FDA Proclaims The “Impossible Burger” Is Safe To Eat

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Beef…..it’s not what’s for dinner any more. Just as there is a growing realization that electric cars are the best way for individuals to cut their carbon emissions, there is a similar movement that recognizes eating beef is not an environmentally sound thing to do. Our own Kyle Field wrote an essay last week in which he explained why he personally has joined the ranks of non-meat eaters.

impossible foods burger
Credit: Impossible Foods

Impossible Foods is one of several companies that is working to bring plant based meat substitutes to market. Others include Israeli start ups like Super Meat, Future Meat Technologies, and Meat the Future. In addition to beef alternatives, Super Meat is hard at work on plant based substitutes for chicken.

Meat is a funny thing. A taste for it seems to be genetically encoded in human DNA, perhaps dating back to the days when communities would gather round to consume a healthy helping of roast woolly mammoth meat after a successful hunt. Meat has a certain smell, taste, and texture that is pleasing to the palate. It is toothsome, to use an archaic English word. Italian has a similar word — al dente — meaning a food that is pleasant to chew.

According to Engadget, in 2014, Impossible Foods submitted its hamburger alternative to the FDA. Impossible Foods uses a little used substance known as leghemoglobin, which is found in the roots of the soybean plant. Researchers at the company found adding it to their meat substitutes gave them a texture similar to meat. Hemoglobin, of course, is the iron based molecule that carries oxygen throughout the body in the blood stream and gives blood its distinctive color. When used in a meat substitute, it actually makes the concoction juicy like real beef.

Because leghemoglobin is not used in other foods, the FDA had no existing information about it to draw from. Would it cause adverse allergic reactions or other unexpected side effects? [Note: eating animal fat does have some known known side effects, premature death being one of them.] So the FDA asked for more information, which the company happily provided.

Then the FDA fed massive quantities of leghemoglobin to lab rats to see what happened.  They fed the rats enough leghemaglobin to choke a horse, so to speak. The rats thrived on their meatless diet and asked for more.  Its study complete, the FDA officially declared the company’s plant-based meat substitute is “generally recognized as safe” for human consumption. The FDA’s concerns did not prevent Impossible Meat from selling its products. In fact, they are available at more than 3,000 locations throughout the US. But the “no questions” letter from the FDA may help allay any fears meat eaters may have had about trying meatless meat.

What’s The Matter With Meat?

In June, a new study published in the journal Science 360 titled “Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers” argued that eliminating meat and dairy products is the single most important thing people can do to reduce their environmental footprint.  That’s quite a claim, but does the research back it up?

A report by The Guardian says the study used data from nearly 40,000 farms in 119 countries. It covered 40 food products that which combined, represent 90% of all the food consumed by humans. It assessed the full impact of these foods, from farm to fork, on land use, climate change, emissions, freshwater use and water pollution and air pollution.

“A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use, and water use,” wrote lead author Joseph Poore of the University of Oxford. “It is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car,” he says. “Agriculture is a sector that spans all the multitude of environmental problems. Really it is animal products that are responsible for so much of this. Avoiding consumption of animal products delivers far better environmental benefits than trying to purchase sustainable meat and dairy.”

Poore tells The Guardian, “The reason I started this project was to understand if there were sustainable animal producers out there. But I have stopped consuming animal products over the last four years of this project. These impacts are not necessary to sustain our current way of life. The question is how much can we reduce them and the answer is a lot.”

Tim Benton, a professor at the University of Leeds, tells The Guardian, “This is an immensely useful study. It brings together a huge amount of data and that makes its conclusions much more robust. The way we produce food, consume and waste food is unsustainable from a planetary perspective. Given the global obesity crisis, changing diets – eating less livestock produce and more vegetables and fruit – has the potential to make both us and the planet healthier.”

Attitude Adjustment

Mark Twain once said, “What you don’t know won’t hurt you near as much as what you do know that t’ain’t true.” For many people, sitting down to a juicy hamburger or rack of ribs is one of life’s great pleasures. The idea of giving that up is just more than many can imagine.

Which reminds me of a time many years ago when I attended a reunion with about 300 other people. This was before the “Thank you for not smoking” campaigns and state laws prohibiting smoking indoors. I was a confirmed smoker then and I was standing in this room full of people, smoking a cigarette, when it hit me — I was the only person in the room smoking! Everyone else had either quit or decided that inflicting their second hand smoke on others was rude.

I was shocked. Suddenly what had been a mainstream activity engaged in by the majority of people in my social circle was out of favor. BAM! Just like that, the world had changed and a new paradigm had arrived. It took me a while to actual wean myself from the filthy weed. Another Mark Twain witticism goes like this: “Quitting smoking is easy. I’ve done it a thousand times.”

One day, we will look around and notice there is far less meat offered on the menu at our favorite recipes, that cars with internal combustion engines have all but disappeared from our highways, and that most of the people in our neighborhood are enjoying clean electricity from distributed renewable sources.

It seems like nothing ever changes in life until you wake up one morning and everything is different. In the not too distant future, meatless Mondays will become meatless months and our grandchildren will recoil in horror when we regale them with tales of eating a 40 oz Porterhouse steak in one sitting.

Impossible Foods is leading the charge into the future of plant based food not because they are altruists bent on saving the Earth. They are doing it for the same reason Waymo is getting into autonomous ride hailing — because there is an opportunity to make enormous profits for those who are able to visualize the future and create the products society will demand before anyone else does.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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