I did the impossible.
The idea made me gag. As a meat eater, engineered beef seemed unpalatable at best. And why would a vegetarian want to eat anything that looks, cooks and tastes like a ground beef burger? I decided to dig in so I could understand.
Impossible Burger is a juicy, sizzling, bloody burger made without meat. The parent company has raised $257 million in funding, sells in burger joints around the US, and just opened a plant in the Bay Area to turn out a million pounds per month—all in spite of being opposed by environmental advocates and the FDA. Is this improbable not-meat really necessary?
Impossible Foods founder, Stanford geneticist and vegetarian Patrick Brown, thinks so. He has been plotting ways to remove animals, and their intense environmental footprint, from the food system since 2009. He launched Redwood City-based Impossible Foods in 2011 and the burger debuted in 2016. Today, they are sold NY, CA, TX and the midwest.
Brown claims their impossible products are “scalable, sustainable and safe.” He’s got big deal backers like Bill Gates and Khosla Ventures. It seems he has honorable intentions. His stated goals include protecting rainforests and “feed the population in 2050” and “do it in a way that does not destroy the planet.” He’s also got lots of patents.
What makes the burgers so unlikely? Technologists at Impossible are re-organizing molecular components found in nature to mimic the meat experience with non-meat foods. Celeste Holz-Schietinger, Principal Scientist at Impossible Foods, claims, “a cow is created from the plants. It just does it in a really inefficient way.”
In food terms, the Impossible Burger is made of highly-processed vegetarian ingredients and bio-engineered vegetable blood. Wheat protein, potato protein, and natural konjac and xanthan gums give structure and texture. Coconut provides fat, and amino acids, sugar and vitamins—extracted or fermented from plants—the beef nutrients and flavor.
The “special sauce” in this burger is heme. Think hemoglobin, the molecule in human blood that binds iron and carries oxygen. Impossible harvests deep red soy root nodules packed with heme comparable to the heme molecules in a cow, steak, or your blood.
It’s heme, Impossible claims, that creates the distinctive flavor of meat—metallic tasting when raw, and caramelized and “meaty” when cooked. Umami, if you will. “You cannot make meat that delivers what meat lovers want without heme,” insists Brown. It also makes the non-meat blood red.
The recipe seems simple, but heme has some issues. The FDA, which oversees food additives, has never seen plant heme as an ingredient before (and never will from anyone other than Impossible, as they hold the patent), so it can’t just approve it. Instead, a loophole lets internal research from Impossible itself prove safety. A FOIA request revealed that Impossible doesn’t even know all the constituents of the heme they use as an ingredient, including 46 unidentified and un-assessed proteins. Whether heme should be eaten at all remains unclear.
Safe or not, food purists may be disturbed by the way Impossible sources this plant-based heme. To be clear, it is not tending fields of organic soy, gently releasing natural plant heme into mortars and massaging it into a fine powder. This is biotech. Impossible uses genetic modification to mass-produce the heme by transplanting DNA from a soy heme molecule into yeast, engineering it to reproduce as much of the heme protein as they need. This might be what old-time food natural foods advocates called “frankenfood”.
Pat Brown mumbles over answers when questioned about food safety, the FDA isn’t sure about it and environmental advocates, the ETC Group and Friends of the Earth, are crying foul, concerned about Impossible’s use of GMO ingredients while co-opting a pro-nature message. They point to Beyond Burger as a better choice than Impossible’s high-tech non-meat. But the start-up is forging ahead, disruption-style, whether it’s got a government okay or not. They need growth to make the business pay off and keep investors interested.
Still, I’m open to trying one, hoping to be blown away by the science of it. Could they really do the impossible?
I order an Impossible at Bareburger in NY and take a bite. Make no mistake, this does not taste like meat—certainly not fresh meat. I can’t see how it could be a better pick than the hippie crunchy–style veggie burger packed with quinoa, carrots and raisins, also on the menu. More than that, it just feels…unnatural.
I wonder: Who is this really for? Not meat lovers. Not vegetarians. Maybe righteous, yet secretly-meat-loving, vegetarians? Are we curious burger eaters a giant test market for products 30 years in the future when everyone takes the environment seriously, or doesn’t have a choice?
Impossible has more prototypes in the works and they don’t plan to stop at beef, insisting they have “the ability to make things as delicious … more delicious … as anything ever made”
Ouch. Sounds like a slap in the face to Mother Nature, who Impossible claims to revere.
There was a great margarine ad in the 1970s with the tagline, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.” It’s still not. And those “burgers” don’t fool me. Hoping to get me to eat another? Impossible.