This story was originally published November 17, 2017. It has been updated to reflect the latest FDA determination that government safety questions have been answered.
Few things have as big an impact on our environment as the food we eat. Agriculture accounts for one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions. And beef production, in particular, uses copious amounts of water, when compared with other foods. So, some environmentally conscious meat lovers have been working in the lab, to create a vegan burger that bleeds like beef, without all the downsides.
They’re serving these so-called Impossible Burgers at select restaurants around the country, so we went to check it out at a Pittsburgh burger place, Burgatory, at the Waterfront.
Allegheny Front show host Kara Holsopple eats vegan, and makes homemade bean and veggie burgers. But the Impossible burger is supposed really taste like meat. “I’m excited,” she said as we sat down at the table, and turned to Hal B. Klein, a restaurant critic and editor at Pittsburgh Magazine. He wrote an article this summer entitled ‘Burgers, burgers, burgers,’ “I probably ate 45 burgers researching the story,” he told us. Hal really knows what he likes in a burger.
LISTEN: “Would This Bleeding Veggie Burger Get You to Skip the Meat?”
After ordering, Burgatory Chef Brad Kohut let me peek into the kitchen. While beef burgers go on the open fire grill, Impossible burgers sizzle on the flat top, “Just like a regular burger, when you put it on, the patty looked kind of dry, but as we’re cooking it now, you can see that heme, that blood, the fat coming out,” he said.
Heme is Impossible’s key ingredient, and the reason why this vegan burger debuted not in the freezer aisle, but at New York’s well known Momofuku Nishi restaurant. It’s also why the company behind it, Silicon Valley’s Impossible Foods, has garnered a reported $300 million dollars in investments from the likes of Bill Gates and Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz.
So, what is heme? The company didn’t respond to an interview request. Their website explains that it was invented by company founder Pat Brown, who left his position as a biochemistry professor at Stanford University to create a burger that would convince more carnivores to eat vegetarian.
In a video, the company shows heme as a red-colored liquid, not unlike blood, and explains that red meat contains large amounts of heme, as do plants. Impossible Foods uses genetic engineering to take a protein gene, called leghemoglobin, from the root of a soy plant, and add it to a yeast strain. They grow the yeast through fermentation, then isolate the heme and add it to their burgers.
WATCH: The Making of Impossible Burger
“That turns out to be one, their big claim to fame, and two, their big Achilles heel,” according to Carl Batt, a professor at Cornell’s Department of Food Science.
He says heme has been a problem, because until Impossible Foods created their burgers, it had never been tested for safety. The Food and Drug Administration did not initially recognize soy leghemoglobin as safe. But after testing by the company, the agency said its questions about heme’s safety had been answered.
And now Impossible Foods is producing burgers for restaurants and fast food chains. The company’s video claims eating one of their burgers is better than a beef patty.”
It’s not that the FDA said leghemoglobin was unsafe, but that it needed more review. Companies determine safety on their own. They’re not even required to inform the agency.
Impossible Foods has said their burger is lab-tested and safe to eat.
And now it’s scaling up to produce a million pounds per month. The company’s video claims eating one of their burgers is better than a beef patty.
“You save the water equivalent to a ten minute shower, you spare 18 driving miles worth of greenhouse gases, and you save 75 square feet for wildlife and more,” according to the Impossible Foods video.
A rival meat-like veggie burger, called Beyond Meat, makes similar claims. It gets its blood-like qualities from beets, and is already being sold in the meat aisle of supermarkets. Last year Tyson foods, America’s biggest meat processor, invested in Beyond Meat. Meanwhile, Cargill is putting its money into Memphis Meats, a company that’s growing actual chicken meat, without involving live birds.
But the question for these high-tech food companies — and for us at lunch at Burgatory: Would people actually choose this over cow meat protein?
Once our Impossible Burgers are served, we got to decide for ourselves. More than the blood-like juiciness, “I actually think the part that tastes best are the parts at the edge that are kind of crispy. That’s where I get the most meaty feeling from it, actually,” Hal Klein said.
Kara Holsopple noticed a little pink the middle, but not much of the so-called blood. “I thought I might be a little grossed out by the fact that it’s supposed to be naturalistic, and taste like meat,” she said. “But I’m not. If you’re a vegetarian looking for comfort food, I think this definitely does the job.”
“It doesn’t quite replace a hamburger for me. But if it’s one of those things where I want that hamburger experience, but I don’t want to feel weighed down…It really does make a difference between anything else I’ve tried that’s like a hamburger substitute then this,” Hal said.
We also asked Chef Kohut if he thought the Impossible Burger would fool anyone into thinking it was actually meat. “It will definitely fool people, but there’s a lot of foolish people out there,” he said with a laugh.
This story was named Best Feature at the 54th Golden Quill Awards presented by the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania on May 24, 2018.