Impossible Burger 2.0 – review and ethical rating

A pack of two Impossible Burgers, version 2.0 from Impossible Foods, is shown with an ethical score beneath it of 3/5 Green Stars, representing a rating for social and environmental impact.

When I saw an entire freezer full of Impossible Burgers at a local Grocery outlet, I did a double take. I had not imagined seeing them on sale there – especially at a price of $2.50 per pack, each containing two of the plant-based burgers from Impossible Foods (compared to a regular price of $6). I’ve been vegetarian since I was 15, so I’ve eaten my fair share of meat substitutes but had not yet tried the Impossible Burger. Over on the Green Stars Project I’ve evaluated some of these substitutes, including Tofurky, Quorn, Beyond Meat, No Evil, and good old tofu.

A few vegetarian friends said that they’re not that interested in Impossible Burgers because they are too similar to meat. I do like some meaty things like Beyond Sausages, reviewed here previously, so I had an open mind.

How to cook Impossible Burgers

After thawing a pack of burgers, I cooked one in a preheated pan, coated with a very small amount of olive oil, for about 4 minutes per side until the middle looked cooked (viewed from the side). I can see why vegetarians/vegans may not be interested in this style of meat substitute – it is very like meat in taste, texture, smell, and even the way it cooks, turning from red to grey and then brown. After cooking, I had to smother it with ketchup and dill to give it a different flavor because on its own it just wasn’t appealing to me. With these additions, I thought the burger wasn’t bad and can certainly imagine people who love the taste of meat loving them. That was, after all, the whole goal of the company – to replicate the experience of meat in order to combat climate change.

I also tried making a burger into breakfast sausages (I did this for the Beyond Meat burger too), by mixing herbs and spices into the burger and then forming it into four small sausages. I added a lot of herbs and spice – around two tablespoons of herbs (sage, thyme) and spices (paprika, mustard, fennel seed) into that one little burger. The sausages weren’t bad, but not as good as the breakfast sausages that I made from the Beyond Meat burger.

Four breakfast sausages on two slices of walnut bread are shown. The four sausages were made by combining one Impossible Burger with fennel and mustard seed, sage, thyme, and smoked paprika.
Breakfast sausages (on walnut bread) made by combining an Impossible Burger with fennel and mustard seed, sage, thyme, and smoked paprika.

Impossible burger versus Beyond Meat burger

The Grocery Outlet is also currently selling Beyond Meat burgers at a steep discount, so it’s a good time to try out these two products and compare them. That’s exactly what I did, and here’s a summary:

  1. As a vegetarian, I prefer the Beyond Meat burgers to the Impossible Burger, simply because the Impossible Burger tastes too meaty to me and I think that the Beyond Meat burgers have a more nuanced flavor.
  2. However, if you’re used to eating meat then you may prefer the Impossible Burger – I’d recommend trying both.
  3. In both cases I add a lot of dried dill and organic ketchup, along with tomato, napa cabbage, etc., to my burgers, particularly for the Impossible Burger, where I feel the need to mask the overly meaty flavor.

More about Impossible Foods

You may know the story already – Pat Brown, longtime vegan and professor of biochemistry at Stanford University, decided that the best way to combat climate change is to develop a plant-based meat substitute that would motivate consumers to move away from eating meat. That’s not new, but his research did turn up new ideas for making meat substitutes meatier. A key factor that gives meat its distinctive taste is hemoglobin – that iron-containing molecule that carries oxygen through our bodies, making our blood red. Dr. Brown didn’t imagine himself starting a food company but he came to the conclusion that it was the logical course of action if he wanted to use his biochemistry skills in the most effective way to mitigate climate change.

To make their vegan burger, Impossible Foods selected a plant-based substitute for hemoglobin known as leghemoglobin – it’s an iron-containing, oxygen-carrying molecule that’s found in the roots of legume plants. Impossible Foods makes leghemoglobin in yeast cells, by a process that’s not that different to making vegetarian rennet or insulin. So it’s a vegan product, although there was some controversy in the vegan community as the novel leghemoglobin product had to be tested in animals. Pat Brown issued a statement about that.

Impossible Burger – ingredients

The Impossible Burger that has been on shelves since 2019 is actually the second version of the product: Impossible Burger 2.0. The big difference is that the main ingredient was switched from wheat protein (gluten) to soy protein. More specifically, Impossible Foods sources genetically modified soy that’s engineered to be resistant to glyphosate.

Here are the ingredients in Impossible Burger 2.0:
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).

