Know Your Ingredients: What Is Konjac?

The word "konjac" may have you thinking about a beloved TV character or perhaps even the spirit cognac. But in reality, it's something you may have already consumed without even knowing it. What is konjac? It's a plant whose root has starchy binding properties, which makes it a useful ingredient in noodles and flour blends, and it's often compared to gelatin. Because of its high fiber content, konjac is also a natural laxative. It's also called voodoo lily, konjaku, konnyaku potato, elephant yam and snake palm, and it grows in Japan, China and Indonesia. Konjac's texture and relative lack of flavor are what make it an essential for many recipes.

I spotted powdered konjac at a recent press event for the West Coast launch of the plant-based burger from Impossible Foods. Along with heme, gum gel, xanthan gum and coconut oil, konjac gives the burger its tantalizing texture. An Impossible Foods spokesperson confirmed via email:

"We use it to help bind and optimize the texture of the ingredients in our burger. A key aspect to ground beef is how it can be handled in the raw state, so it can be formed into burgers and made into meatloaf or other culinary applications. Konjac ensures that our plant-based burgers have those same handling properties."

Unfortunately, there's a dark side to konjac's powerful binding properties. There have been choking accidents among elderly and young populations in some parts of Japan, leading to a partial ban on the sale of foods containing konjac. Apparently with some of these products, excessive chewing is required. One package even warns: "This pack is to designed to eat little by little."