The Evolution In Non Animal Sourced “Meat” – The Impossible Possible Burger

image of the plant based ground beef alternative, "Impossible Burger" being grilled medium rare

by Richard Cameron


 

We all recognize that changes in agriculture and food production are advancing at a rapid pace. Some of the changes are controversial for a variety of reasons. The Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) debate has not abated and some of the most egregious behavior of multi-national ‘Big Ag’ corporations have tainted scientific advances. Despite that, more changes are coming in your diet. 

The subject of this report, is one that my family has been examining from a practical standpoint for the past 5 years or so. We began adopting “meatless Mondays”, but then shifted our thinking to a more general approach of less meat consumption overall, on a meal to meal basis.

Our reasons have less to do with a belief that animal farming impacts the climate (a claim that I find, remains dubious and unfounded), than it does with the growing perception and reality that factory farming often involves cruelty to the animals that are being ‘harvested’ (the dainty euphemism food producers have incorporated to replace the negative connotations of ‘slaughtering’).  

One menu item we’ve been examining from a number of angles are meatless alternatives to ground beef – particularly hamburger substitutes.

Plant Based ‘Burgers’

Over the course of the last several years, the attempts at producing such an item have ranged, in our estimation, from dreadful (for vegans and vegetarians only) to remarkably impressive – worthwhile meal options in their own right. Some render an initial impression that under the right circumstance if the vegan patty is assembled into the standard hamburger ensemble – bun, lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, condiments, etc., can present quite a credible illusion of authenticity.

One such burger substitute – the best of the lot, had me hornswoggled – the LightLife “Backyard Grillin’ Burgers – now called by the producer, “Smart Patties”. Some versions are made with Quinoa, some with Tempeh and others with Black Bean as the central ingredients. Before you lose your Tempeh, let me briefly note what Tempeh is. It’s something that Indonesians are very familiar with – a particular processed Soy derived product resulting from culturing and fermentation, that can be used as the basis for a wide variety of dishes, and in this case, a clever beef surrogate.

Leadbelly - a bar and grill in the Lincoln, Nebraska downtown Haymarket District
Leadbelly – a bar and grill in the Lincoln, Nebraska downtown Haymarket District

Good meatless burgers can be found at many restaurants that might be thought of as trendy or ‘hipster’, but still not mainstream yet.  

We had an outstanding beefless burger at a downtown restaurant in America’s heartland – Lincoln, Nebraska, where Leadbelly in the Haymarket District, serves a  burger called a “Raspberry Beret”.  

It features Raspberry Jalapeno Jam and can be ordered with either the standard grass fed beef patty, the “Garden Belly” patty to which I refer or a grilled Portabello mushroom as a third option – but mushrooms are tangential to the topic here.

The best of the vegetable based burger substitutes are terrific, but they are, to one degree or another, a taste compromise.  If they fool you into thinking you’re eating meat, it’s more that you are willing to suspend your disbelief and your most discerning sense of taste perception – especially since the meatless burger patties really only resemble extremely low fat content ground beef, cooked well done. 

But now that’s all changed with a new dimension in non-animal based ground beef substitutes; something that will replicate the juiciness of a rare to medium rare ground beef hamburger.

Mission Impossible Burger

Enter the “Impossible Burger” from Impossible Foods – a brave new world food producer, led by Dr. Patrick Brown, a Stanford geneticist in Redwood City, California – where else?  If you are going to replicate the ground beef experience with animal proteins, the first stage of the quest, is to identify just what it is that produces that experience.

It’s more than just the taste buds, because your sense of smell is an integral part of the perception of taste. Sensory neurons in the nose are linked to the olfactory bulbs in the frontal lobe of your brain, which sends signals to your taste buds.

You know that perception of odors are involved because when you step outside and smell smoke, your brain either catalogs the smoke as from a chimney, a fire or a barbecue. To discover what accounts for the distinctive nature of a ground beef patty, scientists at Impossible Foods used gas chromatography mass spectrometry to analyze a sample of odors from a cooked piece of ground beef. The sample chosen? Garden variety ground chuck – Safeway supermarket’s 80/20 (80 percent beef / 20 percent fat) product – which sadly, even high-falutin’ Kobe beef does not distinguish itself from, at least in terms of taste perception.

