Impossible Whopper a 'huge hit' says Burger King, Beyond Meat raises forecasts, as brands hit back at ads attacking ‘ultra-processed’ plant-based burgers

By Elaine Watson contact

- Last updated on GMT

 "The Impossible Whopper has quickly become one of the most successful product launches in Burger King's history..." (Picture: Elaine Watson)
"The Impossible Whopper has quickly become one of the most successful product launches in Burger King's history..." (Picture: Elaine Watson)

Related tags: plant-based meat, Impossible Foods, Beyond meat

A series of ads attacking the next generation of plant-based burgers as ‘ultra-processed’ products ‘hiding’ scary unpronounceable ingredients is a crude attempt by a “dark-money front group funded by Big Beef to mislead consumers and push propaganda,” claims Impossible Foods, which says its products are “better for people and the planet than the products they replace.”

Its comments came as The Center for Consumer Freedom​ (CFF) – a nonprofit founded by former tobacco lobbyist Richard Berman, who critics say has perfected the art of setting up nonprofits to advance corporate interests - ran a full page ad​ ​in the New York Times with the headline, ‘What’s hiding in your plant-based meat?’

Its latest ad – which follows a similar ad​ attacking the ‘chemicals’ in ‘fake bacon’ - goes on to say that, ‘Real burgers and brats are made from beef, pork and spices. Fake meats are ultra-processed imitations with dozens of ingredients including methylcellulose, titanium dioxide, tertiary butylhydroquinone, and disodium inosinate.’*

The accompany press release adds: “Plant-based meat is ultra-processed. Many of these products boast dozens of ingredients. The National Institutes of Health​ found that ultra-processed foods can cause weight gain and overeating, which can contribute to a variety of health problems.”​ 

Asked about the nature of its corporate donors, CFF managing director Will Coggin told FoodNavigator-USA: “Our food industry funding is farm to fork and has included meat producers.”  ​(On its website, the CFF says it is funded by restaurants, food companies and thousands of individual consumers,”​ but notes that “Many of the companies and individuals who support the Center financially have indicated that they want anonymity as contributors.” )

Coggin added: “In response to those who feel we are just fear-mongering with chemical names, our goal is merely to raise awareness for consumers that what they are eating isn’t ground-up plants and isn’t any healthier than real meat… If there’s any fear-mongering, it’s the fake meat companies that are hoping to exploit concerns about personal health.

fake meat ad

Impossible Foods: ‘The Impossible Burger is as ‘processed’ as a freshly-baked apple pie’

However, Rachel Konrad, chief communications officer at Impossible Foods, said it was lazy and unscientific to judge a food product based on the number of ingredients it contains or whether the average consumer can pronounce them.

She added: “The Impossible Burger is as ‘processed’ as a freshly-baked apple pie. Nobody judges the safety and wholesomeness of a recipe by the number of ingredients or the number and complexity of the steps in its preparation. Their attention, as it should be, is not on the number but the choice of ingredients.  

“The plant-based Impossible Burger delivers as much protein, bioavailable iron and key micronutrients as animal-derived beef, without the many downsides associated with beef. A quarter-pound Impossible Burger has 0 mg cholesterol, 14g total fat, 8g saturated fat and 240 calories. A quarter-pound, conventional 80/20 patty from cows has 80mg cholesterol, 23g total fat, 9g saturated fat and 290 calories.  

Impossible Burgers retail packaging
Impossible Foods: "Nobody judges the safety and wholesomeness of a recipe by the number of ingredients or the number and complexity of the steps in its preparation..."

“As it contains no animals whatsoever, the Impossible Burger has none of the noxious slaughterhouse contaminants that can be found in almost all ground beef from cows.”

She added: “Virtually all cows in America today are conceived by artificial insemination, treated with growth-promoting hormones and antibiotics, and housed in bleak and miserable conditions, ending in their death and processing in a slaughterhouse rife with fecal aerosol and other contaminants. Nothing could be further from nature.”

Beyond Meat: It's not just about saturated fat and cholesterol

Speaking at the firm's Q3 earnings call on Monday, Beyond Meat CEO Ethan Brown noted that the Beyond Sausage had more protein and iron, 44% less saturated fat, 50% less total fat and 37% less sodium than a leading pork sausage patty.

But he added: "When we consider the nutritional benefits of our plant-based meats, it's important to note that cholesterol is not the only component of potential concern we leave out nor saturated fat, the only input we seek to minimize.

"For example, our products are free of many other elements in animal protein that are subjects of medical study and debate for their role in inflammation and potential carcinogenic and cardiovascular risk, nor do they contain what the USDA refers to as residual contaminants that can be present in certain but by no means all commercial meats."

