Burger King is cutting artificial flavors and additives from its menu, but at least one controversial ingredient is sticking around.
That’s soy leghemoglobin, or heme, the highly processed and genetically-modified ingredient used by Impossible Foods. It’s the “magic ingredient” that turns the plant-based Impossible Whopper into a meat-like burger, and it’s one that the U.S. government considers a color additive, and therefore artificial, when the product is sold red and uncooked.
This highlights the inherent contradiction of two of today’s top food trends: While growing numbers of consumers want to eat more natural foods, many are also cutting down on meat and turning to processed substitutes, such as the Impossible Whopper. That leaves companies like Burger King, which are trying to appeal to both, to navigate a tricky landscape.
Impossible’s heme, made from genetically modified yeast and nodules found on the roots of soy plants, is an ingredient that few would consider natural, said Michael Hansen, senior scientist at Consumer Reports. When consumers are surveyed about the word ‘natural,’ they always assume it means no added chemicals and pesticides or genetically modified ingredients, Hansen said.
Impossible’s heme is artificial because “the combination they’re doing doesn’t exist in nature. It is synthetic,” he said. “It’s something they’re creating by engineering yeast proteins to produce it.”
For government agencies such as the FDA, “anything used for the purposes of coloring food is considered an artificial color additive, even if it is a natural ingredient such as carrots, because it is not naturally occurring in the ingredient,” according to Elmis Medina, head of product sustainability at Burger King. “What we are doing at Burger King is removing colors from artificial sources.”
The restaurant chain does use natural colorants, such as paprika and lycopene from tomatoes, she said in a statement to Bloomberg News.
Impossible Foods spokesperson Rachel Konrad told Bloomberg in an email that it takes no position on what the terms “natural” and “artificial” flavors mean, as there are “various ways” to define them.
Burger King is airing commercials featuring a moldy Whopper, touting “the beauty of no artificial preservatives,” to highlight the changes to the menu. Konrad said Impossible doesn’t comment on restaurant partners’ ad campaigns. She added that the company is proud of its genetic engineering that created the patty.
Any color additive “meets the definition of an artificial color additive for labeling purposes,” said Nathan Arnold, an FDA spokesperson. Because raw Impossible burgers are red, just like raw meat, Impossible Foods needed the FDA to approve heme as a safe color additive in imitation beef before it could be sold in grocery stores. The company won the approval last year.
Impossible’s faux meat has given Burger King a lift in the past six months, sending a new group of customers into restaurants to try the burger. The Restaurant Brands International Inc.-owned chain is expanding the Impossible line with a limited test of a new breakfast patty that imitates sausage.
Burger King’s same-store sales rose 2.8% in the latest quarter, but it’s seeing more competition from rivals that are quickly adding their own plant-based meats to their menus.
Last week, Burger King said that 90% of its food ingredients had no colors, flavors or preservatives from artificial sources. Burger King also announced that it had nixed MSG and high-fructose corn syrup from its menu.
While faux meat from Impossible Foods and competitor Beyond Meat is appearing in growing numbers of U.S. restaurant menus, not everyone is a fan. Chipotle Mexican Grill Chief Executive Officer Brian Niccol said last year that his chain wouldn’t use the products because they’re too processed.