Fast food chain Burger King will offer its vegan Impossible™ Whopper® nationwide by the end of 2019, Business Insider said. The news comes after an April trial run in St. Louis for the plant-based alternative to cheeseburgers. Can it help curb our meat habit?
According to Business Insider, a representative for Burger King said the debut of the Impossible Whopper went “exceedingly well” and the company will introduce it this summer to an expanding number of markets, in advance of a nationwide rollout by year’s end. The plant-based alternative to cheeseburgers could become part of a vegetarian- or vegan-based diet, which would supplement, or even replace, our meat-heavy nutritional habits—if the world is ready to make such a change.
Vegan Whopper – Health Risks of Eating Red Meat
A benefit of substituting out a cheeseburger here and there in our food consumption is the potential to avoid various health risks. “Large-scale red meat consumption is increasingly implicated as contributing toward the global epidemic of cardiovascular diseases, cancer, obesity, and type 2 diabetes,” said Dr. Alyssa Crittenden, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “Processed red meat is typically associated with the greatest disease risk. This would include foods like ham, bacon, sausages, salami, corned beef, or tinned meat.”
Dr. Crittenden pointed out that nitrates used in meat preservation are the real problem, potentially leading to reduced insulin production, lowering of glucose tolerance, or atherosclerosis. “Atherosclerosis, which is the hardening and narrowing of the arteries, can lead to heart attacks, strokes, or vascular disease,” she said.
Dr. Crittenden’s research work at the University of California San Diego involved a sialic acid molecule called Neu5GC, which she said is short for N-Glycolylneuraminic acid. Neu5GC is found in many red meats, but most highly concentrated in beef. Humans don’t produce this acid, and when we eat it, our bodies release antibodies that combat it and cause inflammation, which can lead to the formation of tumors. Once, over a three-month period, her lab fed some mice a diet high in Neu5GC and other mice a diet low in Neu5GC. The results? “The mice who ate the [high] Neu5GC diet not only suffered from inflammation but were five times more likely to get liver tumors than their counterparts eating the non-Neu5GC diet,” she said.
The Impossible Whopper and Fixing Livestock Feed
The Impossible Whopper could help combat another problem that comes with the farming industry: livestock feed. A surprising amount of crops grown on U.S. soil are harvested just to feed livestock. “Our most planted crops here in the United States are called feeder crops,” Dr. Crittenden said. “These include wheat, soy beans, corn, and alfalfa. They make up about 80 percent of total crop acreage in the United States, and all of these but wheat are primarily grown in order to feed livestock.”
But farming is also searching for other solutions. Alternative livestock feed has been promoted in recent years. This includes algae—specifically, micro-algae—which is high in protein and omega-3 fatty acids and has been on the market for over a decade. “It’s currently used as food for chickens, pigs, and horses as well as aquaculture, which are fish farms,” Dr. Crittenden said.
Another alternative is sugarcane. Dr. Crittenden suggested four important traits of sugarcane that benefit the farm industry. “First, it’s perennial, which is a plant that lives for more than two years,” she said. “Second, transport and processing costs are less per unit compared to other types of grass feed because sugarcane has less water content. Third, because it has a canopy of green leaves for much of the year, this species can help combat erosion. Fourth, sugarcane is relatively low-cost and abundant.” However, due to the cost and difficulty of the cane separation process, it has yet to take over the livestock feed market.
Burger King’s addition of a vegan alternative to a beef cheeseburger is one sign of the increasing demand for vegan- and vegetarian-friendly nutritional items in the food industry. The health risks surrounding an excess of red meat in the diet—and the long road to sustainable livestock feed—certainly suggest there’s room for the Impossible Whopper, though the idea that ultimately wins out in stabilizing the livestock population could still be decades away.
Dr. Alyssa Crittenden contributed to this article. Dr. Crittenden is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where she is also an Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Medicine. She received her M.A. and Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of California, San Diego.