Is The Impossible Burger Healthy For You?

Is The Impossible Burger Healthy For the Planet?

Vegan BurgerAmericans love their meat. In 2018 we averaged over 200 pounds of meat per person. If we just focus on beef, we eat about 54 pounds per year. That’s equivalent to four quarter pounders a week!

But we are also getting the message that too much meat, especially red meat, may be bad for us. Nearly 40% of us are trying to eat a more plant-based diet.

The problem is that we love the convenience of fast food restaurants, and we love our burgers. Plus, in the past the meatless burgers on the market were, in a word, disappointing. Their taste and texture left something to be desired. You really needed to be committed to a plant-based diet to eat them in place of a regular burger.

That all changed a few years ago with the introduction of the and new generation of meatless burgers – the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger. They had the taste and texture of a real burger, but they were completely plant-based. What wasn’t to like?

  • Both companies claimed that their meatless burgers were healthier for the planet than regular burgers. For example, Impossible Food’s mission statement is: “Animal agriculture occupies almost half the land on earth, consumes a quarter of our freshwater, and destroys our ecosystems. So, we’re doing something about it: We’re making meat using plants, so that we never have to use animals again”.
  • Neither company claims their burgers are healthier for you. However, because their burgers are plant-based, the almost universal assumption has been that they are healthier than regular burgers.

Since their introduction they have taken the world by storm. You can find them in almost every supermarket and in many of your favorite fast food restaurants. Now that they are omnipresent, it is perhaps time to step back and take a closer look at this new generation of meatless burgers. In this article, I will ask two questions:

  • Are they healthier for you than regular burgers?
  • Are they healthier for the planet than regular burgers?

For the sake of simplicity, I will focus on the Impossible Burger with occasional comparisons with the Beyond Burger. It is beyond the scope of this article to compare these burgers with the many other meatless burgers that are now starting to flood the marketplace.

What’s In The Impossible Burger?

  • When we think of a burger, the first thing we think of is protein. The Impossible Burger gets its protein from soy, while the Beyond Burger gets its protein from peas.

Coconut OilHowever, soy and pea protein don’t give you the mouth feel, flavor, red color, and texture of a beef burger.

  • The mouth feel of a burger comes from its saturated fat. Both the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger use coconut oil as their source of saturated fat.
    • Coconut oil has gained a reputation as a “healthier” saturated fat. However, as I have discussed in my book, “Slaying The Food Myths”, we have no long term studies on the health effects of diets high in coconut oil. We don’t really know whether it is healthier than other saturated fats.
  • The taste and color of a beef burger come from its heme content. Heme does not occur in the parts of plants we eat. However, heme is involved in nitrogen fixation, so it is found in the roots of some legumes.
    • The Impossible Burger has genetically engineered yeast to produce a type of heme called leghemoglobin that is found in soy roots. The Beyond Burger uses beet juice extract and annatto for the color and unspecified “natural flavor” for the flavor.
  • To get the texture of a beef burger, both the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger use maltodextrin, modified food starch, and a variety of other ingredients. They are both highly processed foods.
  • Iron is another important nutrient you expect to get from a beef burger. The Impossible Burger contains 4.5 mg of iron and the Beyond Burger contains 5.4 mg of iron.
    • However, that is only part of the story. When iron is attached to a heme molecule, it is more efficiently absorbed by our bodies. Beef burgers and the Impossible Burger contain heme iron. The Beyond Burger does not.
  • In addition, the Impossible Burger adds in the vitamins, including B12, that we would expect to get from a beef burger. The Beyond Burger does not.

What Are The Pluses Of The Impossible Burger?

thumbs upThere are some definite pluses for the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger:

  • Both the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger are made from plant-based ingredients rather than from meat.
  • Both are cholesterol free.
  • Both contain modest amounts of fiber (3 grams for the Impossible Burger and 2 grams for the Beyond Burger), while a meat burger contains none.
  • Both are good sources of iron, and the iron in the Impossible Burger is heme-iron, which is efficiently absorbed by our bodies.

What Are The Minuses of the Impossible Burger?

thumbs downThere are, however, some definite minuses as well.

