How Healthy is the Impossible Burger? Studying Nutrition and Meat

Scientific American recently published a great little ingredient and nutrient breakdown of the popular meat-substitute burgers and compared them with real beef. That’s interesting enough on its own, but the reason I’m excited enough to write about it is that they actually used grass-fed beef as the comparison!

Nutritionally (and environmentally and morally), meat derived from animals fattened in a CAFO and those raised and finished on pasture are hardly equivalent. Industrial agriculture as a trade is deeply invested in the public believing that different types of foods are equivalent, regardless of how they are grown. An egg is an egg, a tomato a tomato. They don’t want the public noticing or asking questions about why some eggs are healthier than others. That might force them to change their practices to better but less profitable ones. To avoid this unthinkable scenario, various industrial agriculture trade organizations have spent an enormous amount of money commissioning studies that promote the myth of equivalence and lobbying the FDA to fight packaging that points out the differences. That’s why on every carton of milk that advertises itself with “No Hormones!*” you will see that footnote about how, supposedly, “No significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rbST-treated and non-rbST-treated cows.” (A claim that has been repeatedly found to be false.)

Animal products from factory-farmed animals and pasture-raised animals are not the same. The latter are generally much higher in omega-3 fatty acids, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), vitamins like beta-carotene, and antioxidants. They are generally much lower in fat and saturated fat. That these differences should be considered unimportant to questions of nutrition and health is obviously absurd.

Normally when a scientific study compares the nutrient content or health outcomes of any given food or diet with that of red meat, they either use typical factory-farmed meat as the control or they do not specify—which means they probably used typical factory-farmed meat. This is probably a reasonable choice in many cases given that 95% of US beef is still raised this way. However, when I read these studies, I find myself wanting to just toss them out for all the good they do me. I don’t eat factory-farmed meat. I already know it’s unhealthy. We don’t really need more research telling us that. The worst part, though, is the upsettingly ubiquitous tendency by reporters, the public, and even the researchers themselves to speak as if the conclusions they draw based on factory-farmed meat are applicable to not just the meat Americans typically eat, but to all meat. As discussed above, this is a disturbingly inaccurate generalization. It honestly scares me how many researchers, scientists who should really know better, are all too willing to make broad generalizations that they simply assume, without any evidence or even consideration, can apply to grass-fed meat too. Whether by ignorance or a lack of imagination, they behave as if we all live in a world where alternatives to industrialized farming just don’t exist.

I can’t tell you how many righteous vegans have pointed toward such studies whenever I talk about the advantages of pastured meat. But they are busy arguing a point that I agree with—factory-farmed meat is bad and bad for you—rather than against the point I am making: grass-fed meat is different and therefore better. How different? How much better? Well, that’s what I wish we had more research on. My hypothesis (and many others’) is that it’s different enough that replacing corn-finished beef, for example, with grass-finished in the American diet would provide significant and potentially enormous health and environmental benefits. It’s different enough that if grass-fed products had been used in these studies as the point of comparison, different conclusions likely would have resulted, and perhaps we’d be talking more about harmful farming practices and less about harmful foods. The vegetarians and vegans of course hypothesize that it would make little to no difference, that grass-fed or grain-fed, the outcomes are roughly equivalent. Both sides think the other’s argument is just a distraction from larger concerns, but despite an abundance of studies, neither one of us has enough specific research to definitively prove ourselves right and the others wrong on this question because scientists and researchers and the media keep conflating these two distinct types of animal products.

I am quite heartened, then, to see Scientific American bucking this trend and providing, in my opinion, a far more useful type of nutritional comparison in this article. I would love to see grass-fed beef become the representative option in nutrition research, but, at the very least, how an animal product is produced is a factor that always needs to be mindfully considered and commented upon in a study. Remembering to include this important detail in the questions we ask about meat in our diets will lead to more accurate conclusions and, hopefully, more useful conversations about how we eat and how we develop our food systems.

All that said, I find it interesting that the famed Impossible Burger is actually less nutritionally healthy than a grass-fed burger in terms of saturated fat and sodium, two things found in great excess in the Western diet. But that’s certainly not stopping anyone from continuing to advertise the Impossible Burger as a healthier alternative to beef. All beef.

Paging the FDA…