While one of the main criticisms of the Impossible Burger is its use of heme from GMO yeast, it also uses soybeans that have been genetically modified to resist the herbicide glyphosate. The use of glyphosate-resistant GMO crops has led to a nearly 20-fold increase in the amount of glyphosate since the 1990s. The overuse of glyphosate speeds the evolution of herbicide-resistant “superweeds” that threaten both crops and wildland. It also has been labeled a “probable human carcinogen” by the International Agency on Cancer Research; Bayer-Monsanto, the herbicide’s manufacturer, has agreed to pay billions to settle thousands of glyphosate-linked cancer lawsuits, mostly among people who used it in their gardens.
While independent testing has revealed glyphosate residues in the Impossible Burger, the levels detected — 11 parts per billion — are well below stringent benchmark levels set by organizations like the Environmental Working Group. Even if these residues don’t pose any direct risks to consumers, the use of glyphosate in the production of the Impossible Burger perpetuates the other problems of high glyphosate use in the food system.
Other Soy-Based Burgers
Ingredients: Leghemoglobin may be a new and proprietary ingredient, but the use of soy protein as the base for veggie burgers has been done for years. (Remember Boca Burgers? The soy-based brand was founded in 1979.) Today, plant-based burger brands including Pure Farmland (a spin-off from mega meat company Smithfield Foods), Whole Foods 365 Plant Based Burgers, and Happy Little Plant (a newly launched plant-based company from Hormel) are also capitalizing on soy protein. At 23 ingredients, Pure Farmlands’ Simply Seasoned burgers has the highest number of ingredients of the burgers we looked at, including soy protein concentrate, coconut and sunflower oil, yeast extract, red beet juice concentrate and roasted garlic and onion powders. Along with the 365 Burger, they are also the only burger we researched that includes sugar in the ingredients.
Healthiness: At 240 calories, a Pure Farmland patty has the highest amount of sodium and saturated fat on this list, 580 milligrams and 13 grams respectively, making it one of the least healthy plant-based burgers we researched. For those concerned about health, a burger made with 20+ ingredients, one of which is sugar, qualifies as ultra-processed food.
Environmental Impact: Big Meat companies like Smithfield Foods and Hormel have a history of environmental, animal welfare, labor and public health issues, and it’s unclear how operations at Pure Farmland or Happy Little Plant will differ in terms of sustainability and environmental impact. In steps in the right direction, Happy Little Plants is made with non-GMO ingredients, and Pure Farmland products are packaged in trays made with 50 percent recycled materials. Smithfield also partnered with American Farmland Trust on this initiative, donating the cost of protecting one square foot of farmland for every package sold. However, as noted on their website, this amounts to 2.1 cents per package, a fairly meager cost compared to the environmental damage Smithfield operations have caused (not to mention animal welfare and workforce issues).
Advocates argue that having big names like Tyson, Hormel and Smithfield produce plant-based meat brings vegetarianism and reduced meat consumption to the mainstream. But these companies have done little to nothing to earn consumer trust, leaving us to fear they will either absorb smaller start-ups (as many have already done) or will use their entry into the market as a greenwashing tactic.
Pea Protein-Based Burgers
Ingredients: Some plant-based burgers are made using pea protein as the base ingredient, instead of soy. Beyond Meat’s Beyond Burger is the most popular of the bunch. Along with non-GMO pea protein, Beyond Burger is made using 19 ingredients, including canola oil, rice and mung bean protein, potato starch, natural flavors, and apple, pomegranate and beet extracts (for coloring). Other pea protein burger brands include Lightlife, Trader Joe’s Protein Patties and Sweet Earth’s Awesome Burger, all of which are also non-GMO and made with similar ingredients to Beyond Burger.
Healthiness: Nutrition-wise, these burgers are all relatively similar, ranging from 250 to 290 calories, 2.5 to 6 grams of saturated fat and 390 to 530 milligrams sodium.
Environmental Impact: An LCA done in 2018 by University of Michigan’s Center for Sustainable Systems found that the Beyond Burger generates 90 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions, requires 46 percent less non-renewable energy, has more than 99 percent less impact on water scarcity and 93 percent less impact on land use than a quarter pound of US beef.
There is no life cycle assessment information about the other burgers listed above, so determining their environmental impact is a challenge. However, all are produced with non-GMO pea protein; when grown properly, pea plants can actually improve the sustainability of large scale cereal farms when added into the rotation of environmentally taxing crops such as soy and corn. “It’s a win-win situation. Peas build nitrogen in the soil, they require no fertilizer, they increase yields for farmers, they’re a clean crop and healthy for human and animal consumption,” Cropping Systems Agronomist Dr. Chengci Chen told Civil Eats in 2018. “I can’t think of any negative impact to growing peas.”
However, both Lightlife and Sweet Earth are umbrellaed under big brand operations; Lightlife (along with plant-based brand Field Roast) is owned by Canadian pork and poultry company Maple Leaf and Nestle acquired Sweet Earth in 2017, helping to push out their line of Awesome Burger and Awesome Ground products. While Sweet Earth, at least, is said to be running independently of its parent company, it’s unclear what influence these industrial companies will have on the overall impacts of their plant-based projects.