Burger."

Then there's methylcellulose, which is actually fairly common in other faux meat products-from veggie/vegan burgers to meatless breakfast patties and "chicken" breasts. The Impossible Burger website describe methylcellulose as "a culinary binder… [that] brings it all together." That's in line with FDA's description of methylcellulose as an emulsifier, stabilizer or thickener. But dig a little further and you'll also see that methylcellulose doubles as a laxative. You know, just a FYI, because it really is perfectly safe.

Is the Impossible Burger healthy?

A 4-ounce serving contains 240 calories, 19 grams protein, 14 g fat, no cholesterol whatsoever, 370 milligrams sodium and 25 percent of the Daily Value of iron, plus some other micronutrients such as vitamin B12 (130 percent DV) and potassium (15 percent DV). And unlike many other plant-based burgers, the Impossible Burger isn't all that different nutritionally from a fast-food beef burger when you look at calories, fat, protein and sodium.

But put together the same-size patty using 93 percent lean ground beef and that's a lower-calorie, higher-protein choice (you also save big time on sodium, but the Impossible Burger wins in the other vitamin and mineral -or so-called micronutrient-categories).

The Impossible Burger vs. other veggie burgers

Veggie burgers aren't typically all that generous when it comes to protein. But this beef imitator bucks the trend: it delivers 19 grams of protein per 4-ounce serving (which falls smack in the middle of the typical range for your average beef burger). But it's also (as alluded to above) not as lean as your run-of-the-mill veggie burger and, at 3 grams per serving, a little lower in fiber.

Bottom line

"If you're opposed to eating red meat and want a similar flavor and nutrition profile, the Impossible Burger is a meat-free alternative that's not your typical veggie burger," says Chris Mohr, Ph.D., R.D., of MohrResults.com. Or perhaps you want to curb your beef patty habit. This faux meat option could help you do just that, yet still satisfy your meaty cravings. There's one catch, though: you can't buy the Impossible Burger in grocery stores (at least not yet). But major U.S. chains like Burger King, Red Robin, White Castle, Dave and Buster's, Qdoba and Umami Burger do sell the patty that you once considered, well, impossible.

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