Skip to main content

Unapologetically Processed

By Dr. Sue Klapholz, M.D., Ph.D., Vice President of Nutrition and Health, Impossible Foods

Two opened sandwich buns, one showing the ingredients of Impossible™ Burger, and the other with an Impossible™ Burger cooked.

In terms of nutrition, the Impossible™ Burger compares very favorably to beef from a cow (see below). And when it comes to the health and sustainability of our planet (ref(opens in a new tab)) and public health (ref(opens in a new tab)), there’s no contest.

The Bottom Line

  • The Impossible Burger, like ground beef from cows, is a processed food. Both Impossible Burger and ground beef are plentiful sources of essential nutrients, including high-quality protein, vitamins and minerals.

  • Ultra-processed foods are often defined as those that contain little or no whole foods, and are fatty, salty or sugary and low in important micronutrients, fiber, and protein. Impossible Burger, in contrast, contains the same amount of protein (19g), ⅓ less total fat (14g vs 23g) and about the same amount of saturated fat (8g) as 80/20 ground beef, with 0 mg cholesterol and 0g trans-fat, less than 1g sugar and only 16% of the daily value (DV) for sodium per 4-ounce serving. Impossible Burger is also packed with essential nutrients.

  • In contrast to beef, Impossible Burger is also a good source of fiber, an excellent source of thiamin and folate, and contains twice the iron, twice the potassium and eight times the calcium per serving as beef from a cow.

  • Impossible Burger is not a nutritional substitute for a green salad or a bowl of lentils and rice – and that's by design. Data shows that consumers who choose Impossible Burger are almost always choosing it as an alternative to meat from a cow, not in place of whole vegetables or vegan meals.

  • Finally, Impossible Burger contains none of the animal hormones, animal antibiotics, or highly processed lean finely textured beef associated with animal ground beef. Perhaps most importantly, it gives meat eaters a delicious and nutritious alternative to beef from a cow, with a far lower environmental and public health impact.

Meet the Impossible Burger 

A 4-ounce serving of Impossible Burger has 19g of high quality protein (Table 1, ref(opens in a new tab)). The main source of protein in the Impossible Burger is the soybean, widely recognized for having an amino acid composition that rivals those of proteins from animal sources (ref(opens in a new tab)). Like beef from a cow, Impossible Burger contains heme iron, the form of iron that is most easily absorbed and used by the body (ref(opens in a new tab)), as well as a substantial amount of non-heme iron. In animals, heme iron comes primarily from myoglobin in muscle tissue. In the Impossible Burger, it derives from soy leghemoglobin, a protein naturally found in the root nodules of soybeans. Impossible Burger is a good source (meaning it contains 10-19% of the DV) of calcium, potassium, phosphorus and fiber, and an excellent source (≥20% of the DV) of iron and zinc. In fact, Impossible Burger has twice the iron, twice the potassium and eight times the calcium of beef from a cow. Calcium, iron, potassium and fiber are especially important because they are “nutrients of concern” in the American diet (ref(opens in a new tab)). In contrast, animal meat provides no dietary fiber. 

Just like beef from a cow, Impossible Burger is a good to excellent source of many B vitamins (riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B6, vitamin B12), and unlike beef, it is an excellent source of thiamin and folate, a B vitamin important for healthy fetal development (ref(opens in a new tab)). The Impossible Burger contains only 14g of total fat, of which 8g is saturated fat, 0g  trans-fat and 0 mg cholesterol, and is low in carbohydrates. Although the Impossible Burger contains more sodium than beef from a cow (370 mg vs. 75 mg), a 4-oz. Impossible Burger patty only contains 16% of the DV for sodium (2300 mg), making it a suitable food for people who are watching their daily sodium intake (ref(opens in a new tab)). And people rarely eat a burger made from cows without first seasoning it with salt (ref(opens in a new tab)).

Table 1: Comparison of Impossible Burger(opens in a new tab) and 80/20 ground beef(opens in a new tab) from a cow

Our detractors, including the beef industry, argue that the Impossible Burger and other plant-based beef substitutes are not as healthy as beef from cows because they are “highly processed” (ref(opens in a new tab), ref(opens in a new tab), ref(opens in a new tab)). Let’s explore the validity of that assertion.

