While meatless patties have been around for ages, fashioned from mixtures of grains, legumes and vegetables, veggie burgers (as we think of them) are a modern invention. It wasn’t until the 80s and 90s that the "heat-and-eat"-style veggie burgers were sold in natural grocers. The products mainly catered to vegetarians and vegans, and were unlikely to be mistaken for an animal-derived burger.
Today, plant-based isn't just for vegetarians. A new generation of plant-based meat alternatives made for meat eaters has entered the market, with options that even a dedicated burger lover can enjoy without compromise or regret.
However, some brands are using GMOs to disguise their products' plant-based origins. Let's explore where GMOs show up in plant-based burgers.
Plant-based (and bloody)
The Impossible Burger is probably the most well-known plant-based product trying to replace its animal-derived counterpart. It hit the market in 2016 with much fanfare and a novel attribute: the Impossible Burger contains genetically modified "heme," a blood-like substance created through synthetic biology that makes it meatier and bloodier. A few years later, Motif Foodworks released "Hemami," a different type of synbio heme that provides "umami flavor and meaty aroma to burgers, sausages, chicken, and other plant-based meat alternatives."
Motif Foodworks and Impossible Foods both use synthetic biology, or synbio, to make their signature ingredients. Synbio generally uses genetically modified microorganisms such as yeasts or algae to produce novel compounds. Biotech companies increasingly use synthetic biology to create various synthetic flavors, colors, fats, proteins, and more.
The Impossible Burger is currently unavailable in the U.K. and E.U. because synbio heme has not been approved for human consumption, though Impossible products without synbio heme are available. However, it's important to note that products containing synbio ingredients may enter the U.S. market unlabeled and unregulated, lost to the regulatory blindspot that fails to recognize new GMO techniques.
Traditional GMOs in plant-based proteins
Commodity crops such as soy and corn also show up in plant-based alternatives. Legumes are a staple of alternative proteins and corn is processed into countless additives. However, the Non-GMO Project considers both crops at high risk of being GMOs. The farming system behind GMO crops can compromise the perceived environmental benefits of plant-based choices.
For example, the Impossible Burger uses GMO soy as a main ingredient in the meatless patty (to which the synbio "heme" mentioned above adds meatiness). Most GMO soy is engineered to produce an insecticide or tolerate multiple herbicide applications — traits that ultimately encourage pesticide-resistant superweeds and superbugs and the use of more toxic chemicals to control them.
Herbicide-tolerant GMO soy's collateral damage is well-documented. In 2017, many soybean farmers in the midwest reached for dicamba to manage superweeds that could withstand numerous glyphosate applications (glyphosate is the weedkiller most often paired with GMOs). However, dicamba is an infamously volatile weedkiller, and millions of acres of crops were destroyed by dicamba "drift" that summer. Concern for the planet motivates more eaters than ever before; this is almost certainly not the impact they had in mind when they reached for a plant-based patty.
Thankfully, the world of plant-based products is growing fast, offering a wealth of excellent non-GMO plant-based options to choose from. If you're like most shoppers and try to avoid GMOs as much as possible, check out our online product search tool. You'll find over 900 plant-based products, including meat analogs, plant-based seafood, eggs and poultry, and more.
In the coming weeks, we'll expand our Non-GMO Project Verified plant-based highlights from salmon burgers to sausage patties. Stay tuned!