The Wu-tang Clan recently released a science fiction web series that solely focuses on eating White Castle’s vegan-friendly, Impossible Sliders, on a spaceship. Yes, the title sounds like something Kanye mentioned during his ‘odd’ visit to the Oval Office. Even as a gastroenterologist, I can clearly recognize his almost textbook case of bipolar disorder. But, as trippy as the title sounds, I had to watch the series because I was a huge Wu-Tang fan in the 90s.
I remember the first time I heard a Wu-Tang Clan song (here comes a flashback).
It was the summer of 1994. One of my parent’s friends invited us to hang out with his family in their summer house in Martha’s Vinyard. At that time, I had no idea that Martha’s Vinyard was the epicenter of the black bourgeois. Everything I knew about the island came from the movie, the Inkwell. Unlike the movie, I didn’t find love (not even close). However, I found myself driving around the island in a Mazda MPV with a bunch of teenaged New Yorkers.
As a Chicagoan, these Brooklyn kids were my first exposure to New York street slang. They were the first people that weren’t my parents to call me ‘son’ over and over again. They also exposed me to the Wu-Tang Clan. When we were driving around the island at night, someone popped in a maxi single cassette tape of Wu-Tang’s C.R.E.A.M. Even though I only had a weekly allowance of five dollars, cash ruled everything around me for the remainder of the trip.
When we returned to Chicago, I became completely engrossed in the colorfully absurd mythology of the Wu-tang Clan. Their uncanny marriage of grimy hip-hop and 70s Kung-flicks fascinated me as much as Michael Jackson’s moonwalk 10 years prior. I never saw anything like it. Unlike Kavanaugh, if you found my high school calendar, it would probably have Wu-Tang symbols littered all over it. FYI, I’m not a hoarder, so you won’t find any of my high school calendars. Those calendars were thrown in the garbage decades ago (along with my Karl Kani sweatshirts and cross color jeans).
So fast forward to the present.
As both a Wu-Tang and Sci-fi fan, I watched their web-series with an appropriate amount of grown-man giddiness. Overall the series was entertaining, but ultimately, it’s really just a clever advertisement for White Castle’s veggie slider, the impossible slider.
As a doctor, you would think I’m immune to food advertising—not in this case. I immediately went to White Castle after watching the series. Yes, they got me. Since I’m a doctor who talks about food, I had to sample the slider in the name of science, right?
The Impossible Slider was delicious, especially for a veggie burger. The patty didn’t even give me instant irritable bowel syndrome like White Castle’s famous beef patties. Despite the burger’s great taste, I’ll still had to research the Impossible Burger a little more. In this post, I’ll share some of my findings.
What is the Impossible Burger?
The Impossible Burger is made from simple ingredients found in nature, including wheat protein, coconut oil, potato protein, and heme. Never heard of heme? Heme is responsible for the characteristic of taste and aroma of meat. It catalyzes all the flavors when meat is cooked. Heme is exceptionally abundant in animal muscle, and it’s a basic building block of life in all organisms, including plants. We discovered how to take heme from plants and produce it using fermentation — similar to the method that’s been used to make Belgian beer for nearly a thousand years. Adding heme to the Impossible Burger makes it a carnivore’s delight. Super tasty, super safe.
Full Ingredient List: Water, Textured Wheat Protein, Coconut Oil, Potato Protein, Natural Flavors, 2% or less of: Leghemoglobin (Soy), Yeast Extract, Salt, Konjac Gum, Xanthan Gum, Soy Protein Isolate, Vitamin E, Vitamin C, Thiamin (Vitamin B1), Zinc, Niacin, Vitamin B6, Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Vitamin B12
Basically, it’s a veggie burger that uses a plant-based heme, leghemoglobin, to mimic the flavor and texture of red meat.
What are heme and plant-based leghemoglobin?
Heme is an iron-containing molecule present in both animals and plants. It is responsible for the vital purpose of transporting oxygen. Heme is abundant in animal muscle tissue due to the oxygen needs of muscle. It also plays a role in the metabolic processes involving nitrogen/oxygen in plants. Overall, plant-based heme is essentially identical to animal-based heme. However, plant-based foods do not have nearly as high of a concentration of heme as animal products. So how do the people at Impossible Foods pack heme into their veggie burgers? They use simple genetic engineering.
Researchers at Impossible Foods implant yeast with the gene for leghemoglobin, a heme protein naturally found in the roots of soy plants. The yeasts grow and produce the heme via the processes of fermentation (Check out my post on kombucha for more on fermentation). The heme is then incorporated into the burgers.
The process is environmentally friendly because using heme protein from yeast doesn’t require feeding animals or watering soy plants (check out our post on how much water it takes to produce various food products).
Plant-based heme (leghemoglobin) tastes good in veggie burgers, but is it safe?
I’m a gastroenterologist. This basically means I’m a soldier on the front lines in a war against colon cancer. Thus, the relationship between diet and colon cancer is always on my radar. Red meat is a frequent culprit in the link between diet and colon cancer. A recent report from the American Institue of Cancer Research associates consuming 100 g (approximately 3.5 ounces or almost a quarter pounder) of red meat daily with a 12% increase in the risk of developing colon cancer. Although this doesn’t mean that red meat causes colon cancer, but eating meat every day probably isn’t the best way to avoid colon cancer.
Numerous theories explain the link between red meat and colon cancer. One theory implicates heme in the development of colon cancer. According to a recent review article, the possible mechanisms linking heme to colon cancer include:
- Cytotoxicity (toxicity directed towards cells)
- Free radical formation
- The formation of carcinogenic N-nitroso-compounds
- Disruption of the gut’s normal bacteria flora.
Despite these possible mechanisms, the link between heme consumption and colon cancer is controversial. Most studies demonstrating any concerns used quantities of meat or its components in levels more than what’s typically found in our diet. Additionally, these studies excluded dietary components that may be protective against the possible negative effects of heme and/or red meat. These components are typically found in plant-based foods.
Given these concerns, Impossible Foods voluntarily requested that the FDA conduct an investigation regarding the safety of plant-based heme. I respect the company’s openness and desire to demonstrate the safety of their product. Ultimately, the concerns for plant-based heme are likely overexaggerated, especially if heme-containing products are just one part of a varied diet rich in fruits and veggies.
Additionally, any conversation regarding the safety of burgers containing plant-based heme must also look at the environmental impact of red meat production. A study from the UK demonstrated that the average meat eater may contribute almost twice as much greenhouse gas emissions as a vegan.
Are Impossible Burgers Healthy?
Like most things in life, it depends. The impossible burger is rich in vitamin B12, thiamine, and doesn’t have any cholesterol. Its saturated fat and sodium content are similar to beef hamburgers. It is also a decent source of protein.
Overall, it’s a delicious plant-based replacement for beef burgers, but it’s still a processed food at the end of the day.
I’m fine with going to get an Impossible Slider from White Castle as a plant-based treat. I just wouldn’t advocate eating sliders every day.
In lieu of the environmental impact of red meat production, White Castle is taking a step in the right direction by being one of the first chain restaurants to use the Impossible Burger.
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I am a physician and trained chef. I specialize in gastroenterology and nutrition. Currently I work as the Associate Director of Adult Nutrition at the University of Chicago.