What is processed food?

There are many definitions of processed food, but the NOVA food classification system (ref)(opens in a new tab), which categorizes food by degree of processing rather than nutritional composition, has received much recent attention (ref(opens in a new tab)). The authors imply that there is a direct correlation between the degree of processing and the healthiness of a food – but this is an overly simplistic and scientifically unfounded conflation (ref(opens in a new tab), ref(opens in a new tab)). Processing does not, by definition, make a food or an ingredient less healthy. In fact, there are countless examples to the contrary, where processing has enhanced food safety or improved its nutritional profile (see further, below). 

Truly unprocessed foods, such as whole fresh raw fruits and vegetables, comprise only a small part of our diets. Most foods that we consume are at least “minimally processed,” whether it be by slicing an apple, peeling and crushing a clove of garlic or baking a potato. “Processed foods” are colloquially defined as using more complex processes than simply cutting or cooking, and often contain multiple processed ingredients. Examples of processed foods that most people would consider wholesome include freshly baked bread, plain yogurt and aged cheese. 

It is the category called “ultra-processed” that raises the most concern among people who care about health and nutrition. In September 2016, the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition published a report in which they applied the term ultra-processed to foods that: “contain little or no whole foods, are ready-to-consume or heat up, and are fatty, salty or sugary and depleted in dietary fibre, protein, various micronutrients and other bioactive compounds (ref(opens in a new tab)).” The Impossible Burger does not meet this definition. It contains the same amount of protein (19g), 1/3 less total fat (14g vs 23g) and about the same amount of saturated fat (8g) as 80/20 ground beef, with 0mg cholesterol and 0g trans-fat per 4-ounce serving. It contains less than 1g sugar and only 16% of the DV for sodium. Finally, it is a good to excellent source of dietary fiber, B vitamins, and essential minerals such as iron, zinc, calcium and potassium. 

To evaluate the healthfulness of processed foods compared to minimally or wholly unprocessed foods, it’s important to make comparisons that correspond to the real choices people are faced with in the grocery store every day. For example, we might compare homemade soup to canned soup, fresh peaches to peaches canned in syrup or baked potatoes to French fries. Few consumers are choosing between an Impossible Burger and a green salad or a bowl of lentils and rice; they are almost always choosing between an Impossible Burger and beef from a cow or another plant-based burger.

What are some of the benefits of food processing?

The Impossible Burger contains a carefully crafted mixture of ingredients designed to replicate the nutrition, flavor, aroma, mouthfeel, raw handling and cooking attributes of ground beef, at a fraction of the environmental cost (ref(opens in a new tab)). Imagine if we assembled the whole food equivalents of our key ingredients: whole soy beans instead of soy protein concentrate, potatoes instead of potato protein, sunflower seeds and chunks of coconut flesh instead of their respective oils, and soybean root nodules instead of soy leghemoglobin (soy LegH) (see figure below). The result would be nothing like beef, and it wouldn’t necessarily be healthier. Perhaps most importantly, it wouldn’t stand a chance of convincing meat eaters to substitute the Impossible Burger for their usual hamburger -- a change that has major positive implications for climate change and our ability to feed a growing world population.

There can be downsides to food processing. For example, processed proteins may contain lysinoalanine and D-amino acids -- altered forms of amino acids that are less digestible or usable by the body (ref(opens in a new tab)). And some types of cooking can lead to loss of vitamins from food (ref(opens in a new tab)). However, the benefits of food processing are also numerous. Here are just a few examples:

Creating nutrient-dense ingredients:

Protein isolates and concentrates are processed ingredients that are created by taking a whole food and isolating or concentrating its protein. One example is potato protein, an ingredient in the Impossible Burger (ref(opens in a new tab)). Potatoes are mainly composed of water and starch, with protein constituting only 2% of their makeup (ref(opens in a new tab)). By isolating and concentrating the protein from potato, we get high quality protein, free from starch, that can be used as an ingredient. Extracting oil from seeds is another example of processing where the desired ingredient, for example sunflower oil, is separated from the rest of the seed.

