By Jacy Reese
It’s a savory, juicy way of saving the environment, and it tastes no different from meat! The plant-based Impossible Burger from Impossible Foods made its debut sizzle on the griddle at Burger King this month, and meat-lovers are eating it up. Om nom nom! Seriously though, the animal-free alternative to fast-food chomping is a significant step toward reducing the toll of agriculture on the planet to feed us beef. And at this rate, we may not need beef at all in the future. Just ask Jacy Reese. In The End of Animal Farming: How Scientists, Entrepreneurs, and Activists Are Building an Animal-Free Food System, he writes about taking his first bite of the wonder patty, and he says the same thing. Guess that means we can have our burger and eat it, too. Pass the ketchup, please! This excerpt comes with a side of fries.
When I met Oliver Zahn in 2015, he was director of the Center for Cosmological Physics at the University of California, Berkeley. Zahn was a fellow member of the local effective altruism community, a social movement and philosophy based on trying to maximize one’s positive impact on the world. In July 2016 I helped the German-born scientist and his family pack up some of their possessions as they prepared to move out of their California home. By this time, Zahn had transitioned to apply his expertise to a mission-driven startup, working as chief data scientist at Impossible Foods, one of the most famous animal-free food companies today. Instead of mapping out the stars to trace the origin of the universe, he was now mapping out plant ingredients to build an animal-free food system.
As the team helping with the move grew hungry, Zahn pan-fried burgers for us with some frozen plant-based beef that he had brought home from work. This was my first encounter with an Impossible Burger, what was already being referred to in media outlets as the food of the future. The pink, raw patties were visually unmistakable from animal-based ground beef. The first thing I noticed in the cooking process was the distinctive color change to the grayish- brown color of a typical beef burger. The Impossible Burger’s outside char was a little crispier than that of beef, and overall the patty looked a little dry, but I worried that I was just imagining differences because I expected the product to be imperfect in some way.
When it was my turn to try one, I opened my mouth wide and posed for a picture, then took my first bite. To be honest, I actually couldn’t distinguish what the patty tasted like apart from the bread, lettuce, and condiments packed together, so I took out the patty and bit into it alone. I was blown away by the complex, rich flavors and truly meaty texture. I’ve enjoyed plenty of ersatz burgers, because I lost my taste for meat after being vegetarian for so long, but this is the first one I tried that captured the unique culinary experience of animal flesh. The patty was a bit thin and dry, but overall, I couldn’t complain, and I knew that those issues could be fixed in future iterations. As a meat eater who was enjoying the Impossible Burger along with me said, “I wouldn’t be able to tell this apart from animal flesh.”
When people taste new animal-free foods, they often fail to appreciate the significant variation that exists within a single food category like a beef burger. How much and what kind of seasoning was mixed into the meat? Exactly how long was it cooked? What was the fat ratio of the ground beef? Was the cow grass-fed? I would guess that the difference between the Impossible Burger and the average beef burger was similar to that between any two beef burgers the average American eats in a year.
Zahn heavily qualified our tasting with his own view of the product’s issues, especially the imperfections that had been fixed in more recent versions. His critiques were precise, highlighting all the specific tastes and aftertastes of the burger, like how long the iron flavor persisted in your mouth. I wouldn’t have noticed any of those issues on my own, but surely Impossible’s taste-testers—some are vegetarian, but most aren’t—have much more refined palates.
The Impossible Burger is built from the ground up using isolated plant fats and proteins to fill the same culinary niche that animal flesh does. It aims to satisfy even the most voracious carnivore. That “meat hunger” has been described by chefs, food scientists, and hunter-gatherer tribes over the millennia. Some cultures differentiate meat and plant hunger, such as the Mekeo tribe of Papua New Guinea, which uses aiso etsiu, translating literally to “throat unsweet,” to refer to meat hunger, and ina etsiu, meaning “abdomen unsweet,” to indicate a desire for plant-based food. There’s no scientific evidence of a hunger specifically for animal meat driven entirely by biology, but the social forces behind it are very real—from “Beef: It’s what’s for dinner” ads to the historical association of meat with wealth and prosperity.
Impossible Foods and Hampton Creek represent a huge leap from VegeBurgers and Tofurky. In 2008, Tofurky’s founder, Seth Tibbot, explained his product’s popularity: “People are happy to have something that is easy to prepare and that can cook right alongside the turkey and is served alongside the turkey. Now everybody’s got something to eat. It’s kind of a peacemaker product I guess.” Contrast that with a 2017 statement by the founder of Impossible Foods: “My company’s goal is to wipe out the animal farming industry and take them down.”
This bold founder is Patrick “Pat” Brown, a former Stanford University biochemistry professor who left academia and committed himself to solving what he sees as the world’s biggest environmental problem. Like many vegans these days, he decided, “it’s easier to change people’s behavior than to change their minds.” Brown felt the food industry was decades behind the curve in biotechnology, leaving wide room for innovation. “The stuff we’re doing now that’s new to the food system was old news 40 years ago in the biotech world.”
His first challenge was to identify the compounds in animal flesh that construct its meaty flavor, so that he could replicate them in plant form. This is no easy task. You can find dozens of active chemicals from hexanal to 4-hydroxy-5-methyl-3(2H)-furanone in beef alone, and these vary widely by the breed of the slaughtered animal, where on their body the meat came from, and even the cooking method. Impossible narrowed its scope by focusing on a specific meat product, Safeway 80/20 ground beef.
The search revealed a key compound that Impossible claims is the holy grail of plant-based beef. It’s called “heme,” and it’s an organic compound with diverse biological function, most well known for its role in hemoglobin, the iron-containing compound that carries oxygen in our blood. Apparently heme is responsible for over 90 percent of beef’s flavor, and that gives Impossible a huge advantage in the vegetarian marketplace. Ground beef is around ten parts per million heme, while chicken flesh clocks in at only two. In fact, heme is so beefy that adding it to chicken leads taste testers to think it tastes like beef. On the other hand, a 2011 meta-analysis associated heme in red meat with colon cancer, which adds concerns about Impossible’s use of the molecule instead of other plant-based ingredients. The Impossible Burger also has much more saturated fat than other plant-based meats, which could be both a necessary taste factor and a health concern for some people.
Impossible originally found heme in soy root nodules, which are actually colored red from its presence. However, harvesting these and extracting the heme would leave an environmental footprint too big for Brown’s taste and would likely come with a prohibitive financial cost. The solution the company found was yeast. If you add heme-coding soy DNA to yeast, the yeast microorganisms dutifully produce the compound for easy harvest. This is the same technology that’s been used for decades to produce insulin for diabetics and rennet for cheese.
About the Author
Jacy Reese is the research director and cofounder of Sentience Institute, a nonprofit think tank researching the most effective strategies for expanding humanity’s moral circle. He previously served as board chair and a researcher at Animal Charity Evaluators. Reese’s writing has appeared in Vox, Salon, and the Huffington Post, and he has presented his research to academic and nonprofit audiences in fifteen countries. Follow him on Twitter at @jacyreese and visit his website.