Where’s the Beef?
Plant-Based Burger a Big Win for Manufacturing
The totally plant-derived Impossible Burger is closer to its beef brethren than standard veggie fare. And this manufacturing
innovation could have a huge impact for our largest factory: planet Earth.
by John Hitch
It’s an unsettling feeling going into one of Cleveland’s most popular burger joints, B Spot, run by celebrity chef Michael Symon (author of the “Carnivore” cookbook), with the intention of eating a veggie burger.
But people make compromises for work all the time, and
I had a story to write. I’d read about some Silicon Valley
startup called Impossible Foods that alleges it is absolutely
possible to make a delicious, fatty, blood-dripping burger out
of plant-based materials—a bona fde bovine stand-in that’s
exponentially more sustainable to manufacture. They call it
the Impossible Burger, a daring name for a veggie burger in
a country that the USDA says consumed 25 billion pounds
of beef in 2016.
And aside from curiosity, that’s the reason I thought we
should taste-test it. Our mission is to seek out all the most
innovative and effcient equipment and methodologies to
improve plants and factories. Impossible Foods says that
the high tech processing of their grown-in-the-ground beef
(derived chiefy from coconut oil, potato, wheat, and soy)
requires “about 75% less water, generates about 87% fewer
greenhouse gases, and requires around 95% less land than
conventional ground beef from cows.” If true, we dare say
that’s impossibly effcient.
You’d be ecstatic if we told you about a storage unit that
could save your factory 5% foor space. Earth is essentially
one giant food factory, and 30% of the planet’s ice-free land
is used to grow the food, from grains to veggies, for our food
(chicken, pigs, and cattle). If this burger comes close enough
to satisfy the general public, that frees up vast swaths of
land to grow sustenance for the 11% of the world’s popula-
tion (795 million) that doesn’t get enough food for normal
activity. And less cattle means fewer greenhouse emissions.
The methane they emit is 30 times more harmful to the
atmosphere than CO2.
But it’s a fool’s errand to appeal to a person’s heart or mind
when you can go straight to the stomach.
Obviously, it already has one carnivorous convert, as Symon
decided to put it on B Spot’s menu.
“In 10 years of eating non-meat burgers I’ve never expe-
rienced anything like this,” Symon told a local news outlet.
“This is a total game-changer.”
Two things to note about the NED staff: We love game-chang-
ers, and we love expensing meals.
Also, I wanted to throw a meatless bone to our editor and
hopeless herbivore, Travis Hessman. I gently rib him all the
time about his protein-defcient proclivities, and sometimes
not so gently, like when I inadvertently suggested a lunch
meeting at Symon’s exquisite Mabel’s BBQ. Our guest and I
loved every bite, while Travis settled for a limp bucket of green
beans. This would be a make-good for that.
I also genuinely wanted his opinion for once. There are
about 7. 3 million vegetarians in America, and while Impossible
Foods constructed this patty’s consistency and taste to appeal
to meat-lovers, vegetarians, and even vegans, could partake.
We also brought along Laura Davis, our product writer, for
a third opinion.
When our server arrived, I thought he may scoff at us for
going green, because I know I would. Instead, he just jotted
down the order and asked what temperature we wanted,
just like you’d expect when ordering a “real” burger. When
it came out about 10 minutes later, if I hadn’t known what
it was made of, I would have assumed it was beef. The
outside of the medium-cooked burger was seared to a dark
brown, and it had a lustrous, greasy sheen, too. After a quick
bifurcation, I discovered the pinkish interior also appeared
nearly beef-like. Ground beef has that wormy texture from
being pressed through a grinder; this seemed more clumped
together. And the reddish juice seeping from its pores was
an ersatz blood, I suppose.
Biting down, my mouth did not fall into some uncanny valley
of favor, where it’s close but not enough to the real thing to
embrace. It wasn’t the original, that’s for sure, but it was
actually pleasantly surprising how close it was, like hearing
Billy Joel live nowadays.
How the heck did they do this?
Impossible Foods says the secret is heme—the iron-con-taining molecule that carries oxygen throughout the body,
and is also found in plants.
“The craving for meat is really the craving for heme,” IF
founder and CEO Pat Brown says.
The scientists at Impossible Foods synthesized soy DNA
and inserted it into yeast cultures to grow the heme in the lab.
To get the right formula, it took years of tinkering, along
with process equipment including mass spectrometers and
gas chromatograms to understand favor of beef.
They have patented the process which creates the different
texture and favor profles, and are always working on getting
the right taste and tensile strength to reproduce chicken, lamb,
pork, and theoretically, even whale (which is quite rubbery).
“Through the years we have made some untasty experimental samples, some untasty to all, other samples depending on