Peeling Back the Bun - Part 02

Parker Hughes
Nov 12, 2020

A Less Than Natural Label

In an era of clean labeling, plant-based meat companies artfully persuade consumers to endorse GMO-based burgers while concealing the manufacturing processes that enable fake meat to look, cook, and taste like the real thing. Similar to the way Impossible’s chemists manipulate molecules into meat-like substitutes, its marketing team blends fact with fiction to position products as “engineered” and “optimized” to solve the world's most pressing problems. Traditional animal products contain one easy to understand ingredient. Contrastingly, Impossible's recipe consists of 21 ingredients, and Beyond “beef” tallies 22 complex components. The former relies on soy protein for the bulk of its patty whereas the latter constructs its burger on a foundation of pea protein isolate. Processed oils fill in for animal fat and methylcellulose, a thickener also found in hair products, acts as a binder in both formulas. 

And like many software startups, Impossible views itself as a “platform.” A term frequently given to a group of technologies that are used as a foundation upon which other applications, processes or technologies are developed. Consumers may be shocked to hear that each bite of an Impossible burger contains 19 patents. The company’s secret weapon is soy leghemoglobin (heme for short), a genetically modified organism that enables its patties to “bleed” like real beef. Tucked halfway down the FAQ page, Impossible explains how heme, which has never before been consumed by humans in large quantities, is grown using GM yeast in a process called microbial fermentation. The use of GMOs has not come without contention. In 2017, the Food and Drug Administration deemed heme unsafe for human consumption after uncovering that a quarter of Impossible’s “magic” molecule was composed of 46 unexpected proteins. The verdict was not reversed until July of 2018, more than a year after the product was commercially available.

Figure 1: Impossible Foods patents - partial listing. Taken from

To appear superior to real beef, faux meat companies place a priority on formulating labels with fewer calories, more protein, and less fat. We are, as Michael Pollan writes in In Defense of Food, “nutritionists” - consumers who believe “that the nutritional value of a food is the sum of all its individual nutrients, vitamins, and other components.” In theory, the better the nutritional profile, the healthier it will make us. Unfortunately, this philosophy discounts the clear link between processed food consumption, which are designed to be highly addictive in humans, and cardiovascular disease. In 2019, a landmark study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that America’s obesity epidemic could be driven primarily by processed foods - composed of unnatural sources of dietary energy and nutrients, using a series of industrial processes.

A Holistic View

While Impossible and Beyond’s sales teams rush to hit financial milestones, their PR departments quickly dismiss the environmental and economic trade-offs associated with manufacturing fake meat at scale. Both companies frequently cite studies that demonstrate the benefits of fake meat over meat raised in centralized animal feed operations. However, there is still a lack of research comparing processed meat substitutes to 100% grass-fed and finished beef, which offers a better nutritional profile and environmental footprint than meat raised in feedlots. In reality, a 2018 life-cycle analysis conducted by Quantis concluded that a rancher would have to produce one “regenerative burger” to offset the carbon emissions of one manufactured Impossible Burger. 

Contrary to what Patrick Brown wants us to believe, upending the livestock industry will not resolve our health and climate problems. In addition to emitting 3.5 kilograms of C02 per patty, Impossible products utilize GM soy that supposedly meet the, “highest global standards for health, safety and sustainability.” Unfortunately, researchers have found that planting GM soybeans results in the growth of “superweeds,” which can require the use of 28 percent more herbicides than its non-GM counterparts. As a result of regular herbicidal spraying, a 2019 analysis identified 11 parts per billion (ppb) of glyphosate in the Impossible Burger. For those unfamiliar, glyphosate is a key ingredient in Roundup - a weedkiller responsible for 95,000 reported cases of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Exposure to even 0.1 (ppb) of glyphosate can damage and disrupt the human microbiome.

The Agrarian Answer

In The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry wrote, “the doctor who is interested in disease but not health is clearly in the same category with the conservationist who invests in the destruction of what he otherwise intends to prevent.” We must recognize that plant-based meat alternatives - who cast themselves as planet-saving superheroes - assemble their products with the help of industrial supply chains, chemical inputs, and GM crops.

The modern food system has led Americans to believe that the solution to the harmful effects of animal agriculture lies in a science lab. Yet manufacturing mock meat may do little to stymie the depletion of fertile land. Skeptics must remember that livestock, which Brown refers to as “terrible prehistorical technology,” serve many functions outside of the production of meat. Ruminant, when deployed in managed grazing systems, can help naturally:

  1. Recycle human-inedible food and plant waste 
  2. Increase and restore the biodiversity of an ecosystem 
  3. Improve water infiltration into the soil 
  4. Sequester carbon back into the ground 

Before altering the definition of meat to include something we know isn’t meat, we must acknowledge the regenerative grazing practices that can produce nutrient dense food that heals the planet and elevates rural economies. As always, thanks for reading our spiel! Looking for an easy way to stay in the loop? Consider subscribing to The Regeneration Weekly. We scour the web to harvest a fresh serving of regenerative food and agriculture news, insights, and resources. Delivered to your inbox every Friday.

Parker Hughes
Associate at Soilworks Natural Capital
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