This Scientist Made A Meatless, Plant-Based Burger That Bleeds


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The “blood” is actually heme, a
iron-based molecule Impossible Foods derives from soy
plants. Jess
Misener / BuzzFeed

ID: 9776159

Six years ago, Dr. Pat Brown was a scientist on sabbatical. The
Stanford University biochemist had built a career out of
studying how genes are expressed in cancer, invented microchips
that dramatically expanded the scale and possibilities of
genetic research, and held prestigious titles such as Howard
Hughes Medical Investigator and National Academy of Sciences
member.

But during his break, Brown decided he wanted to focus his
energy outside academia and tackle what he called “the most
important problem in the world I thought I could have an impact
on”: animal-based food. Brown, a vegan, thought that meat and
dairy placed an undue burden on natural resources from land to
water, and that plant-based alternatives, if done correctly,
could be more sustainable — and, perhaps, equally tasty.

Brown ended up leaving his “dream job” at Stanford for a new
workplace he founded himself in 2011: Impossible Foods, a
130-employee vegan food startup whose first product is the
meatless, meat-like Impossible Burger. After
debuting at David Chang’s Momofuku Nishi in New York City
in July, the company said today that, starting Thursday, the
burger will be on the menu of three upscale California
restaurants: Jardinière and Cockscomb in San Francisco, and
Crossroads Kitchen in Los Angeles.

It’s not a Tofurkey-style, mashed-up–vegetable kind of patty.
Ingredients include water, wheat, coconut oil, soy and potato
proteins, and a proprietary broth of amino acids and sugars.
The key component, which the company says is the subject of
several pending patents, is heme — an iron-containing molecule
that can be extracted from the roots of nitrogen-fixing plants
such as soybeans. (It’s also what makes your blood red, and the
burger pink.)

“Animals are really, if you think about it, just a technology
for transforming plants in meat, fish, and dairy foods,” Brown,
who is Impossible Foods’ CEO and founder, told reporters
recently. “They didn’t evolve for that function and they’re
really not very good at it. We had the opportunity to take a
fresh look at that problem and say, ‘OK, if you were in 2016
trying to come up with the best possible way to make these
foods sustainably, affordably, scalably delicious and optimized
for nutrition and so forth, how would you do it?’ Well, the
last thing you would probably ever think of is ‘let’s just put
plants into animals and kill them and eat them.’”

The goal is not necessarily to appeal to vegetarians, but to
carnivores who like the taste of meat yet, for health or
environmental reasons, are inclined to give up or cut back.
Brown claims that compared to a burger from cows, the
Impossible Burger uses 95% less land and 74% less water, and
emits 87% fewer greenhouse gases. It also lacks antibiotics,
carbohydrates, artificial flavors, and hormones, and derives
its fat from coconut oil, according to the company.

“People around the world love meat, fish, and dairy foods,”
Brown said. “They’re really not going to stop eating them, and
in fact, the demand for those foods has gone through the roof.”

The patties are cranked out at Impossible Foods’ lab, which
reporters were recently invited to tour. Here, white-coated
PhDs spend their days obsessing over the molecules that make up
the texture, flavor, color, and smell of meat. How do you
duplicate the experience of turning a patty red to brown on a
grill? How do you make sure it’s moist and tough, but not too
moist and tough?

For BuzzFeed’s lifelong vegetarian tester, who doesn’t enjoy
the taste of meat and has never eaten a “real” hamburger, the
Impossible burger was viscerally unappetizing. In taste and
texture, the burger’s resemblance to real meat was so strong
that eating it stirred up a weird cognitive dissonance. But
from a carnivore’s perspective, it was very close to the real
thing, dense and chewy, although it was a bit softer and more
prone to fall apart than is usually the case with burgers.

While these questions require complex problem-solving in
molecular biology and biochemistry, the company, which is
headquartered in Silicon Valley (an office park in Redwood
City, to be precise), also has a strong connection to the tech
world. Its $182 million in funding comes from Khosla Ventures,
Bill Gates, and Google Ventures, as well as Hong Kong tycoon Li
Ka-Shing’s Horizons Ventures, UBS, and Viking Global Investors.
Google even tried to buy Impossible Foods for $200 to $300
million,
The Information reported in 2015, but the deal fell
through because the startup wanted more money.

As Impossible Foods tries to take a swing at animal-based
agriculture,
it’s not alone. Other rivals are growing animal cells into
cultured meat to be used in the future for food or clothing.
(Brown said this process, compared to Impossible’s, is much
more difficult and labor-intensive on a big scale.) And Beyond
Meat, a Los Angeles competitor, has a few years’ head start in
selling plant protein–based beef and chicken strips
and ground beef in grocery stores nationwide. This year, it’s
starting to sell its own plant-based Beyond Burger (which has
different ingredients, not including heme) in grocery stores
rather than restaurants. Brown says Impossible Foods is
entering restaurants first in an attempt to introduce the
product to as many people as possible.

Impossible Foods next wants to work on chicken, pork, fish, and
dairy products. One potential challenge for those, and for the
current product, is costs of production, since the company is
still getting off the ground. The burger (with fries or chips)
will be $18 at Jardinière, $20 at Cockscomb, and $14 at
Crossroads Kitchens — prices clearly targeted at an upscale
clientele.

Brown says that while the company profitably sells an
Impossible Burger at a cost equal to that of organic, grass-fed
ground beef right now, it projects that the cost will drop to
or below that of its mass-market equivalent (currently averaging $3.65
a pound nationwide) in two to three years and still be
profitable. But that’s provided that Brown sells as many
burgers as he thinks he can, and increases the manufacturing
process accordingly without sacrificing quality. To scale up,
“there’s no discoveries, inventions, breakthroughs required,”
he said, “just smart engineering required — and money, because
producing any physical substance at a very large scale, to some
degree it’s capital-intensive.”

In the meantime, he’ll be waiting to see if customers bite.

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Dat sizzle though. (The white
chunks are pieces of coconut oil.) Jess
Misener / BuzzFeed

ID: 9776182



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