Nutrition Facts for the current burger from Impossible Foods, the Impossible Burger 2.0 are listed, as per the label. Each 113 g burger provides 240 calories, 14 g fat (18% daily value), 8 g saturated fat (40% DV), 19 g protein (31% DV), 9 g total carbohydrate including 3 g of fiber (11% DV). The burger provides substantial amounts of vitamin B12 (130% DV), thiamin (2350% DV), niacin (50% DV), iron (25% DV) and other vitamins and minerals.

The Center for Food Safety (a San Francisco based nonprofit) filed a lawsuit last week, challenging the FDA’s approval of leghemoglobin, and it’s certainly true that humans don’t have a history of eating this molecule as it’s mainly limited to legume roots. However, is it any more risky than the artificial colors and preservatives found in other processed food items – or than meat itself, for that matter?

Genetically modified (GM) ingredients in the Impossible Burger

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll have noticed that two of the ingredients in Impossible Foods’ latest burger are genetically modified (GM): the yeast that makes the leghemoglobin and the soy plants that supply most of the protein for the burger. This will really require a whole separate post (probably over on the Green Stars Project) but here’s my quick take on it: I don’t have a problem with the GM yeast – it’s the same technology brought us vegetarian versions of rennet (for making cheese) and drugs like insulin (which was sourced from pigs before the yeast was developed). I do have an issue with the GM soy, and I’ll briefly explain why.

I don’t fear GM soy from the perspective of the gene itself – as a molecular biologist I know that the DNA editing in itself isn’t usually a big risk. I’m also not too worried about traces of glyphosate in the soy that Impossible Foods uses – here’s a summary of that issue. (I do, however, think that glyphosate levels in some foods warrant concern.)

What does concern me is the form of agriculture that goes hand in hand with the GM soy – usually referred to industrial agriculture. It involves the systemic use of increasing levels of glyphosate, a broad spectrum herbicide that kills all plant life, in combination with neonics, a class of insecticide known to harm bees. It also involves the worldwide use of a crop that lacks genetic diversity, coupled with control of the seeds, herbicide, and insecticide by a handful of corporations (e.g., Bayer Corp., which now owns Monsanto). But it’s more complex and nuanced than just those points so I’ll post a link to a detailed discussion of this when it’s published on the GSP.

Impossible Foods versus Kite Hill

Pat Brown is also a founder of Kite Hill, which produces a range of dairy alternatives that are made from cultured almond milk. I previously reviewed Kite Hill butter here on Ethical Bargains, having bought it at the Grocery Outlet. So, with a founder in common, I thought it would be mildly interesting to briefly compare my impressions of Kite Hill and Impossible Foods

I found Kite Hill’s vegan butter to be a very good butter substitute and have continued to use it, including for pastry. Like the Impossible Burger, it’s a very good reproduction of the original animal-based version. I ended up giving Kite Hill an ethical rating of 3.5 Green Stars as a balance between being a vegan product but falling a bit short on some sustainability metrics. For example, the Kite Hill container should be made from post-consumer recycled plastic instead of virgin PET and the company should be more transparent on corporate responsibility and ingredient sourcing. Impossible Foods is doing a better job on two out of three of these issues, which I’ll highlight in the ethical review.

Ethical rating for Impossible Burger

Here’s a summary of how I feel about the social and environmental impact of Impossible Burger 2.0, which I’m scoring 3/5 Green Stars.

  • It’s a vegan product, playing an important role in changing humanity’s eating habits by being, perhaps, the most meat-like burger to date.
  • The newest version of the Impossible Burger has a carbon footprint 89% smaller than a beef burger and also uses 87% less water, 96% less land, and cuts water contamination by 92%. – Data from Quantis. This is similar to the impact of other meat alternatives, e.g., products from Beyond Meat, Quorn, etc. To put it into perspective, most protein-rich plant foods such as peas, beans, etc., have even better numbers.
  • The packaging consists of a container that’s made from post-consumer recycled PET, a plastic film (to keep the heme from oxidizing), and a label made from polypropylene (why did they not use card for this?).
  • In Impossible Foods’ 2020 Impact Report, you can read about how the company has started initiatives on many issues, from waste minimization and food bank donations to gender and racial equality.
  • Most of the impact report describes fairly new initiatives rather than actual results, so it’s all early stage. One initiative that I do find exciting is to attempt recycling of the water (by reverse osmosis) that comes from their yeast/leghemoglobin fermentation. Success with that could be a big step forward in sustainability for the biotech industry.
  • What’s lacking in Impossible Foods’ reporting is meaningful information about the company’s sourcing of the main ingredients: soy, coconut, and sunflower.
  • On that note, by far and away my biggest problem with Impossible Foods is the use of industrially farmed soy and sunflower. I’m hoping that this is done for mainly economic reasons (Pat Brown stated that pricing is their biggest challenge) and that perhaps they will bring out a version 3.0 made from sustainably-farmed ingredients. Even if they sourced soy and sunflower that’s not treated with neonics, this would be a start.

