Scientists have created a vegan burger that bleeds like beef. It’s called the Impossible Burger and its creators argue it’s better for the planet. But there are some questions about the substance the company uses.
What's in it?
This is one of the best work days. I’m at Burgatory, a high-end burger place, in Pittsburgh, to try the Impossible Burger.
I follow Chef Brad Kohut to the kitchen. He pulls out a stack of regular looking patties, and peels one off. Meat burgers go on the open fire grill, and Impossible Burgers sizzle on the flat top.
“Just like a regular burger, 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 says.
That heme Chef Kohut mentioned, the blood-like juice that seeps out as it cooks, is the key 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 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.
A video on the company's website explains the burger's origins.
“Invented by a pretty cool scientist, named Pat Brown.”
Brown left his position as a biochemistry professor at Stanford University to develop this plant-based burger with all the properties of meat.
On the video, they mix up wheat and potato flour to give it texture. They crack a coconut; its oil provides the fat. And there’s a small bowl of a blood-like liquid.
“What’s this red stuff?” a kid in the video asks. “That’s heme. It’s the same molecule that carries oxygen in your blood, and makes it red. It’s actually found in every living thing, even 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.
“That turns out to be one, their big claim to fame, and two, their big Achilles' heel,” says Carl Batt. Batt’s a professor at Cornell’s Department of Food Science. He says the Food and Drug Administration did not approve soy leghemoglobin for consumption.
“It turns out the FDA doesn’t consider that to be generally recognized as safe,” he says.
It’s not that the FDA said leghemoglobin was unsafe, but that it needed more review. Companies can 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.”
A taste test
But the question for high tech food companies, and for us at lunch at Burgatory - would people actually choose this over cow meat protein?
Hal B. Klein is a local restaurant critic. He’s here with me to try the burger.
He takes a bite.
“It’s a little bit mushier than a beef burger, and there’s a sort of grain flavor,” describes Klein. “One of the things they kind of bank this on, is that kind of bleeding experience, but 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."
And we put the question to Chef Kohut: would the Impossible Burger fool anyone?
“It will definitely fool people, but there’s a lot of foolish people out there,” he laughs.
Julie Grant is with the environment news program The Allegheny Front.