The other day my wife and I were passing by Burger King and we gave into the temptation of stopping for an Impossible Burger®. You see, we’ve pretty much managed to ween ourselves away from conventional hamburgers, given the fat and high calories. But this no-meat burger sounded, and later tasted, great. The question is, is it healthy? Or more exactly, more healthy than a conventional meat (beef) hamburger?
Well there is of course no simple way to answer that question based on human health or death outcomes at this point. Clearly the Impossible Burger is not overtly toxic, but it is too early to discover if it has long term adverse health effects. Even the most nasty of all commercial products, cigarettes, has a lag time of about 20 years between the time someone starts smoking and when develop clearly discernible health problems. So we have to kind of infer an answer based on indirect evidence.
The first thing to look at is the fat content. As it turns out, conventional hamburgers and the Impossible Burger have about the same fat content, and for that matter similar caloric content (1). And contrary to what you might have heard about butter and bacon being health foods, fat is generally something best to be avoided, at least in excess. Foods high in fat contribute to obesity and the attendant problems such as cardiovascular disease (2).
The other issue, and the one that bothers me most, is the problem of cancer. We know that red meat, which presumably includes the beef in conventional hamburgers, is associate with an increased risk of cancer. It’s not a real strong relationship, as in the case of smoking, but it’s real. Unfortunately the reason, or mechanism as scientist like to all it, for this nasty effect of meat is not well established. But one of the fairly well established possible mechanisms is that cancer in red meat results from the presence of what’s known as heme-iron, a complex of molecules that enhances the production of biologically reactive free radicals in the body (3). Among other toxic consequences, free radicals damage the DNA in cells leading to loss of cell reproductive control, i.e., cancer.
Problem is that, in order to make the Impossible Burger look and taste like meet, the fabricated product actually contains heme-iron as an added ingredient (1). The heme-iron is produced through genetic engineering in plants. Now I don’t have a beef (pun-intended!) with the fact that the heme-iron is genetically engineered, a rose by any other name smells as sweet. I have a health concern about the ingredient itself.
So while the Impossible Burger may taste delicious, avoids the killing of animals, and is environmentally better for the planet than razing meat, from a health perspective, I am – shall we say – a bit skeptical. As the Bible says “Everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial” (1 Cor 6:12). So for the time being I’ll stick with chicken and salmon as my “meat substitutes”, neither of which contains heme-iron (or at least not much). Of course, only time will tell. Too bad, that Impossible Burger was so damn tasty too!
(1) What Is the Impossible Burger, and Is It Healthy? Healthline, 2019.
(2) Long-term benefits of a low-fat diet. Science Daily, 2019.
(3) A Central Role for Heme Iron in Colon Carcinogenesis Associated with Red Meat Intake. Cancer Research 2015.