The Impossible Whopper

Jules:           What is a miracle, Vincent?
Vincent:      An act of God.
Jules:          And what’s an act of God?
Vincent:     When, um … God makes the impossible possible. But this morning I don’t think qualifies.




I tried Burger King’s “Impossible Whopper” today, which is being test-marketed in 59 BK stores in the St. Louis area, before being released to a wondering nation. The BK I went to was so busy it took 40 minutes to get my food, and maybe half the customers in line were trying the new burger. One man stood in line—again—to trade in the veggie burger he had not intended to order for the Impossible Whopper he wanted.

The verdict? For an engineered food product topped with standard Whopper lettuce, tomato, pickle, onion, and mayo, and contained in its usual bun, it was pretty much what you would expect. It looks and tastes a lot like a regular Whopper, with a whiff of fish and a crazy little finish of burnt electrical cord.

That is to say, if I was still the kind of vegetarian I was for a time, I would eat it on road trips.

If I was told that the problems of feedlot cattle would be greatly diminished if I ate only this burger when I wanted beef, I would agree and then eat only chicken.

If a very particular apocalypse happened and took out cattle only, I would eat an Impossible Whopper now and then but ruin it for everyone by saying burgers tasted better in my day.

The “impossible,” in BK’s marketing push, is that this meatless Whopper is supposedly identical to the regular one “made with 100% beef with no fillers, no preservatives, no additives, no nonsense.” It is not.

On the plus side, the Impossible Whopper has 15 percent less fat than a meated one, and 90 percent less cholesterol. But there is still fat (14 g), including the worse kind (8 g, or 40 percent of daily intake), and lots of salt (nearly 20 percent of recommended daily allowance.) Not much is known publicly about the environmental costs of producing the pseudo-meat, and it is a genetically-modified product without a long safety history.

The secret ingredient is “heme.”

Impossible Foods, Inc., which makes the patties for Burger King, says, “We started with the basics. Wheat and potato protein, coconut oil, heme, and some binders—konjac and xanthan—to bring it all together.” Then, “We swapped wheat protein for soy, some coconut oil for sunflower, and introduced a new binder. Beefier, better for you, and easier to handle.”

Heme is “an iron-containing compound of the porphyrin class which forms the nonprotein part of hemoglobin and some other biological molecules,” the Google dictionary says. It lets blood cells carry oxygen, which fastens to amino acid residues around the heme molecule.

Impossible Foods took the “heme-containing protein from the roots of soy plants,” removed the DNA, and tricked genetically-engineered yeast to produce, by fermentation, “a lot of heme” instead of alcohol.

It is the heme, I presume, that left a coppery taste in my mouth for half an hour after I finished the burger. It is metallic, not rich like blood, and for me, without the satisfactions of umami. The stench of grease smoke on my clothes, from eating in the BK lot with my windows down, was normal.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.