Is The Impossible Burger Vegan? The Debate Explained

Impossible Foods is one of the biggest names in plant-based protein today - but is the Impossible Burger vegan?


6 Minutes Read

Photo shows several packages of Impossible Meat patties on display alongside animal-based proteins Suitable for vegans or not, the Impossible Burger is a popular option for plant-based protein - Media Credit: Adobe Stock

Impossible Foods is one of the single biggest names in plant-based protein today.

The brand, which specializes in “meat made from plants,” was founded by the American scientist and businessman Patrick O. Brown, who set out to tackle worsening environmental destruction via its single largest contributor – industrialized animal agriculture.

Impossible Foods has been a prominent part of the plant-based space since 2016, the year it finally launched its flagship Impossible Burger after years of R&D. Complete with a uniquely meaty flavor and appearance, the patty offered a competitive meat-free alternative to beef.

The company said at the time that its Impossible Burger required 95 percent less land and 74 percent less water, and emitted around 87 percent less greenhouse gas (GHGs) during production than a typical patty made with traditional ground beef.

But while the Impossible Burger is made from plants – and is undeniably more sustainable than comparable animal products – some people are still debating whether the brand’s burger patty is truly suitable for vegans. Here’s everything you need to know.

What makes the Impossible Burger unique?

Since 2016, Impossible has sold its patty (both original and 2.0) at stores and restaurants across the US, UK, and around the world, including major chains like Burger King, Starbucks, Applebees, and many more.

The brand has also introduced new products like the Impossible Chicken Nuggets and an Impossible Sausage patty, both launched – like the original burger – after a lengthy R&D process. Ground pork, ground sausage, ground beef, and meatballs are now available, too.

Today, the plant-based meat sector is worth around USD $7 billion, and Impossible Foods has stated that it still receives record overall sales every year. In fact, in 2022, Impossible Foods reported that its retail sales alone grew more than 50 percent.

Impossible Foods has a key ingredient that may well be the secret to its continued success: a proprietary plant-based version of the iron-rich molecule heme, which is thought to give the brand’s patties their beloved taste and authentic pink coloring.

According to the company, heme is what actually makes traditional meat taste like meat, and Impossible’s plant-based version is made via the fermentation of genetically engineered yeast – a uniquely scalable way of producing the flavorsome molecule meat-free.

The scalability of this proprietary heme is at the heart of the company’s mission: to continue making a delicious, sustainable, and commercially viable alternative to animal meat that will still be able to “feed the population in 2050.”

It’s not the realistic taste of the Impossible Burger that is causing debate amongst vegans. But the debate does originate, in a way, with the development and introduction of Impossible’s plant-based heme to the American market.

The Impossible Burger and animal testing

Photo shows a lab technician holding a small white rodent as part of testing
Adobe Stock Food tech companies may need to carry out animal testing on new products before launch

While Impossible’s proprietary plant-based heme is 100 percent free from animal-derived ingredients, it was tested on animals – at least once – in order to gain full approval from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and to be “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS.

In a statement published on Impossible’s website in 2017, former CEO and founder Brown explained the background and reasoning behind the company’s use of animal testing, which came several years after Impossible concluded its own products were safe for consumption. 

Following its approval by a panel of food safety experts, the company provided data on its new heme to the FDA as part of the GRAS Notification Process. When the FDA returned with questions about the data, the company then chose to commission animal testing – which it had avoided thus far – in order to confirm its safety.

The study involved the minimum number of rats necessary for “statistically valid results,” and Impossible Foods says that it carefully chose the most humane company it could find. Overall, Brown notes that viewing animal exploitation holistically, the test was the right call.

“Avoiding the dilemma was not an option,” said Brown at the conclusion of the statement. “We hope we will never have to face such a choice again, but choosing the option that advances the greater good is more important to us than ideological purity.”

Is the Impossible Burger vegan?

By definition, vegans avoid all products that cause or are derived from animal exploitation. This includes milk, dairy, and eggs along with meat and any other animal-derived ingredients. But this ethos also extends to textiles, like leather, and any other products that have been tested on animals, from cosmetics to food ingredients like Impossible’s heme.

With that definition in mind, some people do not regard the Impossible Burger as suitable for a vegan diet. The plant-based heme was tested on laboratory rats, and while Brown says every care was taken to make the trials humane, animal testing of any kind is explicitly a form of exploitation. 

It’s worth bearing in mind, however, that the definition of veganism is avoiding animal exploitation “as far as is possible and practicable.” Many ingredients we eat have impacted animals in some way, and avoiding this is rarely achievable.

Everything from life-saving medicines to diapers to contact lenses may be implicated in animal testing. This means that, at best, vegans simply aim to avoid animal exploitation as much as they can. Some may also argue that the Impossible Burger has saved more animals’ lives than it’s impacted, as its popularity means more people eschewing “real” meat.

There is no clear-cut answer to whether vegans should eat Impossible burgers, and the decision is entirely down to the individual. So, whether you believe that Impossible’s plant-based patty is suitable for vegans or not, the important thing is making the right choice for your lifestyle and beliefs.

Consumers prefer ‘plant-based’ to ‘vegan’

Photo shows a tall burger made using Impossible's plant-based patty.
Adobe Stock More people are eating vegan food than ever, but many prefer other labels

The Impossible Burger has conspicuously never been listed or marketed as a vegan product. In fact, much of the brand’s marketing strategy – and indeed its core mission – is based on persuading omnivores and flexitarians to eat more plant-based foods.

This decision is tactical. Vegans are already eating plant-based and lower-emissions foods, while meat-eaters are still eating traditional animal products and other high-impact ingredients. And plant-based companies must continue to infiltrate the mainstream protein sector to have the biggest overall impact on the protein sector and consumer choices.

A variety of studies have confirmed that non-vegan consumers are less likely to try products labeled with the word vegan, even if they would otherwise consume those same products. Most recently, researchers from the University of Southern California found that adjusting vegan labels to emphasize their benefits – sustainability, and nutrition – could improve uptake.

Another controversial but effective tactic is stocking plant-based products in the meat and dairy aisles, something that various retailers’ consumer research – and a report by the Good Food Institute confirm aids sales, likely by further normalizing alternative proteins.

Impossible Foods is often stocked alongside animal products, and the company has previously estimated that around 95 percent of its customers also regularly eat meat. Whether you eat it or not, perhaps this is the best way to view the Impossible Burger: just a more sustainable variety of meat. That’s what both the brand and its customers want.

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