Is the Vegan Impossible Burger Healthy for You?

These juicy plant-based burgers could fool even a meat lover. But are they actually healthier for us?

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
3-minute read
Episode #469

Veggie burgers have been around for decades. And as the popularity of plant-based and flexitarian diets has grown, there are more and better options in this category than ever. You probably wouldn’t ever have mistaken one of these for actual beef. But if you’re looking for something meatless to put on a hamburger bun, there are plenty of choices. 

There’s a new meatless burger on the market that claims to look, cook, taste, and chew so much like actual ground beef that you might not be able to tell the difference. Having sampled it this week, I have to say that this claim is actually not far off the mark.

The Impossible Burger is made from wheat, soy, and potato protein, and coconut oil. The makers have done an admirable job configuring those ingredients into something that looks and acts remarkably like raw ground beef. You can even choose whether you want to cook it well done or still pink in the center. 

What Is Heme Iron?

But the magic ingredient that is responsible for its beefy taste and appearance is heme, an iron-containing molecule that is abundant in animal tissue. While all animal foods contain heme iron, red meat is much higher in heme iron than chicken or fish, and that’s what provides much of the color and flavor that we associate with red meat. Because it’s so well absorbed, heme iron is terrific at treating and preventing iron deficiency and anemia. 

Plants tend to contain the much-less-absorbable nonheme form of iron. But the clever folks at Impossible Foods have figured out how to get yeast to produce a plant-based source of heme iron that’s identical to the heme in red meat.

Heme iron may be a double-edged sword, however. Athough it’s very bioavailable, it’s also a highly reactive molecule which, in excessive amounts, could lead to cell damage. Studies have found that those who eat the most red meat have higher risks of colon cancer and other diseases compared to people who eat other types of meat or no meat at all. One of the working theories points to high intakes of heme iron as the culprit. 


About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show.