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How Eco-Friendly Are Impossible Burgers?

We took a look into Impossible Burger's ingredients to uncover how eco-friendly the meatless patties are.

Written by
Angelica Pizza
Published
March 4, 2022

Opting for plant-based meat alternatives is a great way to reduce your carbon footprint. And in any case, a plant-based diet has both health and environmental benefits.

With more people choosing plant-based meat, more people are eating Impossible Burgers—juicy, meatless burgers that taste just like regular burgers. But the question many people are asking is: What are the Impossible Burger ingredients? And are they eco-friendly?

If you're looking to make sustainable food swaps, but you're not exactly sure if Impossible Burgers are the right move, here's everything you need to know.

Impossible Burger Ingredients

Because the Impossible Burger looks and tastes like actual meat, it can be hard to believe the food is made entirely out of plants. So, what are the Impossible Burger ingredients that make it so mouth-watering for herbivores and carnivores alike?

According to Impossible Foods, its beef contains soy and potato proteins. To get the familiar meat flavor, Impossible Burgers contains heme, a genetically engineered yeast extract. This heme is what Impossible Foods says causes the patty to bleed like a real burger.

Impossible Burgers also contain coconut and sunflower oils—that's the part that sizzles when you cook your patties on the grill. To keep the patty together, they contain methylcellulose, a culinary binder often found in sauces or jams, and food starch.

Full list of Impossible Burger ingredients:

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, Mixed Tocopherols (Antioxidant), Soy Protein Isolate, Vitamins and Minerals (Zinc Gluconate, Thiamine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B1), Niacin, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B6), Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Vitamin B12).

So, it's true. Impossible Burgers do the impossible: They don't contain a single ounce of meat. But we still have one question. How eco-friendly are these plant-based burgers, really?

How Sustainable Are Impossible Burgers?

Impossible Burgers can be found locally in grocery stores and at your favorite fast-food chains and restaurants. And overall, that accessibility is great news for the planet.

According to Impossible Foods, eating Impossible Burgers has a positive impact on the planet in comparison to eating typical meat. The company specifically cites using 96% less land, emitting 89% less greenhouse gas emissions, and using 87% less water. Now, let's look at the specifics.

Soy

Soy—the main ingredient in these burgers—is a common crop used to make meat substitutes. Soy is also the prime component in meat substitutes like tofu and tempeh.

The soybean industry requires a significant amount of land for cultivation, and it's been said to contribute to deforestation, displacement, and biodiversity loss. In 2012, over 100 million hectacres of land was used to harvest 270 million tons of soybeans. That number is expected to exceed 140 million hectacres by 2050, harvesting roughly 514 million tons of soybeans.

That being said, the sector of the soybean industry that contributes to plant-based foods is small. Only about 7% of soy is used to produce human food products. The majority—77% of the world’s soybean production—is used to feed animals for meat and dairy production. So, it's not plant-based burgers that are the problem—it's the rate at which the world is eating the meat from animals that consumed soy.

Heme

How about the genetically modified heme that goes into creating Impossible Burgers? While heme is primarily found in animal blood, it's also found in plants. Soybeans have a high concentration, and that's where Impossible Foods decided to source its heme-containing protein—aka soy leghemoglobin—from.

While it's genetically modified and GMOs can be a controversial topic, it's the key to making the product taste so realistic. And, in turn, what has made so many people make the switch to a plant-based option.

Here's how the process works, according to Impossible Foods: "We started by extracting heme from the root nodules of soybean plants, but we knew there was a better way. So we took the DNA from these soy plants and inserted it into a genetically engineered yeast. We ferment this yeast (very similar to the way Belgian beer is made) to produce heme."

Is this process sustainable? You have to look at the big picture. This genetically modified ingredient helps get people to eat less meat, and that's a major win for the planet.

"Providing alternatives to animal meat made from plants, and that are just as appealing to consumers, would dramatically slow global warming and curtail the other negative environmental impacts of animal farming," wrote Dr. Michael Eisen, Ph.D., professor of molecular and cell biology at UC Berkeley. "But to do this, you need lots of heme; and to get heme, you need genetic engineering."

Since Impossible Burgers made with leghemoglobin generate fewer greenhouse gases, require less land, and use less water to produce than burgers from cows, "it would be grossly irresponsible to the planet and its people not to pursue this path," Eisen says.

Packaging

Now that we've addressed the ingredients, let's dive into the packaging. Impossible Foods says it focused on four factors when designing its packaging:

  • Protection from food waste (which has an enormous environmental impact)
  • Use of post-consumer recycled content (diverting materials from the landfill)
  • Dematerialization (making the most out of the least amount of packaging)
  • Materials selection (prioritizing curbside recyclable rigid plastics and sourcing 100% Sustainable Forest Initiative certified paper-based packaging)

It also says it incorporates recyclable materials into its packaging wherever possible. For example, both the tray and the packaging for Impossible Burger Patties are recyclable.

With that being said, there's still a lot of plastic being used in all of its products, and recycling plastic isn't easy even when it's "recyclable." Currently, only 9% of plastic actually gets recycled, with the rest winding up in a landfill.

This applies to other plant-based food products, too: The industry needs to step up its game as a whole and start using more sustainable packaging options.

The Takeaway

All in all, plant-based meat—Impossible Burgers, included—has a significantly lower environmental impact than animal-derived foods.

Beef makes up 30% of all meat consumed in the United States. And according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), cows produce the second-highest level of CO2 out of all meat options. "That’s more than twice the emissions of pork, nearly four times that of chicken and more than 13 times that of vegetable proteins such as beans, lentils and tofu,” the report reads.

Not surprisingly, in comparison to beef, soy-based meat is more sustainable. So if you're looking to make more sustainable swaps, try eliminating meat for just one day a week. Or, take it a step further and eliminate meat for one meal a day.

Whether you opt for an Impossible Burger or another plant-based meat alternative, every small change makes a big difference for the planet.