Smug omnivores often remark that vegan and vegetarian meat substitutes are no replacement for the real deal. They're too chewy or too processed, too dry or too slimy. And, they say, they'll never achieve the carnal factor that can only be experienced by chomping into a juicy cheeseburger, or a gloriously rare steak.
But the next generation of veggie burgers has arrived. And they're bloody.
A Silicon Valley-based start-up called Impossible Foods, founded by Stanford biologist and former professor Patrick Brown, is reexamining the standard approach to creating plant-based analogs for meat and cheese. Its mission, as described on its website, is "to give people the great taste and nutritional benefits of foods that come from animals without the negative health and environmental impact." What separates the start-up from many of the other companies currently producing these types of products—such as Tofurky, Gardein, Daiya, Morningstar Farms, and Boca—is its determination to perfectly replicate the meat- and cheese-eating experience, down to the (slightly gory) details, and to do so through high-tech means.
The objective would be for everyone, not just vegans, to be more accepting and interested in reducing their meat intake—in this case, for environmental reasons. In the modern era, and with an ever-rising global population, raising livestock is looking less and less like a realistic means of keeping people fed without worsening the catastrophic environmental damage that has only sunk in as a reality—and an emergency—in recent years. Brown warns the Wall Street Journal, "The system that we use today to produce meat and cheese is completely unsustainable."
In this case, the manifestation of that goal is Impossible Foods' success in creating plant-based burgers that truly resemble the real deal. And in order to trick the naked eye and the discerning tongue, Brown has devised a means to replicate the pink interior and bleeding effect of your typical diner burger, without a single fire of a bolt gun to a cow's head.
The murder-free blood was achieved by isolating a molecule found in hemoglobin that is responsible for the iron-y, "beefy" taste that we have come to associate with steak or hamburger meat. Brown and his team also had to isolate the origins of many of the more minute notes found in meat flavor, not unlike the individual brush strokes or pixels that combine to form an image at a distance, and simultaneously recreate the "brownability" factor and the textures of muscle, fat, and tissue that connote meatiness. Doing so required essentially starting from scratch; although seitan- and soy-based meat substitutes are certainly popular—and increasingly so—they still haven't convinced the macho men at the sports bar to give veggie burgers a second glance.
Although Impossible's burger isn't yet commercially available (and likely won't be until the end of next year, due to production costs and recipe tweaking), early tasters at WSJ remark that it's "arguably several rungs below a gourmet burger, and more akin to a turkey patty."
Food tech is taking on new meaning in Silicon Valley, as other companies such as Hampton Creek and Beyond Meat have gained market footholds with their lines of egg-free mayo and very chicken-y looking faux-chicken products, respectively. (Bill Gates was an investor in both, and was also a contributor to the approximately $75 million in venture capital raised for Impossible Foods.) In vitro meat, wherein meat is grown in labs from stem cells, has also come in and out of conversation countless times over the past decade, with researchers successfully producing it, declaring "It's here!" It has not, however, managed to make its way to consumers, primarily because it has been astronomically expensive to produce.
Regardless, much has changed in the way of the vegan food industry; its bigwigs are no longer business-minded hippies or health gurus, but lab-dwelling scientists and tech moguls.