  • Both the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger are high in saturated fat. The Impossible Burger is higher in saturated fat and the Beyond Burger contains the same amount of saturated fat as a real burger. That’s important because the latest advisory of the American Heart Association warns that saturated fat increases our risk of heart disease (I have discussed this finding in detail in a previous issue of “Health Tips From the Professor”).
    • The saturated fat in both burgers comes from coconut oil. However, as I discussed above, we don’t know whether coconut oil is better or worse for us than other saturated fats. The relevant studies have not been done.
  • Both the Impossible and Beyond burgers are high in sodium. They have almost 5-times more sodium than a beef burger.
  • The heme in red meat catalyzes the formation of N-nitroso compounds in our gut which increase the risk of colon cancer. We do not know whether the form of heme added to Impossible Burgers catalyzes the same reaction, but it is likely.
  • Both plant-based burgers are low in protein compared to a beef burger (~20 grams versus 27 grams). On the other hand, 20 grams of protein is reasonable for a single meal.
  • The plant proteins used for these burgers (soy for the Impossible Burger and pea for the Beyond Burger) are highly processed. They lack the phytonutrients found in the unprocessed proteins.
    • The isoflavones found in soy are thought to decrease the risk of cancer and osteoporosis.
    • The phytonutrients found in peas have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. They are also thought to decrease the risk of certain cancers.
  • The Impossible Burger is GMO. The leghemoglobin is produced by genetically engineered yeast, and the soy is also GMO.
  • Neither the Impossible Burger nor Beyond Burger are certified organic. Organic certification refers to how the plant was grown. Both burgers are highly processed. Many of the ingredients in both burgers came from factories, not farms.

Is The Impossible Burger Healthy For You?

Eating Impossible BurgerNow, it is time to return to the original question: “Is the Impossible Burger healthy for you?” Since it is plant-based, it would be easy to assume that it is healthier than a burger made from beef. However, when you look more closely, it is not clear that it is healthier.

The manufacturers of the Impossible Burger and similar burgers have gone to the laboratory and have been successful at creating meatless burgers with the taste, mouth feel, and texture of real burgers. However, these improvements have come with a price.

  • The Impossible Burger and similar burgers are higher in saturated fat than a beef burger. This means they may be just as likely to increase the risk of heart disease as a beef burger.
  • The Impossible Burger contains as much heme as a beef burger, which means it may be just as likely to increase the risk of cancer as a beef burger.
  • The Impossible Burger and similar burgers are highly processed. That means:
    • The plant proteins no longer contain the phytonutrients thought to be responsible for some of their health benefits.
    • They also don’t contain the vitamins you would expect to find associated with the plant proteins.
  • The Impossible Burger and similar burgers are not organic. Even worse, the Impossible Burger is GMO.

On balance, we can’t really assume the Impossible Burger is any healthier than the beef burgers it replaces. Plus, if you include the usual condiments and add fries and a soft drink, any slight health benefits of the Impossible Burger will be lost.

It would be much healthier to choose a bean burger. They don’t taste like beef, but many of them are quite tasty. Plus, if you do some label reading, you can find ones that use only whole, unprocessed ingredients.

For example, I looked up the Organic Sunshine brand South West Black Bean burgers. It only provides half as much protein as an Impossible Burger, but all the ingredients are organic, non-GMO, and minimally processed. Note: I am not recommending a particular brand. However, with a little research I am confident you can find a healthy meatless burger with a taste you will enjoy.

Is The Impossible Burger Healthy For the Planet?

impossible burger good for planetNow, let’s look at the second question: “Is the Impossible Burger healthy for the planet?” The answer to this question seems obvious. As the Impossible Burger company states in their mission statement: “Animal agriculture occupies almost half the land on earth, consumes a quarter of our freshwater, and destroys our ecosystems”. It seems logical that any meatless burger would be an improvement.

If we are talking about a minimally processed black bean burger, like the one I described above, the answer is a clear yes. It is healthier for the planet. However, when you look more closely at the Impossible Burger, the answer isn’t as clear.

  • As coconut oil has increased in popularity massive areas of untouched, forested land have been cleared for coconut plantations.
    • These forested areas provide an essential ecosystem for animals and provide natural storm protection by absorbing rainwater. Therefore, coconut oil, like beef, also destroys our ecosystems.
    • In addition, many of the coconut plantations use large amounts of chemical fertilizers which contribute to phosphate pollution and algae overgrowth in lakes, rivers, and coastal ocean areas. This also degrades our environment.
  • The Impossible Burgers and similar meatless burgers contain many highly processed ingredients. Each of these ingredients imposes its own environmental burden. For example:
    • Coconut oil is often processed with hexane, which is categorized as a hazardous air pollutant by the Environmental Protection Agency.
    • In addition, coconut oil is primarily grown in the Philippines, Indonesia, and India. Transporting it to this country generates significant greenhouse gas emissions.
    • And, of course, coconut oil represents only one of the many highly processed ingredients in the Impossible Burger and similar meatless burgers.

