The Impossible Quest for a Vegan Burger in a Doublemeat-Lovin’ World

37958191475_71ec69030d_o (1)
Impossible burger by T.Tseng via Flickr.

A plant-based burger that has the taste and texture of a real burger. These “meats” could help reduce our meat intake, benefiting both our health and the environment. But most veggie burgers lack the fatty flavor of meat. They’re too spongy, dry, grainy—actually, there aren’t enough adjectives to describe the many ways it just doesn’t taste like meat.

There are multiple companies trying to make more flavorful and genuine meat substitutes. One company, Impossible Foods, came to the culinary scene by doing what was seemingly impossible: a plant-based burger that bleeds.

All six of the SciMoms have had the opportunity to try the Impossible Burger (we were not paid for this). Restaurants can prepare the burger and set its price as they see fit, so experiences can vary. I tried it at a restaurant in Lansing, Michigan, and it was prepared with white cheddar and crispy onions. Had I not been told that it was a plant based burger, I would have not known. Interestingly, Anastasia, who is the only vegetarian among the SciMoms, didn’t like it as much because the texture was too meatlike. Alison tried the Impossible Burger at a posh restaurant in Vegas, where three different sliders were served with different toppings. When we compared notes, her burger was much “bloodier” than mine. I’d compare the doneness of the burger I had to a burger from In-N’-Out (California folks: calm down. I am only comparing the doneness. I am not committing a sacrilege by comparing the flavor).

What is the Impossible Burger?

The Impossible Burger is currently available only in restaurants. Half of beef sold in the US is in the form of ground beef, and half of all ground meat is sold in restaurants, so they are not lacking a market for their products. Recently, the company announced that they would expand into Asian markets this year.

Dr Rachel Fraser, Director of Research at Impossible Foods.
Dr Rachel Fraser, Director of Research at Impossible Foods.

Recently I met with Dr. Rachel Fraser, the head of Research at Impossible Foods located in the San Francisco Bay Area. Dr. Fraser has been working at Impossible Foods for six years, where she began working straight after finishing her PhD at UC Berkeley. She has a toddler who is also a fan of the Impossible Burger. So she’s a SciMom too!

The company’s driving force is the production of sustainable, animal-free products for a wide audience. Not just vegans or vegetarians, but for the rest of us carnivores, too. To “convert” meat-eaters, the company was aware that the sensory experience associated with eating meat was of great importance. It’s not just the flavor, but the moisture, aroma, and texture of meat that we carnivores enjoy.

The ingredients in the patty itself are textured wheat protein, coconut oil, and potato protein. The remaining ingredients bind the burger together and give it its flavor. And then there’s the “blood,” brought to us by the company’s not-so-secret ingredient: leghemoglobin.

How does it bleed?

Three Impossible burger sliders on a wooden serving tray.
The Impossible burger sliders Alison tried in Vegas.

Much of Impossible Burger’s research lies in identifying plant-based heme proteins, known as leghemoglobin. We know myoglobin to be one of the iron-carrying proteins that transport oxygen in muscle tissues. Plants that fix nitrogen and legumes have a similar protein in their roots, which is where the name leghemoglobin comes from. Impossible Foods found that soy leghemoglobin had many of the same biochemical properties as beef myoglobin, so it could give plant-based patties much of the flavor that lies in a beef burger. However, they found that extracting heme from plants wasn’t commercially scalable or sustainable. They decided instead to engineer microbes to produce leghemoglobin for sustainable production at a commercial scale.

The company has been very transparent about their use of engineered microbes. In our conversation, Dr. Fraser stressed that the decision to use microbes was grounded in sustainability: given the choice between growing tons of soy to extract a single protein vs growing the protein efficiently and safely within yeast, the benefits of an engineered system become very clear. In my own observations of anti-GMO groups, the backlash against the Impossible Burger has been very low: only the most ardent anti-GMO activists oppose this burger, because of the burger’s benefits and the company’s lack of affiliation with “Big Ag.”

To ensure that their products meet the mark, they have panels of testers (or tasters, if you will) to give them feedback on their products. They work with chefs, foodies, and average consumers to really try to understand their experience and perception, and how the company can do better.

The company claims that “the Impossible Burger uses 95% less land, 74% less water, and creates 87% less greenhouse gas emissions” compared to beef. This is based on a life cycle assessment done by their sustainability department. It’s data they use to continue to seek ways to be more sustainable. However, as I’ve written before, there’s a lot of variability in the calculation of environmental impact of beef. Even though specific estimates of the environmental impact of meat vary widely, there is no doubt that the environmental impact of plant-based foods like the Impossible Burger is lower than that of beef.

What’s next?

I was curious as to Impossible Foods’ next big project. Dr. Fraser assured me that they consider anything and everything that relies on animal agriculture to be fair game. From an R&D perspective, they think about the different features of each product and what they need to discover in the lab in order to achieve an equivalent experience. For example, think about what would it take to go from a ground beef product to a steak product. Steak has a distinct mouthfeel; it has a very different structure than ground beef. Their research team would need to find different proteins in the plant world that recapitulate those long molecules to make a “whole cut” of meat.

In addition to texture, the company has determined that heme plays a big role in driving flavors in chicken, pork, fish, and any other beef categories, and are excited about a “nice fish flavor” that they have identified. Additionally, they’re trying to understand at a molecular level what components contribute to driving the flavor from fat in mammalian meat, so that they can recreate that flavor with individual plant-based components.

The Impossible Case for GMOs

Genetic engineering is one of many tools that scientists and agronomists have at their disposal to introduce new traits or characteristics into different organisms, including crops. “GMO” or transgenesis is a technique used to make a wide variety of products that are vastly different from one another (to learn more about the science, regulations, and safety of GMOs, please see our introductory post to this topic). Yet genetic engineering as a whole has been blamed for a slew of agricultural issues that are actually much broader in scope than one breeding technique.

The engineering of heme into microbes highlights how genetic engineering techniques can be used to create a more sustainable and efficient food source. We can add Impossible Burger’s leghemoglobin to the growing list of sustainable genetically engineered crops, a list that includes the non-browning Arctic Apple and Innate Potato. The Impossible Burger as well as the Arctic Apple and Innate Potato are designed to reduce our environmental footprint: the former by reducing our meat intake and the latter by reducing our food waste.

Featured image of a hamburger at the Galaxy Diner by Mark Cameron via Flickr.