For most of the world, meat provides a significant percentage of dietary protein. And for Americans, there’s few meat-based dishes more iconic than a good-old hamburger.

Much to the chagrin of burger lovers, though, red meat has become the subject of increasing criticism. As early as the late 1970s and early 1980s, a string of studies demonstrated the health risks of red meat consumption—but many of studies were criticized for being biased and improperly designed.

To clarify the issue, Harvard researchers set out to conduct a comprehensive, impeccably designed study. It followed 37,000 men and 83,000 women over the course of multiple decades. The results were published in 2012 in the Archives of Internal Medicine, and they leave little room for debate about the risks of eating red meat.

24,000 participants died during the study, 5,900 from cardiovascular disease and 9,500 from cancer. The researchers calculated that an additional serving of unprocessed red meat increased total mortality risk by 13%, and that a serving of processed meat increased the risk by 20%. They estimated that consuming even one less serving of red meat per day (and replacing it with healthful foods) can lower mortality risk by up to 19%.[1]

Meanwhile, alternative media sources (including the well-known documentary Cowspiracy) have helped reveal the environmentally disastrous effects of the meat industry. Beef production contributes hugely to greenhouse gas emissions, such that a vegetarian’s carbon footprint is less than half that of a meat eater’s.

But let’s face it: it’s not very likely that the majority of Americans will give up red meat, despite these well-documented risks. So companies like Impossible Burger have set out to find a middle road.

A veggie burger that satisfies meat lovers?

Impossible Burger’s quest was to create a plant-based burger that gives the same mouth-watering experience, but without harm to your body or the environment. They even have a catchy slogan to sum up their mission: “Eat a Burger. Save the World.”

And when they say their burger offers the same experience as chowing down on a conventional burger, they mean it. They set out to make the Impossible Burger nearly indistinguishable from its meat-based analog, and many people (even hardcore veggie burger skeptics) believe they’ve succeeded. It even “bleeds” like a real burger, thanks to a soy-derived version of a protein called heme (more on this ingredient in a bit).

Fast food and “better burger” chains around the country are starting to offer the Impossible Burger, and the company is building considerable momentum.

This may all sound like a positive step toward attenuating the risks of red meat consumption. Unfortunately, though, some major issues need to be addressed before the Impossible Burger can even remotely be considered a safe and healthful alternative.

The dark side of the Impossible Burger

Remember that “bleeding” soy protein mentioned above? It’s known as leghemoglobin, and it turns out it’s genetically modified, despite widespread characterizations of the Impossible Burger as “organic” and “non-GMO.”

When the company first sought approval for their product, the FDA suggested that the safety of leghemoglobin had not been adequately demonstrated in humans, especially since nearly 25% of the substance is comprised of 46 “non-target proteins” (which “co-purify” with leghemoglobin during the process of extracting it from Pichia pastoris yeast cells). The FDA expressed concern that these untested proteins could cause unforeseen allergic or antigenic effects.[2]

Nevertheless, the Impossible Burger was granted GRAS status (Generally Regarded As Safe) by the FDA in July, 2018—a status that exempts it from human safety studies. While the company did provide well-reasoned responses in the document cited above, their product’s approval may have just as much to do with their $400 million of funding from pro-GMO investors like Bill Gates.

So what does this mean for our dietary choices?

It’s important to remember that none of these criticisms change the fact that red meat does carry serious risks, both for your health and the environment.

The grave limitations of the Impossible Burger have now come to light, but on a fundamental level, the project is still well-conceived. It is still essential for us to temper our relationship with red meat, if we wish to promote personal and planetary health.

If you’re worried about the safety of the Impossible Burger (and you have good reason to be, until comprehensive human safety studies are conducted), there are still plenty of other options for saving the world—they just might not involve as many burgers.

Try going completely plant-based. Veggie burgers meticulously made with truly organic, non-GMO, healthful ingredients might not taste exactly like beef hamburgers, but they can be incredibly delicious…and they don’t carry any of the risks of beef burgers or Impossible Burgers.

Try reducing your meat consumption. Every bit helps. Recall from the study above that even replacing one serving of meat per day can have a significant impact on your health.

If you decide to continue eating meat, be selective. Conventionally raised, non-organic beef carries dramatically more health risks, so eat organic, grass-finished beef whenever possible (this means that the cows have been fed only grass throughout their entire lifetime). Verifying the sourcing of meat can be much more difficult when eating at restaurants, but it’s worth the effort. More and more establishments are recognizing the importance of offering optimal quality meat (and plant-based options), so with a bit of legwork, you can ensure that your repertoire of favorite eateries offers choices that are healthful and environmentally sustainable.


[1] https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/risk-red-meat

[2] https://1bps6437gg8c169i0y1drtgz-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/072717_Impossible_Burger_FOIA_documents.pdf

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To say that Americans enjoy eating meat would be an understatement. The consumption of meat, especially beef, has become integrated into the American way of life—4.6 billion pounds of beef were purchased from grocery stores last year, which amounts to an average consumption of over 70 pounds of beef per person annually.

