Science

Debunking Some Impossible Burger Myths

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Transcript:

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m mostly vegetarian. I occasionally eat fish, but I avoid all other meat and I don’t eat cephalopods because they’re too damn smart. It’s like they’re alien lifeforms. I can’t do it. It’d be like eating ET.

I think if most people drastically cut down on the amount of meat they eat, whether that means going vegan, or vegetarian, or just incorporating a “meatless Mondays” kind of mindset, the world would be a better place. We’d put out less pollution, take up less land, and contribute less to the otherwise senseless torture and murder of innocent animals.

It’s actually very easy to be vegetarian these days, especially if you live in the developed world and are middle class. I’m excited to say that it’s getting even easier, with new options like Impossible Burgers hitting the market in more places than ever. The Impossible Burger is a marvel of science — it’s made entirely of plant material, but it “bleeds” like a real hamburger. Meat eaters who I know who have tried it generally say that if you gave it to them and didn’t tell them it was a veggie burger, they’d have no idea. That’s never been super important to me, because I prefer the taste of vegetables and mushrooms and things to the taste of hamburger, but it IS important for millions of people who can’t imagine giving up meat.

Impossible Burgers have been in select restaurants for awhile now, but they just hit a huge new milestone with Burger King picking them up to make an Impossible Whopper. That kind of visibility and accessibility is honestly a dream come true for people who realize that we’re not just going to make everyone go vegan overnight, and that we have to take small steps to get people on board with reducing their meat consumption and thinking more critically about what they’re eating.

And speaking of thinking critically, just this week I stumbled upon two delightful arguments against the Impossible Burger. I will deal with them in order of seriousness.

First up, Right Wing Watch drew my attention to Rick Wiles, an internet radio pundit who has appeared on Fox News and once worked for various Christian television networks. Wiles is sort of like Alex Jones, but he has actually criticized Jones in the past for his “controversial” statements about the Sandy Hook murders, saying that Jones’s polemics could cause a government crackdown on shows like theirs.

So Wiles is like a moderate Alex Jones. Got it? So Wiles hears about Impossible Burgers coming to Burger King and he announces this:

This is a nightmare world that they’re taking us into. They’re changing god’s creation. Why? They wanna change human dna so that you can’t be born again. (Hmm.) That’s where they’re going with this, to change the dna of humans so it will be impossible for a human to be born again. They want to create a race of soulless creatures on this planet.”

Yeah that’s pretty moderate for 2019 I gotta admit. A few things about this — first, I had no idea that being born again is something that happens on a genetic level. Silly me, I didn’t know scientists had found the soul, or that modern Christians claimed it even could be found after, you know, two millennia of trying. Second, I had no idea that eating a veggie burger could literally change my DNA. I didn’t know that, probably because it’s not actually true. There’s nothing in an Impossible Burger that will affect your DNA, either that of your soul or otherwise.

And third, my favorite thing about this clip is that guy off-camera who audible reacts with a “hmm” just after Wiles announces his thesis, as if they’re at a cocktail party and Wiles just proposed a new interpretation he thought of during his recent rereading of Ulysses.

So that’s one negative take on the Impossible Burger. The other was brought to my attention by someone else on Twitter, who replied to me when I reported that the Impossible Whopper was, in fact, delicious. They wrote:

“Staying clear of these until I know a bit more about the genetically modified soy they’re using.  Apparently, there are open questions about how safe the genetically modified soy is for human consumption.

“SO, if you grow gills or something…”

I knew immediately that this was bullshit, because honestly not to be all “the government will protect us” but Impossible Burgers have been on the market for literally three years next month. Not only would the FDA not have let them put out a product that’s unsafe, but people have been eating the absolute FUCK out of them and there have been no reports of any problems. In fact, Impossible Foods performed their own completely voluntary recall back in March because a restaurant worker found a small piece of plastic in one. No other problems were found and the issue never affected a consumer in the least. Meanwhile, back in September a factory had to recall 100,000 pounds of ground beef because they were infected with E. coli, which led to one person dying and dozens more falling ill.

I also know it’s bullshit because the idea of “growing gills” is the sort of thing said only by people who know absolutely nothing about genetically modified food, but who hate genetically modified food anyway.

But I was curious to know if this person’s misinformation came from a particular source, and sure enough they provided me with a link to a Huffington Post article. As an aside, I regret to inform you that the Huffington Post still exists. No idea if they ever started paying their writers.

The HuffPo article is from 2017 and is titled “FDA casts doubt on safety of Impossible Burger’s key GMO ingredient.” It’s written by contributor Ken Roseboro who says he’s the editor of The Organic & Non-GMO Report. Hmm.

Ken reports that the FDA “told lab meat manufacturer it hadn’t demonstrated safety of burger’s genetically engineered heme, which has never been in the food supply. Company put product on the market anyway.”

So what’s going on here?

Well, first of all, let’s not bury the lede: you can relax because the FDA has, in fact, approved Impossible Burgers as being safe to eat. There was a bit of back and forth before that happened, though, and here’s why: the Impossible Burger is so much like meat because of heme, a protein that meat releases when you cook it. They found a way to get heme from a plant source, and that source is soy leghemoglobin. Leghemoglobin is the plant form of myoglobin, the thing in animals that releases heme.