Mattson president: ‘It's quite easy to make technical product names sounds dangerous’

While all of the plant-based burgers now entering the refrigerated meat case contain methylcellulose​* - including the Impossible Burger, the Beyond Burger, Nestlé’s Awesome Burger, Hormel’s Happy Little Plants burger, and the new Lightlife Burger (see box below) – none of these brands contain any of the other ingredients cited in the ad.

But this is a moot point, given that all of the ingredients in question (which are approved by food safety authorities on both sides of the Atlantic) “have been in the food supply for decades, with no adverse effect,” ​claimed Barb Stuckey, president and chief innovation officer at innovation consultancy Mattson​, which has worked with several companies on plant-based meat products.

She told FoodNavigator-USA: “It's quite easy to make technical product names sounds dangerous. For example dihydrogen monoxide sounds terrible, right? Would you feed this to your kids?! You have already, because it's water.  One of the ingredients they're bashing is disodium inosinate, a flavor enhancer. This sounds a lot like a scary chemical called sodium chloride, which is another flavor enhancer you probably have on your kitchen table, otherwise known as salt.”

As to whether plant based burgers are ‘ultra-processed,’ she added, “Human beings have been processing wheat into bread, grapes into wine, cacao beans into chocolate, and olives into oil for millennia.”

​Dr Rachel Cheatham: ‘The industry is essentially fighting against itself with this sort of advertising’

Dr Rachel Cheatham at food and nutrition consultancy FoodScape Group, added: “The reality is both animal-based and plant-based meat products often contain so-called ‘scary’ chemical compounds. Some pork-based sausages have monosodium glutamate, potassium lactate or sodium diacetate. Meanwhile, some plant-based sausages have methylcellulose and disodium inosinate.

“To use scare tactics to suggest animal meat products are cleaner label, and therefore superior to plant-based meat products, is inaccurate and unhelpful to consumers. Let’s not forget many of the biggest meat industry players are now invested in both animal and plant options, in recognition of what consumers want. The industry is essentially fighting against itself with this sort of advertising.”

Is the ‘highly processed’ moniker going to stick?

That said, reading the label won’t tell you anything about how the plant proteins were extracted, which can affect the functionality of the protein, claimed Kantha Shelke, Ph.D., CFS, food scientist and principal at food science and research firm Corvus Blue LLC and adjunct professor, food safety regulations, at Johns Hopkins University.

Is the ‘highly processed’ slur something that’s going to stick?​  Probably, because food is socially very sensitive. Lack of transparency about the proteins and other ingredients in the meat analogs –for the sake of competitive advantage – is likely to increase speculation and associated inaccuracies and distrust.

“The issue is also about the number of processing steps that the plant-based meat analogs go through … for an audience that is shunning 'processed foods' but paradoxically reaching out to plant-based as closer to nature and therefore better-for-you.”

Impossible Whopper ‘has quickly become one of the most successful product launches in Burger King's history’

So are these concerns – fair or otherwise - filtering through to the consumers that Impossible Foods et al are attempting to reach (ie. meat eaters/flexitarians as well as vegans and vegetarians)?

Impossible Whopper
Restaurant Brands International CEO: "The Impossible Whopper has quickly become one of the most successful product launches in Burger King's history. What's especially exciting is that sales… have been highly incremental and have attracted new types of guests."

While the ‘highly processed’ narrative has gained some traction in the media, with some reporters querying whether burgers with similar levels of saturated fat and more sodium than beef burgers are much better for humans (even if they are better for animals and the planet), recent indicators suggest the top brands are performing well.

Although it’s still early days, the Impossible Whopper – which rolled out nationwide at Burger King in August - has been “a huge hit with our guests​,” said Jose Cil, CEO at Burger King’s owner Restaurant Brands International.

Speaking on the firm’s Q3 earnings call on Monday, Cil said: “It​ [the Impossible Whopper] has quickly become one of the most successful product launches in Burger King's history. What's especially exciting is that sales… have been highly incremental and have attracted new types of guests.  

“We've done a lot of research and found that the appeal is quite broad based across several types of consumers. We see a lot of Millennial and Gen Z customers who tend to really connect with the message around sustainability. We also see older guests that perhaps used to come to Burger King, but haven't visited in a while.”

He added: “We couldn't be happier with the performance of the Impossible Whopper both during its initial launch phase and on a sustained basis over the course of the quarter. We're very pleased with the mix of growth between check and guest counts and have seen really healthy rates of repurchase intent in-line with those of the original Whopper.”

Beyond Meat: All eyes on McDonald’s

Beyond Meat, in turn, has just raised its forecasts, and now expect net revenues in the range of $265-275m in 2019 (compared with previous forecasts of $240m), representing year-over-year growth of more than 200% vs 2018.

