In May 2020, Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat saw a spike in demand as the COVID-19 pandemic slowed production of the beef and pork industries. Most famous for their burger alternatives, these products are part of a food category known as “meat analogue”—plant-based products designed to imitate meat—which explains why a demand was created when actual meat was in shorter supply. But it also begs the question: are Impossible and Beyond Burgers really intended, or suitable, for vegetarians?
This issue came to light lately when I was dining with a longtime vegetarian friend, Ali Ryan. She snapped a picture of the menu of the pub where we were eating to add to her growing catalog of restaurants that have recently replaced their more traditional veggie burger options with an Impossible or Beyond burger.
“For someone who has been a vegetarian either their whole life or the majority of their life, there is simply no desire for the taste of meat. If anything, there is an aversion,” says Ryan. “Replacing a true veggie burger—something hearty and palatable to a vegetarian dressed up and served in a bun—with an imitation beef burger is effectively taking away an option for a vegetarian, and adding one for a meat eater entertaining the idea of meatless Mondays.”
As a lifelong omnivore who’d recently tasted an Impossible burger, I could see her point. Had I not known what I was eating, I’d have found it to be an underwhelming, but acceptable hamburger. Do other vegetarians feel this way, I wondered? Naturally, no tidy consensus was to be found, not all vegetarians being alike in preferences or reasons for becoming one, but those queried had strong opinions, and many interesting issues were raised.
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What Defines a Veggie Burger?
I spoke to about 10 vegans and vegetarians with a wide range of timelines in their plant-based journeys, wondering whether there was a neat split on the Impossible issue between those who had been accustomed to eating meat for some significant portion of their life, and those that were lifelong vegetarians. No such clear lines were drawn, however, with answers ranging from “never tried them,” to “I hate them—not my jam at all,” to “Impossible is next fucking level.”
While tastes weren’t entirely split among lifelong versus recent vegetarians, something I noticed was that those who had already green-lighted Boca burgers—another soy-based meat analogue—were more likely to find Impossible and Beyond products agreeable, given that they felt them a vast improvement upon Boca in both flavor and texture.
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It may be a matter of what qualifies as a veggie burger. Many I spoke to cited a strong preference for other kinds of vegetable, legume, or grain-based patties with intentional flavors that didn’t mimic meat or even include a smoky char to imitate a grill.
Karly Szczepkowski says, “I prefer a veggie burger: black bean, mushroom, falafel. They all taste so different from each other than I never think it’s just a burger!” Amy Pagett concurs, “Places like Trader Joe’s started carrying veggie burgers with Indian flavors, Mexican, whatever. And all this is awesome for people like me.”
The Meatiness Factor
One of the early talking points of the Impossible burger was that it has a “bleeding” effect, created by a compound found in soybeans called leghemoglobin. Like animal protein, it is rich in iron and has a blood-red color that can give the Impossible burger a look akin to a rare hamburger. Beyond—which is based on pea protein—gets its color from beets, but to the same effect.
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This is, understandably, off-putting for those whose choice to become vegetarian is rooted in animal rights, all the more so when the Impossible burger makes it hard to tell the difference. Says Heather Nessinger, a vegetarian of about seven years: “I find it to be very real in taste and texture, which can be confusing to me, and I often find myself checking it to make sure it’s not a real burger!”
For those whose relationship with meat ended only recently, however, whether for health, animal, or environmental concerns, its very meatiness can also be a treat: “I think these products are amazing and delicious but should be treated like a cheat day,” says Rose Bruno Bailey, a lifelong omnivore whose vegetarian journey started within the last couple of years.
Health Concerns and Whole Foods
Bailey’s point about a cheat day brings up another factor, though. Many queried spoke to the fact that Impossible or Beyond burgers went against the grain of a healthy, whole food diet, vegetarian or otherwise, considering their very processed nature. Packing about as much fat as a traditional beef burger, a Beyond or Impossible burger has an ingredient list of about 20 items, whereas a traditional hamburger patty only has one: beef.
Vegetarianism isn’t always synonymous with healthy eating, and there are plenty of vegetarian junk food aficionados, but those who ascribed to a more whole-food based approach pointed out the staggering nutrition stats of the beef alternatives: “They may be marginally ‘better’ for you than a beef hamburger, but they are in no way filling your body with good fuel,” says Pagett.
This is the one element in which everyone I heard from agreed. If these sort of meat alternatives get more people on board to the cause, then their very existence is great, personal preference notwithstanding.
From Kale Walch of The Herbivorous Butcher: “It’s a very exciting time to be in the plant-based food industry. It’s really inspiring to see large companies like Beyond and Impossible have such a big impact on fast food, the food service industry, things like that. In the grand scheme of things, they’re doing a lot of good for the animals.” Vegan chef Lemel Durrah concurs, especially on the fast food element, where in the case of some merchants a veggie protein option never before existed: “I think that both brands have made great contributions to the plant-based foods movement. They both have made an impact in the fast food industry adding their products to menus across the country.”
But Ian Ljungquist presses the point, even while liking both products, of who they are actually intended for: “I have absolutely no problem with products attempting to taste like meat. It brings more people to the vegetarian table. The one thing most people say in response to finding out I have been a veggie for so long is that they generally agree that factory farming is gross and bad on many levels, but they could never live without the taste of meat. These products are going after people like that, not necessarily people like me.”
Dining Out Vegetarian
“Put it on your menu in addition to a veggie burger, not instead of one,” pleads Ryan, to New York restaurants that have recently taken on the Impossible or Beyond.
Whether this is a national issue or just a regional one is still early days, as Pagett, reporting from Michigan, hasn’t necessarily noticed this trend: “Sometimes I do see the Impossible-type burger now as a replacement for a veggie burger, but it seems like it’s usually the types of places that really only had that Morningstar on the menu anyway. Most of the smaller, mom-and-pop types are still making their own yummy creations. Or at least the places I go.”
Others share these same concerns, whether or not they’ve noticed the sand shifting yet: “That is my big fear,” says Szczepkowski. “I prefer veggie burgers, and don’t want to eat meat. And places are replacing delicious veggie burgers, perhaps because they are harder to make or source? Fake meat burgers aren’t for us veg-enthusiasts.”
A Taste Sensation?
While a variety of viewpoints were expressed on the suitability of Beyond and Impossible products for vegetarians, when I first posed this question to people, many responded as though I was asking which they preferred, favor-wise. And so I leave you with a hardcore vegetarian, hard rock analogy, care of Ljungquist: “Impossible is Slayer, Beyond is Anthrax. If the only tape on a road trip is Anthrax, it’ll do fine. But if Slayer is available, Anthrax barely ever makes it into the rotation.”