In short, the Impossible Burger may be slightly healthier for the planet than a beef burger, but it is much less environmentally friendly than your typical, minimally processed, bean burger.

The Bottom Line

Two weeks ago, I wrote about recent headlines claiming that the best advice for the American public was to eat as much red meat as they like. I looked at the study behind the headlines and pointed out the many flaws in that study.

Last week I wrote about headlines claiming that red meat was just as heart healthy as white meat. I looked at the study behind the headlines and showed it was an excellent example of how the beef industry influences the design of clinical trials to minimize the health risks of red meat. It is also an example of how the media misleads and confuses the public about the effect of nutrition on their health.

What the studies I reviewed the last two weeks really showed was that very small amounts (2-3 ounces) of very lean red meat is probably OK as part of a healthy diet like the Mediterranean diet. Larger servings of fattier cuts of red meat as part of the typical American diet is problematic.

However, if you love your burgers, what are you to do? Are the meatless burgers like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger that are showing up in your favorite fast food restaurants the answer? Specifically, you are probably asking:

  • Is the Impossible Burger, and similar burgers, healthy for you?
  • Is the Impossible Burger, and similar burgers, healthy for the planet?

I looked at the composition, pluses, and minuses of this new generation of meatless burgers in this article. The bottom line is:

  • On balance, the Impossible Burger is only slightly healthier than the beef burgers it replaces. And, if you include the usual condiments and add fries and a soft drink, any slight health benefits of the Impossible Burger will be lost.

It would be much healthier to choose a bean burger. They don’t taste like beef, but many of them are quite tasty. Plus, if you do some label reading, you can find ones that are organic, non-GMO, and use only whole, unprocessed ingredients.

  • Similarly, the Impossible Burger may be slightly healthier for the planet than a beef burger, but it is much less environmentally friendly than your typical, minimally processed, bean burger.

For more details, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Do High Protein Diets Cause Cancer?

How Much Protein Should We Eat?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Animal Protein FoodsThe recent headlines suggesting that high protein diets may cause cancer, diabetes and premature death in middle aged Americans are downright scary. You are probably asking yourself:

  • “Is this new information?”
  • “Does this apply to me?”
  • “Should I radically change what I eat?”

In this issue of “Health Tips From the Professor” I will address each of these questions.

Do High Protein Diets Cause Cancer?

The study in question (Levine et al., Cell Metabolism, 19: 407-417, 2014) suggested that high protein diets were associated with increased risk of cancer, diabetes and premature death in Americans in the 50-65 age range. I will touch on all three of these observations, but it is the increased risk of cancer that generated the most headlines – and the most concern (The consequences of diabetes take years to manifest, and death seem to be a more distant concern for most people. Cancer is immediate and personal).

The study looked at 6,381 adults aged 50 and older (average age 65) from the NHANES III data base. (NHANES is a comprehensive database collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that consists of surveys and physical examinations and is designed to be representative of the health and nutritional status of the US population.)

The data collected consisted of a single diet questionnaire conducted when the subjects were enrolled in the study. Based on the diet questionnaire the authors of the study divided the group into those with low protein intake (<10% of calories), those with moderate protein intake (10-19% of calories) and those with high protein intake (>20% of calories). Overall death and mortality from various diseases over the next 18 years was obtained by linking the NHANES data with the National Death Index.

Based on preliminary data suggesting that the age of the population might influence the results (I won’t go into details here) the authors of the study decided to subdivide the dataset into people aged 50-65 and people over 65. When they did that, they came to the following conclusions:

1)     In the 50-65 age group diets high in animal protein were associated with a:

  • 45% increase in overall mortality
  • 4-fold increase in cancer death risk
  • 4-fold increase in diabetes death risk.

Diets with moderate protein intake were associated with intermediate increases in risk. Surprisingly, there was no increase in cardiovascular disease risk.

Protein Shakes2)     When they looked at people in the 50-65 age group consuming diets high in vegetable protein:

  • the increased overall mortality and increased in cancer mortality disappeared
  • the increased diabetes mortality was still seen.

3)     In the 65+ age group high protein diets were associated with a:

  • 28% decrease in overall mortality
  • 60% decrease in cancer mortality.

The increased risk of diabetes related deaths was still observed. The authors did not distinguish between animal and vegetable protein in the over 65 age group.

