The aims are indeed noble. According to some statistics, Americans eat 50 billion hamburgers a year, or around three a week for Mr & Mrs J Doe. That’s a lot of meat. Bio-chemist Patrick O Brown and chef David Chang set up Impossible Foods to make a meat free burger that actually had the texture, taste and crucially – bloody juiciness – of a meat burger. And after five years of research and $80million dollars, the ‘impossible burger’ went on sale at Chang’s Chelsea restaurant, Momofuku Nishi on Wed 27 July.
If there’s one thing Millennial New Yorkers love more than the smell of the Mallard reaction on fake-flesh, it’s a new food trend they can instagram the crap out of. Besides, all that chasing Pokemon last week sure has worked up an appetite. The media too, smelled a story and got their token office veggie down there to try it, the verdict being Buzzfeed loved it, the New York Post, not so much.
Of course veggie burgers are nothing new. Gregory Sams is said to have invented the first one (as well as the name) in London in the late 60s (there’s a fascinating history here). Since then we’ve had bean versions, Quorn versions and tofu versions, but it’s taken nearly 50 years to get something that ‘eats’ like a real burger. And that means blood. the Impossible burger is made from plants, fats (specifically coconut oil) and amino acids. The juiciness comes from synthesising heme, which is found in blood (it’s the molecule that carries oxygen), but also some plant species. There’s more on the science behind this on PopSci.com.
Chang and Brown’s reasons for doing this are not so much animal welfare related as environmental. “The greenhouse gas footprint is one-eighth of the same burger from a cow, the water footprint is a quarter, and the land footprint is less than one-twentieth of the land footprint of the same burger” he says. There’s a great in-depth interview with Brown on the The Ezra Klein Show [MP3 here] where he talks about Impossible Foods approach being similar to that of Tesla cars, which boils down to ‘make it attractive to meat eaters’ the way Tesla appeals to petrol heads.
What we’re seeing here is food and tech coming together. Impossible Foods turned down a buy out offer from Google (something most ordinary firms would die for) because they didn’t want to be one of Google’s many ‘moonshot’ bets. They did however, take an investment from Bill Gates.
But Impossible Foods isn’t the only synthetic meat maker in the game. Beyond Meat started in 2009 and has a range of animal free protein products made from plants that are available in many US stores. They too have a burger, but this one ‘bleeds’ beetroot juice. Tellingly, Gates has invested in this business too, as indeed have Twitter founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams. Finally, Mosa Meat are taking a different approach, claiming they’ll be able to grow ‘meat’ in the lab with in the next five years.
Of course this could all come to nothing. The impossible burger could end up a niche product like decaf coffee or non-alcoholic beer, enjoyed by a minority with specific needs. Unlike those products, this feels different though. Brown’s ambition is to get the raw ‘meat’ on the grocery store shelf in a similar way to ground beef. Chang meanwhile has already said he’s working on meatballs and meatloaf versions. But for now, New Yorkers flexitareans, veggies, vegans and just the plan ol’ curious can get a meat free burger that eats like a burger for $12. For the rest of us, well thank God for Instagram.