Monday, July 23, 2018

Criticism of Impossible Burger

I recently had an Impossible Burger, and the experience left me feeling very odd. Impossible is a California-based food company chartered to "make the global food system more sustainable". Their first product is the "Impossible Burger", a plant-derived burger patty that aims to be indistinguishable from a traditional beef patty. Their profile has been rising steadily since 2016.

Impossible Burgers; source

Search interest for "Impossible Burger" since 2016; source

Who Is This For?

On its surface, a plant-based burger patty would seem to be aimed at plant-based eaters. However, Impossible's marketing suggests that they have set their sights much higher at the general population. I think this is the right approach, since vegetarians/vegans are relatively small in number, and Impossible envisions a global impact. It's also implausible to me that plant-based eaters would be significantly interested in a product that aims to be gastronomically indistinguishable from something they believe to be immoral/unethical.

So, will the omnivorous general population go for Impossible? From their perspective, the Impossible Burger is a more-expensive, oddly-textured version of a standard burger. The only advantage that Impossible can claim over beef is its reduced environmental impact. But how important is this consideration to omnivores? A person is an omnivore because they do not find the environmental aspects of plant-based diet to be sufficiently compelling. So why would they switch, given the inferior quality and higher price? Novelty may account for some interest, as it did with my omnivore friend who joined me in trying the strange creation. But the novelty will fade, and I'm quite sure that my friend will go back to a standard beef burger next time around.


Impossible's product is very ambitious, well-marketed, and clearly well-researched, but they've positioned themselves in a gastronomic no-man's land between veganism and omnivorism. For this reason, I do not foresee a clear market or their product having the large-scale global impact that they envision once the novelty wanes, much as I am onboard with their ultimate goal of improving the sustainability of the global food supply chain.


"Just be yourself" is a good and common bit of advice for all sorts of social situations. I also think it is very apt for food. An inscrutable mixture legumes, grains, nuts, and vegetables trying to be beef is trying to not be itself. This undertone permeates Impossible's promotional material, which dubiously refers to its product simply as "meat", e.g.:
"The burger is just our first product— proof that delicious meats do not have to come from animals."
I think this inherently puts the product on weak, unsustainable footing. In my view, a better approach to achieving Impossible's long-term goals is improving public awareness of the feasibility of plant-based eating and of historically stable cuisines from around the world that rely less heavily on animal products, such as those from India and the Mediterranean. For this reason, I strongly support the work that local food chain Clover and grocer supplier Macro Vegetarian are doing in promoting healthy, casual food that isn't "good for being plant-based", but simply good in its own right (though Clover has recently started selling Impossible products). Similarly, the transition to renewable energy will not happen because people suddenly becoming willing to pay more in the face of environmental realities; it will happen when renewables become the cheapest and best option. In my view, this is the real way to have the sort of impact that Impossible envisions.

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