Health and Wellness

Impossible CEO on critics who say plant-based meat is unhealthy: 'It's bull----'

Impossible Foods CEO Pat Brown in 2019
Robyn Beck | AFP | Getty Images

What does the founder and CEO of Impossible Foods have to say to critics who say his and other plant-based burgers are really just vegan junk food?

"It's bulls----," Pat Brown tells CNBC Make It.

Impossible Foods, along with Beyond Meat and other plant-based meat competitors, tout their products as healthy alternatives to animal protein. And people are eating it up, literally — according to new data from Nielsen, sales of plant-based meat alternatives have grown nearly 25% from July 11, 2019 to July 11, 2020, bringing in roughly $601.4 million in sales during that period.

But a chorus of critics from health experts to food industry executives say plant-based meat is heavily processed and high in sodium and fat. 

"[S]ome of these [plant-based brands] that are extremely popular now that are taking the world by storm, if you look at the ingredients, they are super, highly processed foods," Whole Foods CEO John Mackey — who was the first to give Beyond Meat a shot selling its vegan "chicken" strips in 2013 and later its "beef" products — told CNBC Make It in August. (Vegan Mackey prefers veggie burgers made with whole foods like black beans and sweet potatoes.)

But such critics are missing the point, according to Brown: "Our product is substantially better for the consumer than what it replaces," he tells CNBC Make It.

"What it replaces is a burger made from a cow, not a kale salad. So, if you're saying this is not like the ultimate 'superfood,' you're right," he says. "But it's intended to be a product that is healthier for the consumer than a burger made from a cow [and] better for the planet than a burger made from a cow. And for many consumers, more delicious.

"That's the goal," Brown says.

(In response to critics, a spokesperson for Beyond Meat points out its products and ingredients are non-GMO, hormone- and antibiotic-free and designed to "meet, if not exceed, the nutritional profile of their animal protein equivalents....")

Brown, a renowned geneticist, left his job as a professor emeritus of biochemistry at Stanford in 2011 to launch Impossible Foods. He was nearly 60 at the time, but Brown says he took the leap because he was increasingly alarmed by the destructive impact meat production was having on the environment and wanted to create a solution.

But Brown knew environmental impact statistics wouldn't make meat and dairy lovers eat fewer animal products. "Even mostly environmentalists that go to climate and environmental conferences are eating steak for dinner," Brown says. "They're not going to change."

The only way to create change and help the environment, he says, was to have a better way of giving consumers what they want, which is a product that tastes and looks like real meat.

So Brown set out to create a product for meat lovers, not vegans or vegetarians. 

After landing early investors like Bill Gates and spending years testing formulas, Brown's team created a plant-based patty with meat-like taste and juiciness and with the "same protein and iron content" as beef burgers, but with less saturated fat and calories. 

According to its website, Impossible Foods burgers are made with water, soy-protein concentrate, coconut oil, sunflower oil, potato protein, soy leghemoglobin (a protein that carries heme—an iron-containing molecule—found in both animals and plants) and other natural flavors and vitamins like B12 and B6. 

For context, a Burger King Impossible Whopper has 630 calories, 34 grams of fat — 11 saturated — and 25 grams of protein, versus a traditional Whopper's 660 calories, 40 grams of fat — 12 saturated — and 28 grams of protein.

Dr. Frank Hu, chair of the nutrition department at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, says that while some of the Impossible burger's stats are the same or better than a beef burger, plant-based meats do have "higher amounts of sodium."

And Hu, who co-authored the paper "Can Plant-Based Meat Alternatives Be Part of a Healthy and Sustainable Diet?" for The Journal of the American Medical Association in August, says "the perceived health benefits of consuming plant-based meat instead of traditional meat products are yet to be substantiated by rigorous clinical studies."

The health effects of plant-based meat also depend on how they are consumed. For example, if eaten in "fast food settings" (Impossible has deals with chains like Burger King, White Castle, TGI Friday's and Starbucks) with fries and soft drinks, then the consumption of these products is "unlikely" to improve overall nutrition quality due to the highly processed nature of the products.

However, Hu believes plant-based meat can offer a "viable option" for individuals who want to reduce their meat consumption. Diets high in red meat (especially processed meats) are associated with a range of health problems like obesity, Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some cancers. 

"For some people, they can be used as 'transition foods' to a healthier diet with less animal foods and more plant foods," Hu says.

Hu also agrees that from an environmental sustainability standpoint, "eating plant-based meat instead of red meat is certainly beneficial." (Whole Food's Mackey agreed that plant-based meat is a more ethical and environmentally friendly choice than real meat too.)

That's, in part, because raising cattle for food results in greenhouse gas emissions being released into the atmosphere, which then traps radiation from the sun, causing the planet's surface to warm and contributing to climate change.

There is debate over the numbers, however: According to the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization cows raised for beef and milk cause almost 10% of man-made greenhouse gas emissions globally, while the National Cattlemen's Beef Association say its more like 6% globally and 3.3% in the U.S. 

According to a 2019 lifecycle assessment study commissioned by Impossible Foods with the sustainability firm Quantis, in addition to creating 89% less greenhouse gas emissions than a beef burger, producing Impossible burgers also uses 96% less land and 87% less water.

But Marco Springmann, a senior environmental researcher at the University of Oxford, says that plant-based meats still have a carbon footprint five times that of a bean patty.

"So Beyond and Impossible go somewhere towards reducing your carbon footprint, but saying it's the most climate-friendly thing to do — that's a false promise," Springmann said in 2019, according to a CNBC report.

To date, Impossible Foods has raised more than $1.3 billion dollars.

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