Considering the points above, Impossible Foods does deserve credit for creating a meat substitute that has fooled food critics and won over many meat eaters. Right now it’s an Imperfect Burger rather than an Impossible Burger, until the ingredient sourcing changes, but it’s still a whole lot more sustainable than a beef burger.

Don’t forget that if you do eat meat, you’re most likely dealing with animals that were raised on GM soy and corn, thus combining the issues of industrial agriculture with even the larger ethical and environmental problems of the meat industry. So, although imperfect, the Impossible Burger is definitely an improvement on meat (just not as high-scoring as Beyond Meat burgers, in my opinion).

Summary scores (out of 5) for Impossible Burgers:

  • 3.5 gold stars for quality and value – that’s very subjective and will depend on how much you like the meaty taste.
  • 3 green stars for social and environmental impact.

I expect that there will be many different opinions on this product. Please share your rating in a comment below!

Published by jkaybay

I have two sites, both focused on ethical consumerism. The Green Stars Project (https://greenstarsproject.org/) aims to start a movement based on crowd-sourced ethical ratings. Ethical Bargains (https://ethicalbargains.org/) is focused on new products that I've bought at the Grocery Outlet.

13 thoughts on “Impossible Burger 2.0 – review and ethical rating

  1. I do eat meat, though not a lot. We’ll have BBQ burgers a couple of times each year. When we eat beef, it’s organic and sustainably raised. Even with your glowing environmental info, the GMO and packaging are enough to keep me away. Early research on bees is showing that exposure to glyphosate crops can cause intestinal issues for the bees that weakens their resistance and makes them susceptible to nosema. (It may be that the don’t actually have nosema–just glyphosate induced diarrhea.) I’m a beekeeper first, and a burger buyer well down the line after that. Between that, and the outrageous soil damage that glyphosate farming does, I’ll stay away from faux burgers. Now–if they used organic soy…..

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for weighing in on this. I’ve deliberated over this rating quite a lot and I’m going to downgrade it from 3.5 to 3.0 Green Stars now. I rated Beyond Burgers 4.5 stars recently and think that Impossible Foods falls short mainly on the two points that you mention – the ingredients and the large amount of packaging (for two burgers). I appreciate that they chose post-consumer recycled PET for the package but agree with you that a switch to organic soy and sunflower would make a big difference – I would probably rate the burgers about 4.5 if that were to happen. Don’t know if you’ve done much research into the impact of neonics on bees but the evidence is pretty conclusive. Even more damning are the tactics that Monsanto/Bayer/Syngenta have used to try to cast doubt on this data (see links above in the GM section).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Neonics = bee death. Europe has banned them, and bee populations are rebounding. The saddest part is how ubiquitous they are in nursery plants–meaning that well meaning gardener neighbors have no idea that they may be killing the bees. The reason I mentioned the glyphosate connection is because it is less well-known.
        Perhaps a bifurcated review may be in order–one–just on taste and then the environmentatl rating. I commend them for trying to make a substitute for beef. My horror is always looking at the labels, to see what chemicals are needed to achieve that magic trick. (In a similar vein, I know that commercially produced gluten free breads are frightening!) And yes the Bayer conglomerate is doing everything it can to confuse consumers–taking a page from Tobacco, Big Oil, and Monsanto (in its earlier configuration.)

        Liked by 2 people

  2. People seem to like the Impossible Burger, and a restaurant was offering them back in New Mexico, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to eat a burger that tasted like meat. And, going out to eat was a rare treat even before the shutdown. If they were on sale, I might try them, budget permitting. I haven’t tried “Beyond Meat” either.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Really interesting to read all this. I had been thinking that most diehard vegans vegetarians wouldn’t really want meaty tasting vego stuff. It was good to read your assessment of the ingredients, GM stuff too. Thanks. You don’t usually find this sort of info set out in this way!

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Well I am a meat eater so I guess i fall into the category of people trying to consume less for eco reasons. I was also glad to read your sensible take on GM. There’s a lot of hysteria about that around…

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Yeah, the world is too full of extreme opinions at the moment! We’ll never get anywhere unless people can put things in perspective 🙂 I still debate over this rating for the Impossible Burger – 3 Green Stars may be a bit harsh as one of the biggest contributions that Impossible have made is to generate excitement among meat eaters about a plant-based burger!

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow! Thank you for writing such an informative and first-hand account of your experiences. Even though I’m not entirely vegetarian, I’m tempted to go try some of the meat-sub products you mention.

    Liked by 2 people

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