Sometimes, food obsessions last even longer than the days spent agonizing over the turkey pre-Thanksgiving. Take my case: I’ve spent the past five months cooking, consuming and contemplating the two heavyweight champions of a rapidly-growing plant-based fake beef market, Beyond and Impossible.
Technically, this food obsession dates back even further, to 2016, when the original Impossible Burger first rolled out to restaurants and Beyond Burger patties were proliferating in supermarkets. If any chef, amateur or professional, wanted to offer their take on it, I wanted to taste-test. As an incurable meat eater in the age of climate change, I was the target market. If fake beef is good enough to make someone like me switch, we can take a giant chunk out of an industry responsible for around 7 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions — meaning, according to experts, quitting beef is more effective at lowering your carbon footprint than quitting cars.
The obsession kicked into high gear in 2019, when Impossible’s much-improved version 2.0 began rolling out. In August, I found myself entering Burger King for the first time in years to try the Impossible Whopper, and returned regularly. I wasn’t alone: Impossible sales boosted BK’s revenues by 5 percent in one quarter, leading to the forthcoming launches of three new Impossible offerings. Another study found 95 percent of plant-based burger eaters also eat meat. Clearly, the world is filled with more flexitarians than we realize.
But it wasn’t until the Beyond Beef bricks went on sale this summer, followed by Impossible’s more limited beef brick roll-out (so far, only in Los Angeles and select east coast groceries), that the true test commenced. Bricks are better than patties or restaurant burgers; you can shape and flavor them any way you like. I began cooking both on a weekly basis, inviting friends to do the same (you like your quarter-pounders cooked flat and wide, like me, or more tennis ball-style? Go nuts!). This culminated in a pre-Thanksgiving grill-it-yourself birthday party where more than 5 pounds of Impossible and Beyond meat were consumed in an afternoon.
Which is why this is the most comprehensive Impossible vs. Beyond bake-off you’ll ever read. Not only am I am experienced with both products to the point where I can identify the difference in a single bite of a blind taste test, I have also collected opinions and anecdotes from cooks, restaurant owners, patrons, and friends of vegetarian, vegan, and carnivorous persuasions.
Bottom line: Both bricks deserve a place in your fridge or freezer. Both are great tastes that cook faster and more easily than beef, but there is a surprising amount of nuance in the difference between them. One is more beef-like than the other; the other seems to be aiming at a new kind of protein product — “the kind of thing we’ll eat in the next millennium,” to quote one friend. Your prior diet may predict which one you are going to prefer, but there is no reason not to enjoy both.
What’s under the hood
Both products take their job seriously, right down to looking like a regular block of raw beef when you, um, unbox them. The Impossible has a slightly slippery texture, while raw Beyond feels more marbleized, with clearer (and to some, more alarming) flecks of white among the red. You’ll definitely feel like washing your hands after handling either, and you’ll want to finish either package within three days of opening. (It may not be meat, but it goes off as fast as meat.)
In terms of ingredients, the two products are going in two very different directions. Beyond beef is mostly derived from peas, mung beans, and rice protein. Its white specks are actually coconut oil and cocoa butter. Impossible traded its original wheat-based recipe (version 1.0) for soy and potato protein, plus coconut and sunflower oil (version 2.0). Both versions of the Impossible used heme, a molecule made by fermenting genetically-modified yeast, which allows the burger to “bleed.” (This bleeding isn’t off the charts, Carrie-style; it’s more of a subtle juiciness, even in a rare burger.)
As you can see from that ingredients list, quite a few people are going to tap out of cooking one or other at this stage. The mung bean is a legume, so take care if you have peanut allergies. Avoiding all fast carbs, including rice? You’ll have to skip the Beyond, too. Fanatically opposed to GMO products? You should maybe take another look at the science, but if you’re still not convinced, then heme means the Impossible is not for you.
Still, if your concern is along the lines of “I don’t usually like the taste of pea protein” or “soy milk is yucky,” put it aside. Neither product tastes anything like its main ingredients. What food science has wrought here is truly miraculous. You’ve never had pea protein like the Beyond; you’ve never had soy like the Impossible.
One key caveat for both burgers is the salt content. Currently, a 4-ounce serving of Beyond has 380 mg of sodium; the equivalent Impossible is 370 mg. That’s about three times the amount in a regular 4-ounce burger patty, and about 16 percent of your recommended daily amount of sodium. (That’s another reason to cook at home rather than have them at restaurants, which often tend to add more salt to both items, the Impossible especially.)
