Why the Vegan Impossible Burger Wants the FDA’s Seal of Approval

It really does seem almost impossible until you try it: an entirely vegan burger that has the texture and mouthfeel of meat, right down to a little dripping “blood.” The “Impossible Burger” has been a hit — especially among vegans, vegetarians and those concerned about the environmental impacts of meat.

But if you’ve been following the news, you may know the FDA is actually still on the fence about it, and understanding why can help you make more informed decisions as a consumer.

Now, don’t panic and discard your plans to hit up the local burger joint this weekend. There’s no evidence to suggest the Impossible Burger is unsafe. It doesn’t contain anything weird or scary. It’s just that one of the ingredients is new to our plates, so the FDA hasn’t determined whether it’s okay for human consumption yet — but the agency hasn’t identified the product as dangerous or something to worry about.

Here’s the deal: The Impossible Burger is indeed made of plant ingredients, but they include a compound called soy leghemoglobin, which produces an iron-rich protein called heme. That’s what gives the Impossible Burger its bloody look, and it’s “generally recognized as safe” by the FDA, but the agency hasn’t given a final approval yet.

While Impossible Foods isn’t required to secure FDA approval, it’s chosen to ask for it anyway to allay the concerns of consumers and lay the groundwork for going worldwide, where food safety laws must meet more aggressive standards. It’s common for food companies developing new products to conduct extensive internal testing before releasing them — after all, they have an incentive to avoid sickening consumers.

It should be stressed that Impossible Foods is voluntarily working with the FDA to solicit the government’s opinion on whether their product is safe. Under the law, the company has no obligation to do so –  though some people think this sets up a perfect storm for food safety issues and have criticized the practice. After approaching the FDA, Impossible Foods was asked to furnish more information about the safety of its product, and the company is working on that very issue.

The company can continue making and selling Impossible Burgers, but it wants to armor itself against critics — some of whom aren’t fans of the high tech that goes into the product. This isn’t a plant patty you could replicate yourself with the contents of your cupboard and a quick trip to the spice cabinet, and some people aren’t happy about that.

Soy leghemoglobin is found in nature — in the roots of soy plants — but that’s not how Impossible Foods extracts the ingredient. Instead, they’ve used genetic modification to create yeast that produces leghemoglobin for industrial use. And that’s something a little more challenging for most home cooks to do on their own.

The potential concern is that this new protein may trigger allergic reactions, since it’s not something people eat in large quantities ordinarily — though so far no one’s uncovered evidence that it does.

And, yes, it does mean that the product is made with the use of a genetically modified organism, though the leghemoglobin itself is not genetically modified — but that’s not something Impossible Foods ever tried to deny. The practice of modifying yeast and other organisms to produce valuable compounds is widespread across not just the culinary world, but also in biomedicine, where yeasts busily work away to produce lifesaving drugs.

The questions surrounding the Impossible Burger highlight the problems that can arise with food products at the cutting edge of science and technology. Developments like this one can help disrupt the planet’s attachment to meat, but along the way, there may be a few bumps in the road.

And if you’re unsettled by the thought of eating a food that’s just “generally recognized as safe” rather than categorically approved, you might want to take a closer look at the foods, supplements and other consumable products in your house!

Photo credit: Bex Walton

98 comments

Kyle N
Kyle Nyesterday

I'll pass

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Cindy S
Past Member 3 days ago

yes!!!!!
yum!

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W. C
W. C3 days ago

Thanks.

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William C
William C3 days ago

Thank you.

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Janis K
Janis K5 days ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Vincent T
Vincent T6 days ago

thanks

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Elizabeth Conlan

And yet the FDA approve all the other crap that has phosphate in it.

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DAVID fleming
DAVID fleming8 days ago

Signed

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Leo C
Leo Custer8 days ago

Thank you for sharing!

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Leo Custer
Leo Custer9 days ago

Thank you for sharing!

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