We’ve got answers. Dig in, everyone.
On August 8, 2019, Burger King rolled out the Impossible Whopper at all of their locations nationwide. If you haven’t tried it yet, make your way to the nearest Burger King as soon as you finish reading this, because it’s impossibly, sinfully delicious — just like the real thing.
The Impossible Burger patty is 100 percent plant-based, but it’s not your ordinary vegetarian burger option. Impossible Foods used a scientific approach to create a meatless product that tastes, looks, smells, and even feels exactly like meat. Flame-grilled like the real deal, and with all of the same glorious toppings and sesame seed bun as the original, I’m confident that I would not be able to distinguish the Impossible Whopper from its beef counterpart, even without a blindfold. The sandwich can also easily be converted to a vegan option if you order it without the cheese and mayonnaise.
If you’re a vegetarian, you’ve probably tried all the usual burger substitutes: Veggie, black bean, quinoa, tofu, portobello mushroom. But they’re just not the same as a real burger, and often not even close. It makes sense; a black bean and a cow are two very different things. However, Impossible Foods went to the heart of the equation, and figured out the secret ingredient in meat that makes us love it so much: heme, an iron-containing molecule that is essential to all living things. In animals, heme is carried by proteins like hemoglobin and myoglobin. Since soy plants are living things too, they also have heme, and it’s carried by their legume hemoglobin.
So to create a vegan burger that tastes so impossibly good, Impossible Foods extracts the heme from legume hemoglobin in soy plants. And there you have it: plant meat!
But the Impossible Whopper is more than just delicious. It’s proof that vegetarianism is finally permeating mainstream American food culture; a feat that many people — my baby boomer dad, for example — swore would never happen in their lifetime. Impossible Foods was founded in California in 2011, and it’s understandably taken a while for them to build up their manufacturing base to a competitive level with beef burger production (a trillion-dollar global industry). But they’re getting there. According to analysts at Barclays, the alternative meat industry could reach $140 billion over the next decade.
In 2017, Impossible Foods started selling their Impossible Burger in regional chains like White Castle, Umami Burger, and Bareburger. Burger King is the first nationwide fast-food restaurant to carry their Impossible Burger product, and that’s what makes the Impossible Whopper such a big deal for America. You could already order an Impossible Burger at other nationwide casual dining chains like The Cheesecake Factory and Red Robin, but those are restaurants where you have to tip a server, so they’re less likely to be frequented by low-income Americans.
The issue of equal access that plagues vegetarianism is one that exists plainly here in Richmond. Before Burger King, Richmond residents could get an Impossible Burger at 821 Cafe, Carytown Burgers & Fries, or their local Kroger grocery store. But price is certainly a factor in who buys one at those places — the Impossible Burger at 821 cafe is $12, making it $3 more than their beef half-pounder option. At Carytown Burgers & Fries, subbing an Impossible Burger for the traditional beef patty tacks on an extra $5 to your total cost. With a suggested retail price of $5.59, Burger King is slinging the cheapest Impossible Burger in town.
Obviously, Burger King isn’t the place you would go in search of a gourmet burger, and that’s why the Impossible Whopper is a big step for the American vegetarian industry. Historically, going meatless has been a privilege of the middle and upper classes — those who can afford to opt for higher-end chains and independently-owned, boutique restaurants over fast food, or those who have the time in their day to prepare home-cooked meals.
Fast food restaurants are disproportionately patronized by minorities, the working class, and those who live at or below the poverty line. You’d be hard pressed to find a vegetarian option that’s not a salad at any mainstream fast food restaurant, and who would pick a bowl of lettuce over a burger at the end of a long, hard work day, knowing that’s all they’ll eat for the rest of the night?
With over 7,400 locations in the U.S., Burger King is also bringing an affordable meatless burger option to rural, low-income communities whose residents may have never even heard of the Impossible Burger before, let alone had the chance to try it. In small-town rural America, you’re unlikely to find a mom-and-pop diner or cheaply priced restaurant selling decent vegetarian items that aren’t just more sad-looking salads. But odds are, there’s a Burger King in town, or somewhere nearby. Burger King is making a pivotal move on the vegetarian frontier by providing exposure and access to meatless options in areas like these.
Obviously, the American food industry isn’t going to change overnight. It’s not like every person in the country is now going to buy an Impossible Whopper every single time they want fast food. But it’s a big step in the right direction. America’s infatuation with meat has always seemed like an impervious, immovable fixture in American food culture, and now Burger King and Impossible Foods are proving that we can slowly chip away at the unethical, unsustainable industries supporting mainstream eating habits.
Burger King plans to make the Impossible Whopper a permanent item on their menu by next year, but current availability is reportedly still part of a trial period, so get it while it’s hot, and drop us your review in the comments!
Top Photo via Impossible Foods