The fast food chain is offering the Impossible Burger at 59 outlets in the US. Are plant-based meats about to hit the mainstream market, asks David Burrows?
Two years ago, almost to the day, Footprint carried the following headline: “Meat-free mania – why isn’t McDonald’s lovin’ it?” Money was being thrown at food tech companies promising to deliver plant-based “meats” that deliver the same texture, taste and experience of the real thing, with a fraction of the environmental impacts and animal welfare issues. And yet, the mainstream burger chains weren’t interested. “Burger bars will find it increasingly hard to ignore the meat reducers, and a token beanburger or two is unlikely to cut the mustard among those looking for meat-like alternatives,” we opined.
Fast-forward to 1 April 2019 and Burger King became the first to make a (significant) budge away from beef. In St Louis, Missouri – “the heart of barbecue and beef country”, as the Financial Times put it – Burger King started selling the Impossible Whopper at 59 stores. This was no April fool; although the regular customers hoodwinked into eating the plants-only patty were left feeling rather daft.
The short video (which is worth a watch if you can bear the expletives in some of the reactions) includes one chap who reckons he’s eaten “two Whoppers a week for the past 20 years” and another who claimed he would know the difference between beef and not beef “first bite”. Neither recognised when their regular Whopper was swapped. “That’s impossible,” said the first man. “Lies,” said another female regular.
Of course, there is an argument that the meat version didn’t taste of anything so replacing it with a meat-free replacement that looks the same and had the same texture was unlikely to register. But that would be harsh on the huge steps (and investment) some companies have made in creating products that mimic meat.
In 2017, Niamh Michail taste-tested the Impossible Burger in Las Vegas with five meat-eating friends for Footprint. The verdict: “It was meaty and had that ‘bounce’ that meat-free protein can struggle to replicate. We were disappointed by the fact that it didn’t ‘bleed’ – but put that down to an overzealous chef. The meat-lovers said the flavour ‘wasn’t quite there if you compare to a real steak burger’.”
My experience recently of the Beyond Meat burger (another product said to be at the forefront of the plant-based meat revolution and Impossible’s competitor-in-chief) at an Honest Burgers outlet in London was similar: it was very enjoyable, but being what I call a “meat treater” (someone who eats meat as a treat, often when eating out) it wouldn’t sway me from the real thing – yet.
This year, Impossible changed its recipe. The new burger is “tastier, juicier and more nutritious” says the website, with “30% less sodium and 40% less saturated fat” than the old one yet “just as much protein as 80/20 ground beef from cows”.
The life cycle analyses were also redone, comparing the new burger with one made of beef across four different impact categories: global warming potential; land occupation; water consumption; and aquatic eutrophication potential. The results – presented in a short blog here – make for impressive reading. The Impossible wins every time by a country mile: for example, a kilo of beef burger has a global warming potential of 30.6kg of CO2 equivalent, whilst for the plant-based alternative the figure is 3.5kg. LCAs of this kind have their limitations, as research by Chatham House suggested recently, but we should expect more meat-free brands to start shouting about the environmental credentials of their products. Indeed, research by YouGov for Quorn Foods shows that 51% of UK consumers understand that reducing meat consumption can help reduce their environmental impact. The timing “seems to be right” to start delivering an environmental message, said Louise Needham, the manufacturer’s sustainability manager in an interview with Just-Food.com in December.
The Impossible Burger has not been without its critics. A big change in the new recipe is the replacement of wheat protein with soy protein. Soy is a commodity that can come with considerable environmental baggage (and some reported health concerns). The ingredients list is also lengthy, which can concern flexitarians. Research by Mintel shows that 41% of UK shoppers would choose meat alternatives that have shorter ingredients lists, whilst 31% feel that meat-free foods are “too processed to be healthier than meat”.
That the new Impossible Burger includes genetically modified yeast could also be hard to swallow, however good it tastes. Indeed, Friends of the Earth recently accused the brand of “deceptive marketing” after it appeared at the world’s largest natural food trade show in March. “Consumers believe 'natural' means that no artificial ingredients or genetically engineered ingredients were used," Dana Pearls, the group’s senior food and technology policy campaigner, told EcoWatch. Others suggested that Impossible Foods exhibiting at the Natural Products Expo West event in California was "like inviting in an arms manufacturer to exhibit at a peace convention". The company appeared reticent to divulge the presence of the GM ingredient in marketing materials at the show, however there is information on its website.
Impossible Foods’ discovery that heme was the secret to making meat taste like meat was critical, given that it is found in plants too. “We make the Impossible Burger using heme from soy plants – identical to the heme from animals – which is what gives it its uniquely meaty flavour,” the FAQs on the website read. The heme is made using a genetically engineered yeast with the gene for soy leghemoglobin; the process that “allows us to make heme at scale with the lowest achievable environmental impact”.
The need for GM yeast could create a barrier to entry into the UK and EU markets where rules on the sale of such foods are far stricter and shoppers tend to be anti-GM or at least GM-sceptical. The fact the soy leghemoglobin was fed to rats during tests hasn’t gone down well with animal rights campaigners, either. “We are deeply disappointed that company executives chose to harm animals, particularly as there was no legal requirement for them to do so,” Mimi Bekhechi, PETA’s director of international programmes, told Metro.co.uk last year.
In the US, Impossible hopes to expand the Burger King trial throughout the country, but that could be just the start. There are almost 17,800 outlets worldwide and in the UK there are plans to expand the brand’s footprint back up to its 700-store peak (from around 500 today). If the GM issue can be overcome, the UK with its army of vegans and growing fleet of flexitarians could be a fruitful market for these new plant-based patties. In fact, it could give Burger King the jump on McDonald’s. The latter has 1,700 outlets here, with McVegan nuggets available in some stores (as an alternative to chicken ones) and there’s also a vegan Happy Meal. However, its soybean McVegan burger remains limited to Sweden and Finland. More than 160,000 people have signed a petition calling on McDonald’s to add a “mainstream meatless option” to its US menus.
This year the UK overtook Germany as the world’s leader for vegan food launches, according to Mintel, whilst 34% of British meat eaters have cut back on meat. Surely it is madness for mainstream brands to keep meat-free off the menus?