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Food additives freak me out. Food that pretends to be something it isn’t, scares me even more.
Butylated hydroxyanisole. What?
Turkey bacon. Why?
Tofu hot dogs. Gross!
But the Impossible Burger intrigued me. It’s vegan, but designed to taste like real meat. I read the ingredients online: Water, Textured Wheat Protein, Coconut Oil, Potato Protein, Natural Flavors, 2% or less of: Leghemoglobin (soy), Yeast Extract, Salt, Soy Protein Isolate, Konjac Gum, Xanthan Gum, Thiamin (Vitamin B1), Zinc, Niacin, Vitamin B6, Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Vitamin B12.
Soy leghemoglobin sounded a little scary, but not more frightening than the antibiotics and hormones in real meat. The world desperately needs a delicious alternative to real meat, so I went in with an open mind and decided to taste first, research later.
I ordered the plainest “Impossible Burger” I could get my hands on at Gott’s Roadside in Palo Alto.
With huge anticipation, I took a bite.
“It’s good,” I handed it to my husband.
“Tastes like a burger, babe.”
Here’s our review: It tastes like a burger. It’s a little less dense than a real meat burger. It had less charcoal flavor than the real thing served at Gott’s. But it’s good. I doubt I would have noticed the difference if I didn’t know it was vegan. It looks like a burger that’s been cooked a little on the rare side.
I figured I could write a nice fluff piece about this new, “sustainable” hamburger and that would be the end.
The New York Times Article
We tasted the burger on Friday, August 4, 2017.
The following Tuesday, the New York Times ran an article about the Impossible Burger.
“Now, its secret sauce — soy leghemoglobin, a substance found in nature in the roots of soybean plants that the company makes in its laboratory — has raised regulatory questions,” says the article Impossible Burger’s ‘Secret Sauce’ Highlights Challenges of Food Tech. “Impossible Foods can still sell its burger despite the F.D.A. findings, which did not conclude that soy leghemoglobin was unsafe.”
If there are regulatory questions, why can they still sell the burger? I needed clarity.
Impossible Foods responded to the article with an Open Letter to Journalists.
“Its key ingredient, soy leghemoglobin, has been considered “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS, since 2014, when a panel of top food safety experts found it was safe to eat. This finding by the experts constitutes what is referred to as a “self-affirmed GRAS.” The effect of a self-affirmed GRAS is that food companies are in compliance with federal regulations and may market the product,” according to the letter.
Long Story Short
Impossible Foods submitted a notification to the FDA of soy leghemoglobin as GRAS in 2015. The FDA came back with questions, which is not uncommon. The application was withdrawn and further studies, including a rat test, were done.
“We reviewed the applications that received No Questions letters and they uniformly involve rat testing. As a company working to transition the world away from using animals as food, we took time and used caution in making decisions that would involve rat testing,” said Jessica Appelgren, Director of Communications at Impossible Foods. “We did indeed submit our first GRAS to the FDA to ensure transparency and consumer confidence. We strive to be the most transparent food company ever.”
What is “Generally Recognized As Safe” (GRAS)?
Impossible Foods did not need to submit soy leghemoglobin to the FDA to be considered GRAS. Instead, the FDA allows companies to designate food additives like soybean leghemoglobin as GRAS based on the company’s independent food safety experts.
“There are an estimated 1,000 GRAS substances for which safety decisions were made by the food industry without any notice at all to FDA, and thousands more chemicals for which both proof of safety and continued federal oversight are minimal,” according to Consumer Reports.
Non-profits like The Environmental Working Group and the National Resource Defense Council have been raising concerns about food additives and the GRAS process for years.
One food additive the Environmental Working Group calls out in the EWG’s Dirty Dozen Guide to Food Additives is butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA).
“The FDA considers the preservative butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) to be a GRAS additive – even though the butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) to be a GRAS additive – even though the National Toxicology Program classifies it as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen,” the international cancer agency categorizes it as a possible human carcinogen, and it’s listed as a known carcinogen under California’s Proposition 65,” according to the EWG.
All kinds of food contain BHA. Butter, cereal, beer, vegetable oils, and potato chips are just a fraction of a long list.
On The Other Hand
Sites like HealthyChildren.org helps calm some fears.
“Many people, wary of additives, believe that they are toxic chemicals brewed up in laboratories. Such fears are groundless. The great majority of the 3,000 or so additives allowed by the FDA are foods or normal ingredients of foods,” according to HealthyChildren.org, a site run by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
How To Avoid Food Additives
If you’re concerned about food additives, choose fresh fruits, veggies, and beans. You know the drill. You don’t need to be a nutritionist to know that processed foods should be the exception, not the rule.
The EWG’s Dirty Dozen Guide to Food Additives is useful as well.
Is the Impossible Burger safe?
Impossible Foods is adamant that the Impossible Burger is safe. They will submit the results of the rat feeding study to the FDA later this month. Once the FDA makes a decision, I’ll update this story, and you can decide for yourself.
In the meantime, I’ll still choose the Impossible Burger when it’s available. Next time with sprouts and avocado.
Food additives are a little scary, but the stuff in the Impossible Burger doesn’t worry me more than the BHA that could be in my butter and beer.
UPDATE: On July 23, 2018, “Impossible Foods received a no-questions letter from the US Food and Drug Administration, validating the unanimous conclusion of food-safety experts that its key ingredient is safe to eat,” according to Impossible Foods.