In other words, you shouldn’t be downing these by the dozen, especially if you have hypertension. Even if you’re generally healthy, I wouldn’t recommend more than one Impossible or one Beyond burger every other day; treat them as a treat, just as you should treat actual burgers, and you should be fine. To make them a teeny bit healthier, I put both kinds of burger on salad rather than buns, and … used smaller cheese slices.
Fake meat party in your mouth
So how exactly do they taste?
Well, it shouldn’t come as a surprise by this point that the Impossible burger wins the fake meat-off if your goal is to replicate beef as closely as possible. It’s the heme that makes this particular contest no contest. Impossible Version 2.0 is so close to the real thing in taste and texture that it is sometimes hard to tell the difference.
Indeed, one of the few ways to tell is that the Impossible offers a completely consistent meat experience. There’s none of that finding a bit of gristle, or those tiny uncooked lumps of chewy fat, that we’ve all gotten used to with burgers. You can test this yourself by going to Burger King and buying both a regular and an Impossible Whopper. (The fact that they are cooked on the same grill led one vegan customer to sue, but that’s not the reason they taste so similar.)
Many life-long vegetarians, including my sister, are so freaked out by the Impossible burger’s resemblance to beef that they simply will not eat it. Some have a visceral distaste; others have been so conditioned by years of dry, mealy veggie burgers that the Impossible tends to trigger alarm bells. It’s hard to get used to having your plant-based burger and eating it, so to speak.
But if you’re a flexitarian, or if you’re simply looking to eat more plant-based food and kick those meaty thoughts, the Impossible brick is probably your pick. (My immediate response after cooking my first at-home Impossible: “There’s a fake meat party in my mouth!“) A clear majority of grill-it-yourself partygoers favored it. The staff at Grandeur, a casual cafe-style restaurant in Oakland that serves both, say that plenty of meat-eaters come in to do side-by-side taste tests.
Not only do these customers prefer the Impossible over the Beyond, they prefer the Impossible over Grandeur’s other offering, ethically-sourced beef. Cattle ranchers, call your bankruptcy lawyers.
So close to beef you can barely tell the difference • Helps save the planet • Plays very well with cheese
Affordable. Delicious. Made of plant stuff, not meat. Will help you quit beef already, and we’re only on version 2.0.
Meanwhile vegetarians, at Grandeur and elsewhere, seem to prefer the Beyond, possibly in part because it isn’t trying to fox their tastebuds. But they’re far from alone in loving it. The more I’ve cooked my own Beyond burgers, the more I’ve grown to love it on its own terms, rather than as a beef imitator.
Beyond has a taste all its own, one that’s particularly hard to describe. I think of it as kind of a nutty flavor; others say mesquite. But the texture, to my mind, is where the Beyond is best. Depending on how long you cook it for, the burger gains a lovely, crispy, almost crunchy kind of shell. This may be Beyond’s rice protein kicking into action; it reminds me of the crispy rice on the bottom of a pan, a delicacy in many cultures (in Persian cooking, it’s prized as tahdig.)
Whatever it is, I never thought I’d be as interested in the Carl’s Jr. Beyond Burger as in the Impossible Whopper, but here we are.
Cooks really fast • Helps save the planet • Develops a complex nutty flavor and a delicious crispy ‘shell’
Rather than recreate the taste profile of beef, Beyond is aiming for something new in the world. The more you eat it, the more you seem to enjoy the complex protein flavor.
For the long-term health of the plant-based meat industry, this is all great news. It means that the two leading contenders have set out very different stalls. They are aiming for different flavor profiles, both of which have solid followings. The Venn diagram of these followings, I believe, would have considerable overlap; I consider myself right in the middle. If I see both bricks in the grocery aisle, I’m buying both. At around $20 for eight quarter-pounders, such a purchase won’t break the bank.
Capitalism may rarely do good things for the planet, but here is a genuine positive case: The pressure of competition should increase the quality of each of these offerings over time. The first thing I’m really hoping this pressure does is lower the sodium content in both Beyond and Impossible, since both companies have a vested interest in their fake beef being seen as the healthier one.
Given how far these burgers have come in their evolution so far, such an outcome seems distinctly possible. And as soon as both companies release updated versions, we’ll provide another obsessive fake-meat bake-off.