All of that may seem to be a bit too complicated. At the risk of gross oversimplification I would summarize their message as follows:

  • Diets high in animal protein may be bad for you if you are in the 50-65 age range, but might actually be good for you if you are over 65.
  • Diets high in vegetable protein appear to be good for anyone over age 50 (The study didn’t look at younger age groups).

Is This New Information?

Let’s start by assuming that the conclusions of the authors are correct (more about that below).

When you boil their message down to its simplest components, the information isn’t particularly novel.

  • The idea that vegetable proteins may be better for you than animal proteins has been around for decades. There are a number of studies suggesting that diets high in animal protein increase the risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and overall death – although it is still not clear whether it is the animal protein itself or some other characteristic of populations consuming mostly animal protein that is the culprit.
  • Evidence has been accumulating over the past decade or so that protein needs increase as we age, so it is not surprising that this study found high protein diets to be beneficial for those of us over age 65.

What Do Other Experts Say?

ScientistSince this study has been released it has been roundly criticized by other experts in the field. Let me sum up their four main criticisms and add one of my own.

1)     The protein intake data were based on a single dietary survey taken at the beginning of an 18 year study. The authors stated that a single dietary survey has been shown to be a pretty accurate indicator of what an individual is eating at the time of the survey. However, it is problematic to assume that everyone’s diet remained the same over an 18 year period.

2)     The choice of less than 10% of calories from protein is also problematic. According to the Institute of Medicine standards anything below 10% is defined as inadequate protein intake, which can have long term health consequences of its own.

More importantly, only 7% of the population being studied (437 individuals) fell into this group. This is the baseline group (or put another way, the denominator for all of the comparisons). The conclusions of this study were based on comparing the other two groups to this baseline, and there were too few individuals in this group to be confident that the baseline is accurate.

This does not necessarily invalidate the study, but it does decrease confidence in the size of the reported effect – so forget the reported numbers like 45% increase in mortality and 4-fold increase in cancer deaths. They probably aren’t accurate.

3)     The number of people in this study who died from diabetes was exceedingly small (68 total) and most of them already had diabetes when the study began. The experts concluded that the numbers were simply too low to draw any conclusions about protein intake and diabetes related deaths, and I agree with them.

4)     While the study controlled for fat intake and carbohydrate intake, it did not control for weight. That is a huge omission. Overweight is associated with increased risk of cancer, diabetes and death, and vegetarians tend to weigh less than non-vegetarians.

5)     I would add that there are many other differences between vegetarians and non- vegetarians that could account for most of the differences reported between diets high in animal and vegetable protein. For example:

  • Vegetarians tend to be more health conscious and thus they tend to exercise more, consume more fiber, consume more fruits and vegetables, consume less fried food, and consume less processed and convenience foods – all of which are associated with decreased risk of cancer, diabetes and death.

The Bottom Line:

This is not a particularly strong study. Nor is it particularly novel. In fact, when you strip away the scary headlines and focus on what the data really show, the conclusions aren’t that different from what nutrition experts have been saying for years.

1)     This study suggests that if you are in the 50-65 age range, diets high in animal protein may not be good for you (this study focused on increased risk of cancer death and overall mortality. Other studies have suggested that diets high in animal protein may increase the risk of cardiovascular death).

This is not a new idea. These data are consistent with a number of other studies. However, none of these studies adequately assess whether the increased risk is from the animal protein alone or from other characteristics of populations that consume a lot of animal protein.

2)     This study also suggests that diets high in vegetable protein do not increase either cancer risk or all cause mortality. That’s also not new information. We’ve known for years that people who consume primarily vegetable protein appear to be healthier. Once again, it is not clear whether it is the vegetable protein itself that is beneficial or whether the benefit is due to other characteristics of populations who consume a lot of vegetable protein.

3)     Does that mean that you need to become a vegetarian? It probably reflects my personal bias, but I am reminded of a Woody Allen Quote: “Vegetarians don’t live longer. It just seems that way”. I am also encouraged by studies suggesting that most of the health benefits of vegetarianism can be achieved by diets that consist of around 50% vegetable protein.

I would never discourage anyone from becoming a vegetarian, but if you aren’t ready for that, I would highly recommend that you aim for at least 50% vegetable protein in your diet.

4)     Finally, this study suggests that a high protein diet is beneficial for people over 65. This is also not a completely novel idea. It is consistent with a lot of recent research.

My advice to those of you who, like me, are over 65 is to pay attention to high protein foods and make sure that they are an important part of your diet. I’m not suggesting that you go for the double bacon cheeseburger just because you are over 65. I would still aim for a significant percentage of vegetable protein as a part of a healthy diet at any age.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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