Whether this love affair with red meat is the product of beef industry marketing or simply taste preferences, one thing is for sure: mounting evidence demonstrates that eating red meat can pose a serious risk to the health of both your body and the environment.

Here’s just a few prominent reasons why you should think twice about supporting the meat industry.

Bacteria-tainted ground beef. A solid body of evidence confirms that a huge percentage of ground beef is contaminated with dangerous bacteria. And because it is often eaten rare or medium-rare, it’s much more likely to make us sick than other types of meat (chicken, turkey, and pork often have similarly high levels of bacterial contamination, but they’re customarily eaten well-cooked and are thus not as much of a danger).

In the summer of 2015, 13.5 tons of ground beef and steak were recalled because of potential E. coli contamination (and that’s just one publicized example).

Consumer Reports tested 458 pounds of beef for bacteria, with samples ranging from conventional, factory-farm-raised beef to sustainably raised beef, and every sample was contaminated with many types of bacteria, including some that signify fecal contamination.[1]

Animal cruelty. The horrific conditions in which factory farms force animals to live are well-known: tiny, crowded, disease-ridden feedlots, transport without food, water, or rest for up to twenty hours, and inhumane slaughter methods are all standard.

Packaging labels such as “Animal Welfare Approved” and “Certified Humane” are a step forward, but 97% of all beef produced in the U.S. still comes from inhumane factory farms.

Industrial contaminants. Even if you’re not opposed to the systematic slaughter of animals for moral reasons, you should still be worried about how factory farming practices affect your health.

Cows raised by conventional methods are fed an unhealthy, inflammatory diet of corn, soy, and other grains. This poor diet, coupled with terrible living conditions, make them incredibly prone to disease, so they’re fed large quantities of antibiotics throughout their lives (which don’t even fully stop the spread of disease, thanks to the rise of antibiotic-resistant superbugs).

Conventional ground beef is therefore highly inflammatory, stripped of nutrients, laced with antibiotics, and crawling with bacteria. Does this really sound like a good thing to eat on a regular basis?  

Ecological unsustainability. Films like Cowspiracy and the increased outcry of environmental activists have called our attention to an often-ignored fact: eating a lot of meat is incredibly unsustainable for our planet’s environment.

Meat production generates a whopping 20% of the Earth’s total greenhouse gas emissionsthus, a vegetarian’s carbon footprint is half that of a meat-eater’s (and a vegan’s is even less). Per pound, meat takes ten times more water to produce versus grains and other crops.  

If you must eat beef, eat smart

Cutting out red meat entirely is an understandably difficult life change to make. If you’re committed to keeping beef in your diet, know that you should always seek out grass-finished organic beef.

This combination of labels ensures that your meat comes from cows who have been fed only organic grass and forage throughout their lives (as opposed to “grass-fed” cows, who can still be fed grains at the end of their lives), who have not been fed any antibiotics, hormones, or other drugs, and who have been treated humanely.

Just remember that, contrary to popular opinion, there is such a thing as too much red meat—even when it’s the grass-finished organic variety. Overconsumption increases your risk of heart disease, colon cancer, type 2 diabetes, and more.[2]

Consider becoming a “reducetarian”

When faced with the risks listed above, hardly anyone remains ambivalent. No one actively supports the inhumane practices of factory farms or actively desires food that is polluted with pathogens and toxic chemicals.

Nevertheless, most people don’t want to stop eating meat, so animal cruelty ends up being labeled as a “necessary evil,” and claims about the health risks of meat are staunchly opposed (primarily by those who stand to profit from the sale of meat, of course).

In Cowspiracy, the filmmaker even reveals that the top environmental protection organizations in the world—such as Greenpeace and Sierra Club—don’t talk about the ecological ravages of meat production because they’re worried about losing the financial support of their meat-eating contributors.

Luckily, more and more people are speaking up about the importance of being more discerning and more conservative when it comes to meat consumption.

Brian Kateman and the folks at Reducetarian.org are prominent examples—they’re making big waves by encouraging people to become “reducetarians” (i.e. people who aspire to reduce their meat consumption).

This pragmatic and straightforward approach to the risks posed by meat consumption is heartening—it reminds us that even a small reduction can be incredibly helpful. Eating meat one meal of the day instead of two or three, eating smaller portions of meat, or abstaining from meat completely one day each week are all great ways to get started.

Reducing meat consumption addresses another common concern among meat-eaters too. Many people can’t afford to eat the highest quality meats, like organic, grass-finished beef. But the difference in price can easily be saved simply by replacing a percentage of your meat with fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats, which tend to be much more affordable.

It’s a win-win situation: without having to spend any extra money, you’ll be eating higher quality meat, and your body (as well as the environment) will reap the benefits of your reduced meat consumption.

If you’re interested, head over to Reducetarian.org and pledge to eat less meat for the next thirty days. And regardless, remember that when you purchase conventional beef, you place your health at significant risk—don’t give the beef industry the power to continue poisoning you and our planet.



[1] Wanted: Safe Beef, Consumer Reports (October 2015), pp. 28-29.

[2] Ibid., p. 31.

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