“I’m confused. I’m re-evaluating my life.”
These might not be the first words you’d imagine coming from someone who’d just eaten at Burger King. But this is exactly what one customer said after eating its new meat-free Impossible Whopper in a promo video from the fast food chain.
In less than a decade, Impossible Foods has demonstrated how close we can come to eating meat without actually eating it. The startup has been at the forefront of the plant-based meat movement, fueled by growing concerns about the damaging effects of global meat consumption. While industrial meat and dairy consumption provides us with 18 percent of our calories, it uses 83 percent of farmland and produces 60 percent of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions.
But while the number of vegans is slowly growing, many more are looking for plant-based alternatives to help them to reduce their meat intake. The Impossible Burger has been available in White Castle stores since last year, as well as hundreds of restaurants across the U.S., while the vegetarian burger from its competitor Beyond Meat has been available at more than 1,000 Carl’s Jr. restaurants since January.
Burger King has introduced the Impossible Whopper at 59 restaurants in the St. Louis area and the Bay Area, with plans to quickly expand it to all of its 7,200 branches in the country by the end of the year. This move will undoubtedly bring plant-based meat into the mainstream.
It’s clear that Burger King’s new plant-based patty is aimed at meat-eaters, who make up the vast majority of Burger King’s customers. The Impossible Burger mimics the texture of meat by using heme, a protein cultivated from soybean roots, and uses beet juice to make the burger look bloody.
Burger King’s chief marketing officer, Fernando Machado, has said that customers and employees haven’t been able to detect any differences between the original Whopper and the Impossible Burger.
But while the news has generally received a good reception, a few critics are concerned about the healthiness of plant-based meats. Until recently the Impossible Burger contained higher levels of salt than other veggie burgers and more saturated fat than traditional meat patties, according to consumer reports.
While the startup has updated its formula and reduced the patty’s sodium by 30 percent and its saturated fat by two-thirds, one patty still contains 40 percent of our daily recommended amount of saturated fat and 16 percent of our daily recommended salt intake.
While its undoubtedly healthier to stay home and have a salad, Burger King customers will be better off shunning the regular Whopper for the Impossible Whopper, which will have a similar amount of protein as the regular Whopper, but with 15 percent less fat and 90 percent less cholesterol.
And while plant-based meat companies receive widespread support from those who want to see a reduction in meat consumption, some critics disapprove of plant-based meat burgers for working with companies that facilitate animal agriculture and its various ills.
The meat industry and plant-based meat startups are increasingly seeing the mutual benefits of working together. It may seem confusing to see a fast food outlet that proudly serves “100 Percent Beef With No Fillers” offering a vegetarian alternative aimed at meat-eaters, but with the growing demand for plant-based meat, there’s profit to be had for Burger King and other eateries like it.
In recent years, the meat industry has gone from seeing plant-based meat startups as competition to seeing them as collaborators that can exist alongside them. Last year, Tom Hayes, the then-CEO of Tyson, the world’s second-largest processor and seller of beef, chicken and pork, told Fortune, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, right?”
Beyond Meat founder and CEO Ethan Brown told Bloomberg that when it signed a deal with Tyson, people accused him of having blood on his hands. But he said he would “rather try to get things done than throw stones, and the people at Tyson know how to move the needle.”
Moving the needle is essential for these startups to scale up — and a meat-free burger that can compete with the nation’s favorite meaty foods has the potential to greatly reduce demand for factory farming, and, subsequently, alleviate animal suffering, carbon emissions and antibacterial resistance.
Making meat-free burgers readily available and affordable for consumers (the Impossible Whopper will cost $1 more than a regular burger) can only help to widen the shift towards a plant-based diet, which experts agree is an important answer to securing a future without food shortages, and is one of our best hopes for mitigating the worst of climate change.
Meat is deeply ingrained in the nation’s psyche, and for plant-based meat to become normalized, we need to be ambitious while also being realistic. The vast majority of the population will only transition to a plant-based diet gradually, and will require a lot of nudging to do so.
For those more likely to stop of at McDonald’s than a local farmers’ market, Burger King can help expose people to plant-based meat in a setting they trust. And for meat-eaters already looking for ways to reduce their meat intake, making meat alternatives more accessible can only help to normalize the practice of going meatless.
Ultimately, the only way to reduce global meat consumption is to be pragmatic — and that includes plant-based meat startups collaborating with fast food giants.