The firm, which generated $92m in sales in Q3, posting a net profit ($4.1m) for the first time, also said it was optimistic about its relationship with McDonald's, which has been conducting a small-scale trial in Ontario, Canada, with the Beyond P.L.T. (plant, lettuce, tomato) burger.  

PLT beyond meat mcdonald's
Bernstein: "Based on our channel checks with select McDonald's based in Ontario, Canada that are currently testing the Beyond P.L.T. burger, the initial feedback has been largely positive, although it seems that the trial has not been a blowout success thus far that justifies an immediate nationwide rollout across both Canada and the US..."

“Based on our channel checks with select McDonald's based in Ontario, Canada that are currently testing the Beyond P.L.T. burger, the initial feedback has been largely positive,"​ said analysts at Bernstein in a recent note, "although it seems that the trial has not been a blowout success thus far that justifies an immediate nationwide rollout across both Canada and the US.”

Asked about the trial on the earnings call, Beyond Meat CEO Ethan Brown said: "I have every expectation that this test will result in more work with McDonald's."

Following trials, Tim Hortons will only offer the Beyond Breakfast Sandwich in British Columbia and Ontario, “likely due to below-expected trial results​,” speculated the Bernstein analysts, although they noted that the Beyond Breakfast sandwich is rolling out nationwide at Dunkin' on November 6, two months before the previously planned launch date as trial results exceeded the company's expectations. The brand is also rolling out at Denny's locations in Los Angeles​ ​and conducting tests with KFC and Subway.

Mealkit providers Blue Apron and HelloFresh have also added Beyond Meat to their menus, added the Bernstein report: “Beyond Meat has generated triple-digit sales growth in recent years and has continued to expand its retail distribution as well as foodservice partnerships at a rapid rate.”

Beyond Meat in meat case

Ingredients Beyond Burger​: Water, pea protein isolate, expeller-pressed canola oil, refined coconut oil, rice protein, natural flavors, cocoa butter, mung bean protein, methylcellulose, potato starch, apple extract, salt, potassium chloride, vinegar, lemon juice concentrate, sunflower lecithin, pomegranate fruit powder, beet juice extract (for color)

Impossible-Burger-retail

Ingredients Impossible Burger​: Water, soy protein concentrate, coconut oil, sunflower oil, natural flavors, 2% or less of: potato protein, methylcellulose, yeast extract, cultured dextrose, food starch modified, soy leghemoglobin, salt, soy protein isolate, mixed tocopherols (vitamin E), zinc gluconate, thiamine hydrochloride (vitamin B1), sodium ascorbate (vitamin C), niacin, pyridoxine hydrochloride (vitamin B6), riboflavin (vitamin B2), vitamin B12.

Awesome Burger - Image Courtesy of Hardy Wilson

Ingredients Awesome Burger:​ Water, textured pea protein, coconut oil, wheat gluten, canola oil, 2% or less of methylcellulose, natural flavors, distilled vinegar, fruit and vegetable juice concentrate (color), dried malted barley extract, dried vinegar, cultured corn starch, sea salt, salt, ascorbic acid, thiamine hydrochloride (vitamin B1), potassium chloride.

lightlife-burger

Ingredients Lightlife Plant-based Burger:​ Water, pea protein, expeller pressed canola oil, modified corn starch, modified cellulose, yeast extract, virgin coconut oil, sea salt, natural flavor, beet powder (color), ascorbic acid (to promote color retention), onion extract, onion powder, garlic powder. 

Happy-Little-Plants

Ingredients Hormel Happy Little Plants Burger:​ Water, soy protein concentrate, soybean oil, isolated soy protein (contains soy lecithin), contains 2% of less of methylcellulose, caramel color, hydrolyzed soy protein, yeast extract, natural flavor, (contains organic refined coconut oil), beet powder (for color), onion powder, salt, spices.

*Methylcellulose​ is created from cellulose (a natural substance found in plant cells) through heating with a caustic (alkali) solution and treatment with methyl chloride. The end product is a white odorless powder with attractive gelling and emulsifying capabilities that is soluble in cold water, forms a gel at higher temperatures and holds plant-based meat products such as burgers together as they cook, as well as boosting succulence and juiciness. 

Titanium dioxide​ is a whitening agent that Beyond Meat used in its recently-discontinued Beyond Chicken retail products, and has since phased out of all of its recipes. Tertiary butylhydroquinone, or ‘TBHQ​’ is a synthetic preservative/antioxidant approved in the US and the EU, while disodium inosinate​ is an approved flavor enhancer.

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