Impossible Foods didn’t actually need FDA approval to use leghemoglobin because all their ingredients, including soybeans, already qualify as “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS, which is used for foods with ingredients that the FDA has already looked at and agreed that they’re okay for people to eat. But to be on the safe side, they basically went to the FDA and said “here is the exact special ingredient we’re using. Here’s research we’ve funded to prove that it’s safe. Can you please confirm that it’s safe.” They did that because they knew people like misinformed dudes on Twitter and HuffPo would worry.

The FDA pointed out, though, that while they’ve previously recognized soybeans as safe, the leghemoglobin is contained in the root node of soy, which technically people don’t usually eat. So to be safe, they wanted some more tests done. The product could stay on the market while they cross these Ts and dot these Is.

This was unfortunate, in part because it made a bunch of hippies lose their damned minds and in part because it forced Impossible Foods to test their product on rats by feeding them loads of Impossible Burgers and making sure they don’t explode. They did it, and the product was found to be perfectly safe, but now of course you have hippies losing their minds again. How dare this company test on rats! Seriously, look at this fucking douchebag in the Independent saying Impossible Burgers are as vegan as foie gras, and PETA ran a fucking press release decrying them. 188 rats were killed in the testing, so that means we should just throw all the burgers in the trash, right? Even though millions of cows won’t be slaughtered in the future. Even though this paves the way for other meatless options to hit the mass market. Even though this makes vegan diets accessible to millions of people who never considered it before. The utter close-minded hypocrisy of that blows my mind. Fuck you, PETA. And fuck you, random hippies who are saying these burgers are unsafe because of FDA says so out of one side of your mouth and then saying the 188 rats who died to prove they’re safe to the FDA is a price too high out the other side of your mouth. Dear lord that was a convoluted sentence. Sorry.

I’ll close by encouraging you to go read Patrick Clinton’s incredibly informative and well-written breakdown of much of this over at the New Food Economy, written back in 2017 but apparently missed by a lot of misinformed dipshits. And lastly I will encourage you to go to Burger King and eat an Impossible Whopper, if you were planning to hit a fast food joint anyway. You’ll be doing the Earth a favor compared to eating a regular hamburger, it’ll be (marginally) healthier for you, and you’ll be telling the food industry that you want more meatless options. Everyone wins.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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7 Comments

  1. I would be fine with growing gills so I could breathe under water. I would no longer have to swim the deepest ocean to prove my love; I could stroll along the bottom and enjoy the sights along the way.

    1. My niece wanted to become a mermaid in order to study marine creatures more easily, so I think she would be fine with gills. She seriously (I think, sometimes it’s hard to tell) asked me, when she was about 6, whether when people became merpeople, if their legs fused together to form the tail or if their legs were absorbed and the tail grew out of their spine, sort of like a tadpole turning into a frog, but in reverse.

  2. I’m an ovo-lacto vegetarian and I’ve tried the Impossible Burger a few times at the one place it’s available in my city. My question is: is it bland? Or is it just how the place here prepares it? I thought it was good and the texture was good, so I’ll definitely get it again once they get it back in stock, but I’m just wondering about what other people thought of the flavor. It’s also never pink inside, so maybe this place just doesn’t know how to prepare it? If it’s not the place messing it up, I don’t think it would convince anyone who regularly eats burgers made from ground beef that it was made out of meat.

    (I order mine with mushrooms and Swiss, if that helps.)

    1. I tried the Impossible Burger at a Red Robin in the northeast. I thought it was bland, tasteless actually. My burger did not bleed, nor was it pink inside. I don’t know if I would have it again. My IB was plain with lettuce, tomato, onions, pickles, ketchup, and pepper. It was more expensive than a regular hamburger.

      I’m vegan and I do not eat processed foods like frozen veggie burgers. However, after reading all the hype about the IB I tried it out of curiosity. I was disappointed.

  3. Your description of haem and of myoglobin is lacking. I will use English spelling here!

    ” the Impossible Burger is so much like meat because of heme, a protein that meat releases when you cook it.”
    “Leghemoglobin is the plant form of myoglobin, the thing in animals that releases heme.”

    My nitpicks are that haem is not a protein and that haemoglobin also contains haem.

    The function of both haemoglobin and myoglobin is to store oxygen.
    Haemoglobin is a protein found in blood, myoglobin is a different protein found in muscle.
    Both contain the oxygen-binding haem moiety in their molecular structure.
    Haem is red, giving blood and muscle its colour.
    Haem is not a protein in itself.
    Yes myoglobin is found in legumes,

    I suppose the idea of the myoglobin in the IB is to make it appear like rare steak, as if it was pink and bleeding.
    I strongly doubt that it affects the flavour in any way.

    I do not know how different the molecular structure of Legmyoglobin may be from the animal protein.
    It is remotely possible, for example, that it could cause food allergies in some individuals.
    The FDA was right to be careful, but unfortunately animal tests do not exclude this possibility.

    I strongly agree with the overall thrust of your article though.

  4. My question about the IB stems from wondering how the increased processing of the proteins affects the water/resource usage to produce. I’m sure it uses less water and power than beef, but a quick search hasn’t given me an insight.
    Really, I’m sure it’s my own laziness and I could find the info if I searched harder.
    Oh one other concern. If I ordered one, would my knowledge that it is not beef make it taste better or worse?

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