Leghemoglobin

They learned that the primary characteristic of taste and smell of ground beef is accountable to a protein within the family of proteins called heme globins (iron containing molecules) – specifically one known as Leghemoglobin.

Remarkably, Leghemoglobins are present in soy roots.  Impossible Foods claims that “the heme molecule in plant-based heme is atom-for-atom identical to the heme molecule found in meat.”

photo of uncooked "Impossible Burger" patties
Uncooked “Impossible Burger” patties

Eureka! – a non-animal source of animal like protein has been discovered. Problem solved, right? Not exactly. 

In order to make burgers from this source of soy protien, a lot of soybeans would be required.  A mere kilo of leghemoglobin would require an acre of soybeans. Inefficient. But there is a hack for that.

Leghemoglobin genes are introduced to a particular yeast known as Pichia Pastoris and grow it with infusions of sugars and minerals.

The result is plant based ‘meat’, $80 million in food R&D and 5 years later, which according to Impossible Foods, requires only 1/20th of the crop footprint typically needed to raise grass fed beef and only ¼ of the required water.

The other components of the Impossible Burger are pretty commonplace – wheat protein, coconut oil and potato protein and the burger is hormone and antibiotic free, plus zero cholesterol. The wheat and potato proteins are stand ins for the muscle tissue of a cow and the soy and gluten proteins are stunt doubles for the connective tissue, while the coconut oil simulates the juicy characteristic of fat. 

the heme fermentation lab at Impossible Foods' production facility in Redwood City, California where the Impossible Burger is produced
the heme fermentation lab at Impossible Foods’ production facility in Redwood City, California

There is one factor here that gives would be consumers pause with regard to this innovation. That is the question of the process employed to arrive at the product – genetic modification.  

It must be noted that comparing this breakthrough to something like Monsanto’s ‘Roundup Ready’ corn seeds, would be improper.

In the case of Monsanto, the fundamental result is a genetically altered crop. The Leghemoglobin product Impossible Foods created is consequential to the yeast compound, not altered DNA of the soy root.  

It’s a result of a fermented culture, making the process more akin to the production of a craft beer.

Of course, this is not to say that Impossible Foods does not have skeptics. Although the FDA has classified the Impossible Burger as GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) based on a study conducted by the University of Nebraska, University of Wisconsin and Virginia Commonwealth University; environmentalists are still not satisfied. 

“The concern is that these biotech start-ups and these new companies using genetically engineered applications are rushing products to market inspired by investment and not public safety,” said Dana Perls, a senior policy analyst at Friends of the Earth.

Despite the pushback, Impossible Foods marches forward, opting to establish the burger in restaurants before marketing them to grocery chains.

How close to reality is it?

What does it taste like?  I can’t tell you, but food critics are divided. Eleanor Kelly, writing in Spoon University, sums up her reaction:

“The first bite was both exciting and also extremely confusing. This definitely felt like a burger, the texture was right and was nowhere near the veggie burgers that had let me down in the past. The only problem was that it didn’t necessarily taste like a burger.”

NPR’s Lindsey Hoshaw disagrees, describing her experience:

“The taste is unreal. When I tried a mini burger slathered in vegan mayo, mashed avocado, caramelized onions and Dijon prepared by San Francisco chef Traci Des Jardin at the company’s headquarters in Redwood City, I was floored. The flavor was slightly less potent than meat, but if I didn’t already know this burger was made from plants, I wouldn’t have guessed it. The texture as I chewed was just like ground beef.”

Linette Lopez of Business Insider occupies the middle ground:

“The Impossible Burger has a meaty taste. It doesn’t necessarily taste like a cow’s meat, though. It’s more like a reminder that cows exist somewhere out there. This thing you have in your hands, however, is very, very good. As far as you can remember, cows can taste better, but they’ve also tasted worse.”

The target consumer for such as the Impossible Burger or Los Angeles based “Beyond Burger” – another entrant in the non beef burger sweepstakes; are not vegans or die-hard animal meat enthusiasts.  It is instead, people like myself, who are looking to reduce consumption of animal meat and to balance our diet with palatable alternative proteins.

You won’t be seeing these at chains like Chili’s or Applebees for another year or two and Impossible Burgers won’t be showing up in the supermarket for a while either.  Impossible Foods is taking a measured approach to marketing this new food category and its production capacity must be expanded dramatically. But is is a trend that is unstoppable and beefless burgers are headed for the mainstream. Wait for it.  

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