impossible burger
© Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images
A new version of the Impossible Burger is unveiled during a January event in Las Vegas.
Plant-based meat burst onto the international stage this year, with a dramatic IPO from Beyond Meat and the Impossible Burger making its way into 17,000 restaurants in the United States, Hong Kong, Singapore and Macao, and retail outlets such as Wegmans, Gelson's and Fairway Market.

The product label is a long list of tough-to-pronounce ingredients — which meat advocates have seized on to assert that plant-based meat is highly processed.

This month, the Center for Food Safety, a watchdog group that opposes genetically engineered foods, called on the Food and Drug Administration to recall the Impossible Burger product from grocery stores, citing safety concerns because of its use of genetically engineered heme, an iron-rich molecule found in meat and plants, for use as a color additive.

Impossible Foods' chief communications officer, Rachel Konrad, called the allegations "false and frankly ridiculous." She added: "The FDA has acknowledged multiple times that the Impossible Burger's key ingredient is safe to eat. The FDA has also acknowledged multiple times that Impossible Foods' rigorous safety testing meets or exceeds extensive federal requirements."

There seems to be consensus that a pivot to plant-based meat would reduce greenhouse gas emissions and avoid the animal cruelty associated with traditional animal agriculture. But is the Impossible Burger, which is kosher- and halal-certified but not organic, good for you? Here's how it compares to an average same-size beef hamburger that is 80 percent lean beef and 20 percent fat.

Comment: The environmental argument behind fake meat is a scam. And since it's clearly not healthy, why would anyone want to eat it? See: Move over Beyond & Impossible, the "Smart" burger is 100% beef

Price: The retail package of Impossible ground plant-based meat is a 12-ounce block and costs $8.99, which works out to $12 a pound. That is about four times more expensive than most conventionally raised ground beef in the supermarket, which sells for a little over $3 a pound.

Financials: The plant-based market is still in its infancy. While the total market value has surged to $4.5 billion, that's a fraction of U.S. cattle production alone, which accounted for $67.1 billion in cash receipts in 2018. While Impossible doesn't disclose its financials, the company has raised $750 million since its founding in 2011, much of that spent in research and development.

Greg Wank, leader of the Food and Beverage Industry Practice of the accounting firm Anchin, Block & Anchin, does some back-of-the-envelope math, estimating Impossible Foods probably spent over $100 million in research and development. "When you're innovating from scratch a brand new product that's never existed before, that in and of itself takes years and countless millions. Then you've got to mass produce it, you've got to figure out what machines can make it and then you've got to train employees how to do it — that's many millions more."

Top five ingredients: Water, soy protein concentrate, coconut oil, sunflower oil and natural flavors.

Calories: A four-ounce serving, which is a pretty skimpy burger, clocks in at 240 calories. That's in the range of a beef burger, depending on the fat content. This is the 2.0 version of Impossible, the formula rejiggered largely to reduce saturated fat; the original had 290 calories. This is the patty alone — bun, condiments and accoutrements are additional calories.

Comment: Calories are the least relevant component of any food. See: Big Soda's strategy to make us believe that it is all about calories

Cholesterol: Impossible contains no cholesterol. To compare, a regular beef patty contains about 80 milligrams, a quarter of your daily cholesterol limit.

Fat: 14 grams, including eight grams of saturated fat, which is generally considered less healthy than unsaturated fat. This is comparable to a beef burger, mostly due to the coconut oil. This year, Impossible replaced a portion of the coconut oil, which has the highest saturated fat content among plant-based oils, with sunflower oil, which is an unsaturated fat. The oils give the patty a plush mouthfeel and make it sizzle on the griddle.

Sodium: The Impossible has 370 mg of added salt, which is 16 percent of your daily recommended amount — so fairly high. A beef burger does have a small amount of naturally occurring sodium (three ounces of cooked lean beef contains about 55 mg of sodium), but a beef burger's total sodium depends on how much it is seasoned.

Comment: Salt, fat and cholesterol are, again, completely irrelevant to the overall nutrition of foods. That the media still uses these simplistic reductionist qualities of foods to analyze how nutritious they are just show how out of touch the popular press is in terms of nutritional science. See: Health charity says: Official advice on low-fat diet & cholesterol is wrong

Protein: The plant-based burger has 19 grams, or 31 percent of the daily recommended amount, which is about the same as a regular four-ounce beef burger.

Heme: This is the most controversial ingredient. It adds to the flavor and color of the burger and makes it "bleed" like a beef burger. Heme, or soy leghemoglobin, is found most abundantly in animal flesh and is the catalyst for hundreds of chemical reactions that occur while a burger is cooking. Unlike the heme found in beef, the heme in the Impossible Burger is made by taking the DNA from the roots of soy plants, inserting it into genetically engineered yeast and then fermenting that yeast (much the way Belgian beer is made). Soy contains estrogen-like compounds called isoflavones that some findings say can promote the growth of some cancer cells, impair female fertility and mess with men's hormones.

The rest: Impossible Burger beats beef in many vitamin and mineral categories such as folate, B12, thiamin (2,350 percent of daily recommended?!) and iron, and the product is fortified to include nutrients a vegan or vegetarian might not otherwise get. It contains less than one gram of added sugar and three grams of fiber per serving (largely in the form of methyl cellulose, a plant-based bulk-forming binder). Animal meat contains no fiber.

Laura Reiley is the business of food reporter. She was previously a food critic at the Tampa Bay Times, San Francisco Chronicle and Baltimore Sun. She has authored four books, has cooked professionally and is a graduate of the California Culinary Academy. She is a two-time James Beard finalist and in 2017 was a Pulitzer finalist.