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Balking at Meatless Mondays? There are Some Impossible Solutions Afoot

The latest fake meat to hit the market is pretty close to the real deal, but there’s a rub

I’ve been mostly vegetarian for more than 12 years now, eating meat perhaps four or five times a year and seafood way more often than I should. But like many a former regular meat-eater, despite moral qualms, I still miss the taste of it. I’ve chomped my way through many a meat substitute — soy-based, seitan-based, mushroom-based, and more — but nothing has quite matched in flavor. So when I heard about the Impossible Burger — supposedly a genuinely meaty-tasting vegetarian patty made for carnivores — my interest was piqued.

Impossible burger at Umami restaurant in OaklandPhoto by Maureen Nandini MitraThe Impossible Burger with all the fixings at Umami Burger in Oakland, California. The fake meat patty, created by a biotech startup, comes close to its creator’s hope of making a plant based burger that’s “a carnivore’s dream.”

The lab-made, plant-based patty, developed by a Silicon Valley based company called Impossible Foods, has been receiving rave reviews that say it tastes, smells, and even “bleeds” like its made of ground beef. The company spent five years researching what flavors, textures, and aromas make meat unique, and then, according its website, set out to do the impossible — “find precisely the right ingredients from the plant kingdom to recreate the experience meat lovers crave.”

The patty hasn’t reached supermarket shelves yet — which its creators say is the ultimate goal — but is available at select restaurants across the country. “Proof of the pudding” and all, I decided a taste test was warranted. So I dragged some colleagues — including a recent convert to vegetarianism and a vegan — to Umami Burger in Oakland for a sample.

The burger, priced rather steeply at $16, arrived wedged between a soft bun, dressed with lettuce, caramelized onions, slices of American cheese (why oh why?) and tomato and miso mustard house spread. Size-wise, it was smaller than I expected. The Impossible patty did look pink and meaty, but seemed to be a wee soggier.

It tasted good enough, and certainly meaty enough, though a tad softer, as the first look indicated it might. But, for me, the tasting experience was marred by the fixings, which comprised a blend of flavors that didn’t seem to complement each other all that well. I actually liked the Portobello mushroom burger we had also ordered much better. But my vegan colleague took one bite of the Impossible Burger and proclaimed it “delicious.”

“It kind of grosses me out that it bleeds, because it looks so real,” she said. “I gave up meat when I was a teenager, and I won’t lie, I missed it. If I had had something like this back then, the transition would have been much easier…. This is going to be a game-changer!”

The recently turned vegetarian colleague murmured that she was left “speechless” by the burger. “It even has the crisp edges that a real meat patty does when grilled,” she enthused.

Clearly, fussy-about-fixings people aside, this fake meat patty has come pretty close to its creator’s hope of making a plant based burger that’s “a carnivore’s dream” and apparently takes way less resources to produce as well.

“Compared to cows, the Impossible Burger uses 95 percent less land, 74 percent less water, and creates 87 percent less greenhouse gas emissions,” the company website states. “It isn’t that our process is so brilliant or efficient,” Impossible Foods CEO Patrick O. Brown explained to Pacific Standard in 2016, “it’s that when you’re competing against cows, you’d have to be deliberately trying to fail to be as bad as they are.”

Santa Rita MountainsPhoto courtesy of Impossible Foods Impossible Foods staff show off the patties, which are vegan but contain one key genetically engineered ingredient.

Brown, a former Stanford University biochemistry professor and long-time vegan, believes industrial meat production, especially beef production, is one of the world’s largest environmental problems — hence his effort to re-create meat with plants. The Impossible Burger is just a starting point for him, chosen because ground meat accounts for most of the world’s beef consumption.

The burger patties we tried in Oakland were made mostly of wheat protein, coconut oil, potato protein, and the so-called “magic ingredient” that gave them the characteristic of taste and aroma of meat — an iron-rich compound called “heme.” Heme is found in a protein called hemoglobin in blood and myoglobin in muscle. It is the high content of heme in blood and muscle cells that gives red meat its hard-to-replicate meaty flavor. Heme is present in the roots of some legumes like soy as well (in a protein called leghemoglobin), though in much lower quantities.

