In my last blog, Here Comes Food Science, I briefly mentioned the advent of “food science” where technology has advanced to the point of being able to transform plant-based food into the taste and texture of meat. This has attracted a lot of health-conscious people and they are buying these products in demand.
One of the more prominent “food science” products to hit the market in this area is the Impossible Burger. It is, as you probably already know, a patty made from vegetable plants but tastes like a real ground-beef burger. Last year I had two and can testify that they indeed do taste like meat. But there’s a little more to the story on the Impossible Burger and its company, Impossible Foods.
The motivation to produce the Impossible Burger was born of a former pediatrician and Stanford biochemistry professor, Pat Brown, who believes the biggest threat to global ecosystems is animal agriculture. He and his team were funded by venture capitalists, including Bill Gates, to invent a plant-based burger, and they’ve succeeded for the most part, the result being a soy-derived offering.
What makes the Impossible Burger different than other conventional vegetable-based meats is the “blood,” which gives the patty its pinkness and succulence. The secret to this “blood” is heme – more specifically, soy-derived leghemoglobin. Like the hemoglobin in animal blood, the leghemoglobin binds oxygen in the plant root. The process that extracts this plant hemoglobin is very inefficient for mass production so Dr. Brown’s team resorted to synthetic biology.
The juice in the Impossible Burger comes from yeast into which the genes for soy hemoglobin have been inserted. This is genetic manipulation, and thus, a GMO component is involved in the burger’s production. For some this is a problem. For others who care one whit for GMO products, it makes no difference and this is revealed in the demand that has skyrocketed for the Impossible Burger. Burger King plans to introduce the patty in all of its 7,300 US restaurants by the end of this year.
The company Impossible also has admitted that it uses soy protein from genetically engineered crops. It says it must do so in order to keep up with the demand. Interestingly, 90% of all soy in the US is genetically modified anyway to withstand heavy applications of glyphosate and other herbicides.
But a group called Moms Across America (MAA) has confronted Impossible with a study that reveals their burgers have 11.3 ppb (parts per billion) glyphosate to which Impossible has rebutted. MAA contends their study shows that even at 0.1 ppb, glyphosate was shown to alter “over 4000 genes” in the livers and kidneys of rats. To which Impossible claims that there is nothing wrong with “constructive, genetic engineering,” and that there is no scientific evidence whatsoever that shows that low levels of glyphosate residue are dangerous. They are correct to say so as there is no current science that has determined the safety of glyphosate residue in food.
Impossible brushes off MAA as a cantankerous peddler of medical misinformation, but groups like Friends of the Earth, United Natural Products Alliance, the Natural Grocers, have raised similar concerns about Impossible’s products.
So there, you have it. Who to believe? Is the Impossible Burger, and products like it, truly “natural”? Or, does the GMO component and the glyphosate issue matter?