Is the Impossible Whopper too good to resist or too good to be true? When I first saw an advertisement for the new, plant based Whopper I was excited (for my patients at least). A healthy, plant based burger at Burger King? Is the Impossible Whopper really the healthy alternative it is marketed to be, or just another fast food gimmick meant to get your attention but ultimately offering nothing for your health?
What Is the Impossible Whopper?
The Impossible Whopper is a Whopper shell with all of the same base toppings (lettuce, tomato, etc.) and bun as a regular Whopper. The difference comes in the patty. A Whopper comes with a four ounce (pre-cooked, meaning about 3 ounces cooked) patty of beef. The Impossible Whopper comes with a plant based meat substitute patty.
Ingredients in the Impossible Whopper
Ok so what’s in it? A regular Whopper patty is 100% fresh beef. Your typical hamburger. What is an Impossible Burger made from? Here are the ingredients:
Is that good? I know there is a tendency to run away from ingredients we cannot pronounce and I’m here to tell you not to fear that. Or at least not just default to that. This ingredient label is a great example. Of the 21 listed ingredients (more on that in a moment) the last 8 are vitamins and minerals. The nutrition label for the Impossible Burger reads a lot like a label for breakfast cereal with many vitamins and minerals listed. Is that a bad thing? No. For my purposes I don’t have an opinion one way or another. Those added nutrients are not hurting anyone, but they aren’t necessary as with the exception of Vitamin E, most people I work with eat enough of them each day without supplementing. So, neutral.
Let’s look at the core ingredients, 13 in total. Water we can skip, what about the other 12? Feel free to skip ahead to the nutrition section below if this is not interesting to you. I’ll summarize what is said here in the conclusion at the end of this article.
If you are still with me, let’s dive in. I’m being intentionally brief here with each ingredient. I have linked to a more in depth article or analysis for each item if you really want to learn more.
Detailed Review of Each Ingredient
A quick refresher; ingredient labels list a food’s ingredients in descending order by weight. In the Impossible Burger the first and thus by weight largest ingredient is water. Next comes the Soy Protein Concentrate and Soy Protein Isolates which I am combining for my purposes since both are produced from soy beans. Structurally there is much more protein concentrate than isolate in this patty. Both are the result of a chemical extraction process where the majority of the components of the soy bean are removed and only the soy proteins remain. Here is an in depth article if you want to learn more, but they are a far cry from using whole soy beans as a base ingredient.
Coconut Oil and Sunflower Oil are fat sources. The coconut oil contributes to the high amount of saturated fat in the Impossible Burger and also adds a bit of flavor.
Natural Flavors is a catch all term that could mean almost anything. The term implies that the essential compounds that impart flavor in a food have been extracted and are used as an ingredient to add flavoring. Here is a really nice article that goes into much more detail. Factually speaking in the case of the Impossible Burger we have no idea what flavors they have added.
Now we are entering the “2% or less” section of the label. Simply means that by weight these ingredients make up less of the whole finished product than those above.
Potato Protein is produced in a way similar to how soy protein isolates and concentrates are. Potatoes are surprisingly high in protein (one potato has 4 grams of protein). Here is an in depth article that explains more. Because it is technically a plant based protein its inclusion is in line with calling this a plant based burger.
Methylcellulose is a powder added to food as a stabilizer, a replacement for fat and as a non-caloric bulking agent or binder in foods. In other words it is a commonly found ingredient in processed foods. Here is some additional detail.
Yeast Extract is included because it is a flavor enhancer, providing the fifth taste known as umami (salty, sweet, sour and bitter being the other four). In simple terms it is the flavor that you experience every time you eat steak. Pretty easy to understand why an ingredient that imparts the flavor of meat would be included in a burger designed as a meat substitute. Click here to learn more about umami.
Cultured Dextrose is a food additive that helps prevent mold growth and extend the shelf life of foods. It is a processed food additive.
Food Starch Modified is another ingredient added to thicken or stabilize a product. So in the Impossible Burger it is serving the same essential function as methylcellulose. Click here to learn more about modified food starch.
Soy Leghemoglobin is probably the most controversial ingredient. It’s created using a natural part of the soy plant that converts nitrogen in the soil into a usable form by the plant and combing that with a genetically modified yeast. The maker of the Impossible Burger uses it as a food coloring to make the Impossible Burger “bleed” like traditional meat does when cooked and to add more of that meat flavor. There was some unfounded controversy about this when the Impossible Burger first came out, this article does a nice job summarizing that story.
Salt is pretty self-explanatory. Though by weight it is last in the list of non-vitamin and mineral ingredients, there is still a lot of it. As we will see below the Impossible Whopper provides almost 50% of our sodium needs for an entire day. That’s a lot.
Impossible Whopper Nutrition Facts
We’ve taken a bit of a deep dive into each ingredient in the Impossible Burger, or you have just jumped ahead. Let’s circle back to Burger King. Is the Impossible Whopper any better for you from a nutritional standpoint? I created a nutrition label for each burger using the information provided by Burger King’s website.
The Impossible Whopper has basically the same calories, saturated fat and protein as a traditional burger. It is higher in sodium and total carbohydrates, and lower in total fat. And it’s not meat, so it has that going for it. In reality there is no obvious nutritional difference. I was curious how much mayonnaise was contributing to the nutrition facts so I ran another nutrition analysis with no mayonnaise. Now we can be confident the remaining fat content comes from the patty itself. But this didn’t change the results in any meaningful way.
Impossible Whopper (no mayo)
Regular Whopper (no mayo)
Summary and Recommendations
We have covered a lot of ground today. You now have a masters level understanding of the Impossible Whopper and all that has gone into making it. So how do we wrap this up. The only difference between a Whopper and Impossible Whopper is the patty, so it’s fair to narrow down our conclusion to the merits of just that. To be frank: the Impossible Burger patty is a highly processed food. The ingredients used may have been plants at one point in their existence but no actual plants are used in the creation of an Impossible Burger, just plant derived processed ingredients. Nutritionally it is almost identical to a traditional Whopper. While there may be some environmental benefits in favor of the Impossible Burger compared with traditional red meat I feel confident stating that the Impossible Whopper is a lot of gimmick with little substance. Try one if you are curious but know going in what are getting: a processed food patty surrounded by a fast food shell nutritionally no different from a traditional Whopper with no tangible benefit for your health.