Now, here comes the sticking point: instead of sourcing heme from legumes, the Biotech startup resorted to some genetic engineering, pulling the DNA code for leghemoglobin, inserting into a yeast strain, and producing heme via fermentation, “similar,” it says, “to the method that’s been used to make Belgian beer for nearly a thousand years.” (Yeasts are routinely used in biotech to create everything from synthetic proteins to alcohol.) This, they reasoned, was a less carbon intensive way of sourcing heme than extracting it directly from acres and acres of field-grown soy roots.

Impossible Foods says the its transgenic soy-based heme is tested and safe to use, but the Food and Drug Administration isn’t convinced. The agency expressed concern in 2015 that the information the company had provided addressing safe use of the modified protein was not adequate.

As with many other processed foods that we find in supermarkets, the company doesn’t actually need the FDA’s permission to put its product on the shelves (a public health issue that requires another article to report out). The FDA’s safety designation of “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) allows a manufacturer to decide for itself, without FDA input, whether or not a product is safe. The self-determination does not require notice to the public or the FDA.

So it has come to pass that the Impossible Burger is out there at restaurants for us to try — with no notice, either on the company website or on restaurant menus, that it’s key ingredient is genetically engineered. And that’s ticking off some environmentalists who want it taken off the market until the USDA’s safety concerns are addressed.

“The case of Impossible Burger raises concerns that surpass this one patty and implicates the extreme genetic engineering field of synthetic biology, particularly the new high-tech investor trend of "vat-itarian" foods (meat, dairy, and other animal proteins grown in a biotech vat instead of from an animal),” the ETC Group said in a report last August. “Just as biofuels were pitched as a 'clean tech' fix to climate change a decade ago, the vat-itarian venture capitalists are now attempting to capitalize on animal welfare concerns through 'molecular farming,'” the report said. (ETC, along with Friends of the Earth, exposed the communications between the FDA and Impossible Foods in which the FDA cited its concerns through a Freedom of Information request.)

Now the thing is, while I knew that the Impossible Burger had some transgenic ingredient in it, I didn’t drill down into the details until after I’d scarfed down the burger. Later on, I wondered why that was, given I am generally a bit cautious about consuming genetically modified foods.

“You raise a good point,” said my vegan colleague, when I posed the question to my burger buddies. “When I first heard about this burger, I swore I'd never eat it because of that type of concern. But part of the problem for me is that I don't understand GMO issues well at all. They've always seemed a bit abstract to me…. I guess, though, my curiosity got the better of me. To see it on the menu and presented on a plate normalized it, too. And now that I've tried it, I would probably eat it again just because it tastes good. And we all eat plenty of tasty stuff that we know we shouldn't.” 

The recently-turned vegetarian said it was the idea of a “guilt-free” burger that drew her in.

“Unfortunately, getting to know exactly where my food comes from is still a great challenge for me,” she wrote in an email. “For the average person, taking the time to get to know what your body's individual nutrition needs are, and reconciling that with whether or not a food meets a certain ethical stance, while also investigating where you food actually comes from, can feel overwhelming.  There are so many pieces that we have to think about. So, at the end of the day, if I hear about a food that meets at least half of my current nutrition needs and goals, I'm happy to give it a try.”

I guess I was right there with my colleagues — ready to taste a controversial fake meat simply because it sounded too good to be true. Would I try it again? Probably. But with different fixings.

Maureen Nandini Mitra, Editor, Earth Island Journal.Maureen Nandini Mitra photo
In addition to her work at the Journal, Maureen writes for several other magazines and online publications in the US and India. A journalism graduate from Columbia University, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Public Press, The New Internationalist, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, The Caravan and Down to Earth.

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