Omnivores, carnivores and vegetarians have been asking one question for several months now: What's really in those trendy, plant-based burger patties?
By now, some consumers are aware that products made by both Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat contain a bunch of different ingredients, including plant proteins, thickening agents and oils.
But a recent Super Bowl ad created by the nonprofit organization Center for Consumer Freedom (which receives funding from and advocates on behalf of the meat, fast-food and alcohol industries) surprised some shoppers by revealing these meatless meat blends contain a potentially unsavory extra: methylcellulose, the main ingredient in some over-the-counter laxatives.
Unknowingly munching away on a chemical compound that may cause explosive side effects has left a bad taste in some consumers mouths, but is methylcellulose actually a cause for concern?
What is methylcellulose?
Unlike fiber, methylcellulose is not a naturally occurring element. This chemical compound is derived from treating vegetable cellulose with a chemical agent to create a tasteless, colorless powder. This powder is commonly used as binding or thickening agent in many foods like ice creams, breads, cakes and chocolate.
But methylcellulose also aids the absorption of water into the intestines, which helps make stools softer, so it's a common ingredient in laxatives like Citrucel.
Is methylcellulose anything to worry about?
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, methylcellulose is approved by both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the European Union as safe for human consumption and has no specified limitations regarding use, as there are no observed adverse effects when consumed in moderation.
When used as a laxative, however, the dosage of methylcellulose varies. A heaping tablespoon of Citrucel contains 2 grams of methylcellulose, and adults are advised not to consume more than three servings (6 grams) per day.
Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, the two pioneering companies behind many of the best-selling plant-based products that mimic real beef, have fairly similar recipes. Both Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat spokespeople confirmed to TODAY that methyllcelulose makes up less than 2% of the total weight (that's less than 2 grams per serving) of their burger patties, but would not specify an exact gram amount due to their recipes being proprietary "intellectual property."
Impossible burgers primary ingredients include water, protein made from soy and potatoes, flavor from heme and fat from coconut and sunflower oils. Binders like methylcellulose and food starch, various vitamins and yeast extract make up the rest of patty. Instead of soy, Beyond Meat burger patties get their protein from pea, mung bean and brown rice. It uses cocoa butter, coconut oil, sunflower oil and canola oil for its fats, plus beet juice extract and apple extract for flavor and color. Potato starch and methylcellulose help bind everything together.
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Is meatless meat still safe to eat?
Approach meatless burgers the same way you would any other type of food new food: It's always important to read labels and balance out your portions. First, note any potential allergens and then evaluate macro nutrients.
"Having the occasional plant-based burger is fine for anyone, but don’t kid yourself into thinking that it’s any better for you than a meat-based burger," Bonnie Taub-Dix, a registered dietician, creator of BetterThanDieting.com and author of "Read It Before You Eat It:Taking You From Label to Table," told TODAY. Since methylcellulose is present in a lot of foods, it's unlikely that someone would have an adverse reaction to one of these plant-based patties — plus, these patties do have fiber, which is not present in animal protein. If you do swap out a serving of red meat for a juicy Impossible burger, Taub-Dix advised being mindful of your sodium intake and consumption of other processed foods for the rest of the day.
Overall, following a plant-focused diet can also have significant health benefits, including weight loss, improvement in medical conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure, as well as better mental and physical health.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article stated that the Center for Consumer Freedom is a lobbyist group.