Destroying harmful phytochemicals

Plants contain numerous phytochemicals, many of which have health benefits (phytonutrients (ref(opens in a new tab))), and others, detrimental effects (antinutrients (ref(opens in a new tab))). Lectins are an example of a type of antinutrient found ubiquitously in plants and animals (ref(opens in a new tab)). Legumes and whole grains are particularly high in lectins. Some lectins are notorious for being highly toxic, such as ricin from castor beans, while other lectins are completely safe to eat. Fortunately, the toxicity of most lectins found in food is destroyed by cooking. For example, the processes of soaking and cooking are necessary for safe consumption of kidney beans, which, when raw, are extremely toxic.

Phytic acid, which is found in grains, cereals, peas, nuts, oilseeds and legumes, is another example (ref(opens in a new tab)). Phytates negatively impact absorption of zinc, iron, calcium, manganese and magnesium, all critical minerals. Soaking, sprouting and lactic acid fermentation are all processing methods that can reduce the phytic acid content of foods, making their minerals easier for the body to absorb, and the food more nutritious.

Removing pathogens and extending shelf life: 

Pasteurization is another life-saving example of food processing. Heating milk to a high temperature for a short time, or to a lower temperature for a longer time, can enable safe consumption of milk which might otherwise harbor human pathogens, such as Listeria (ref(opens in a new tab)). In addition, high temperature heat treatment kills other non-pathogenic bacteria that can quickly curdle and otherwise spoil milk (ref(opens in a new tab)).

Do processed foods cause weight gain?

Much attention has been paid to the study by Hall et al. (2019) in which participants were given “ultra-processed” meals or unprocessed meals in random order for 14 days each, and allowed to eat as much or as little as they liked (ref(opens in a new tab)). The study subjects tended to eat larger portions of the “ultra-processed” food and consequently, gained weight. While this experiment tested two extremes -- an all-processed versus an all-unprocessed diet -- what about substituting Impossible Burger for beef from cows? A study that is more directly relevant to this question (Crimarco et al. 2020) demonstrated that when plant-based meats were substituted for animal-based meat in diets that were otherwise the same, subjects on the plant-based meat diet actually lost weight (ref(opens in a new tab)). By extension, we expect that if the Impossible Burger were to be substituted for a cow beef burger in an otherwise healthy balanced diet, weight gain would not be a concern. 

Final food for thought: How “unprocessed” is beef from a cow?

Ground beef often contains a highly processed ingredient called “lean finely textured beef” (LFTB) (ref(opens in a new tab)). Approved by the USDA in 2001, up to 15% LFTB may be included in ground beef without indicating its presence on the package (ref(opens in a new tab)). The beef industry makes LFTB by taking trimmings that would otherwise go to waste, separating lean meat from fat, and using ammonium hydroxide or citric acid to kill any bacteria present in the trimmings. According to the American Meat Institute, the use of LFTB minimizes the waste of usable lean meat and ensures that beef remains as affordable as possible (ref(opens in a new tab)). Including LFTB in ground beef also slightly reduces the destructive environmental impact of the cattle industry -- without LFTB, approximately 1.5 million additional head of cattle would need to be slaughtered each year to make up the difference in volume filled by this ingredient.

Conclusion

The Impossible Burger, like beef from cows, is a processed food. Both Impossible Burger and ground beef are plentiful sources of essential nutrients, including high-quality protein, vitamins and minerals. However, when we consider the relative impact of these two foods on the survival of our planet and on public health (ref(opens in a new tab)), there is no comparison. Raising animals for food is a leading contributor to global warming and the major driver of deforestation and the collapse of global biodiversity (ref(opens in a new tab)). It accelerates the development and spread of multiple antibiotic resistant pathogens, food poisoning, and viral pandemics, like the one we are currently battling (ref(opens in a new tab)). The Impossible Burger was created to give meat eaters a delicious and nutritious alternative to beef from a cow with a far lower environmental impact and cost to public health.