What’s Different About the Impossible Burger?

Plant-based-food entrepreneurs are marketing their meatless products to omnivores.

Impossible Burger
Beck Diefenbach / Reuters

Recently, like thousands of other Americans, I went to Burger King to get a Whopper for lunch. There it was: perfect, juicy, glistening. And, without mayo, vegan. This year, the fast-food giant is rolling out the plant-based Impossible Burger at its 7,200 U.S. locations, joining White Castle, Carl’s Jr., Del Taco, and TGI Fridays in serving vegan “meat.” KFC offered vegan fried chicken at one of its stores this year, and even McDonald’s is contemplating a plant-based option.

The country’s deep-fried fast-food charnel houses are offering kinder, greener alternatives, and customers are buying them in droves. That is a testament to the great advances that food manufacturers have made in producing animal products without animals: Impossible Burgers, Beyond Meat patties and sausages, and Just Mayo are becoming more common not only because they are good (ethically), but also because they are good (to eat). That is also a result of the way contemporary food entrepreneurs have slipped these products into the mainstream of American culture: not by trying to convert omnivores, but by appealing to them.

“The reason the company exists is because of the mission impact,” David Kay of Memphis Meats, a leading cell-based-meat start-up, told me, referring to the company’s desire to create environmentally and ethically sound products. That said, “we have a deep respect for meat culture at Memphis Meats,” he added. “I think we recognize that it has played an important role historically and even evolutionarily.” The company is “absolutely not interested in doing anything that seems exclusionary.” Plant-based-food companies have echoed that sentiment.

A decade ago, vegan products—not foods that are incidentally vegan, such as pasta or chips and salsa, but intentionally vegan, such as soy meat—were, if not exclusionary, niche. The companies making them tended to cater to the sliver of Americans who maintain a vegan or vegetarian diet. They were sold in health-food stores, and often advertised themselves as vegan. The packaging was often hemp-themed, the lettering green, the ethos crunchy.

Then almond milk started a revolution. The product—catering to health-conscious consumers, sold in the dairy case right next to the regular milk—began surging in popularity, quickly followed by rice, cashew, hemp, coconut, and oat milk products. In the United States, the sale of alternative milks boomed 61 percent in just five years, while sales of dairy milk declined. Surveys have shown that consumers of alt-milks are motivated by health concerns, as well as the sense that nondairy milks are lighter and better for the environment. But not so much by vegan-type absolutism. The majority of people buying alt-milks also buy regular old cow’s-milk products.

An explosion of meat-replacement products has followed the path set by almond milk in the past few years, not just tempeh- or seitan- or soy-based products that taste nothing like meat, but meat simulacra. Beyond’s chicken strips taste and shred a lot like chicken; its burgers and its sausages are, if not quite indistinguishable from real meat, awfully close. The same goes for the mayo produced by Just, formerly Hampton Creek, and the Impossible Burger. Reviewers at Food & Wine, for instance, described the Impossible Burger as “really succulent and umami-y. Almost identical to beef.” A number of vegans I know hate them because they taste too gamy.

But many other consumers adore them, and sales have exploded, with investors pouring more and more money into plant-based-food start-ups. At Beyond’s initial public offering this year, the company raised $240 million, and its market value sits in the billions. Food giants such as Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland have made major investments in plant-based meat. All in all, more than half a billion dollars in investment poured into American plant-based dairy, egg, and meat companies in 2018. Retail sales are growing more than 20 percent year over year, versus just 2 percent for all retail food sales.

Cell-based meat, or “clean” meat—real meat produced in labs—has not become a commercial product yet. But analysts expect it to hit the shelves in 2021 or soon thereafter, and start-ups in this space, such as Memphis Meats, have raised tens of millions of dollars. One 2018 survey found that a third of American consumers, along with half of Indian and two-thirds of Chinese consumers, would be “very or extremely likely” to purchase cell-based meat.

Vegan activists—and some plant-based-food companies—believe these products promise nothing less than the saving of sentient lives and the salvation of the planet. They have a point. Humans slaughter 66 billion chickens, 1.5 billion pigs, half a billion sheep, half a billion goats, and 300 million cows each year. In the United States, the vast majority of animals raised for slaughter are raised on factory farms, often in torturous conditions. Eating less meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products is the sine qua non of reducing suffering among domesticated animals.

Eating fewer animals would also help reduce deforestation and environmental degradation. Cows and other livestock account for roughly one-sixth of all greenhouse-gas emissions, and as a general point, eating meat means taxing the Earth. It takes four to seven pounds of grain to produce one pound of meat, according to one analysis, but just over one pound of grain to produce one pound of “novel vegan meats.” Given that calculus, we could cut agricultural output in half were we not busy feeding and fattening and slaughtering cows, pigs, and other animals.

Eating fewer animals would, for some countries and populations, be better for humans too. Meat, eggs, and dairy can make up part of a healthy diet, but not in the quantities in which many Americans consume them. The average American eats twice as much meat as the government recommends, some 220 pounds a year, raising the risk of heart disease, among other conditions.

For animals, for humans, for the planet: It makes sense to curb meat consumption, and that is something vegans and omnivores agree on. Roughly two-thirds of Americans report reducing their meat consumption, and many are sensitive to the way their diet might be damaging the planet. But that does not mean they want to go vegan or vegetarian. In fact, the share of Americans who are vegetarian has remained at about 5 percent for 20 years.

All these plant-based-food and clean-meat companies understand this reality, and they are aiming their products at the vast, omnivorous market. As with dairy milks, 98 percent of meat-alternative products are bought by omnivores. And they are designed to appeal to omnivores. Gone are the green-and-fiber packages. Beyond products are wrapped up as if they were real meat, with cellophane tops. Fast-food, mass-market restaurants carry the Impossible Burger.

In time, these vegan products might help make veganism and vegetarianism more popular—friendlier, more mainstream, more accessible, easier to enact. For now, these products are an option, all of a sudden, for everyone. The burgers are tasty. And fries? Those happen to be vegan too.