Standing in a long line for an otherwise commonly available food is a cherished pastime in San Francisco, so I find myself on the corner of 18th and Valencia streets on a Saturday afternoon, phone in one hand, dog leash in the other, doing just that. In this case, it’s not for ice cream or a day-old bagel flown in from New York, but an ordinary hamburger — a slider, technically. In front of me and behind me are the usual panoply of Mission types: dedicated foodies eating their way across the universe, androgynous hipsters, techies in Patagonia jackets, skaters lured by the promise of anything free, curious onlookers who saw a line and couldn’t resist joining it.
Apart from being complimentary, this burger also happens to be vegan. But unlike the typical crumbly frankenpatty made with wood pulp, disodium inosinate, and pressed lentil sweepings, this is the Impossible Burger, whose tagline is the “vegan burger that bleeds.” It’s a little sensational, and maybe a little goth, but by the time it’s my turn to reach up into the truck to get one, I have to admit that it’s eerily meat-like in flavor and texture — certainly superior to any of the sad beef surrogates I’ve consumed over the years.
The Impossible Burger is the brainchild of Impossible Foods, a five-year-old Peninsula company that’s looking to revolutionize the industrial food system by replicating the sensory experience of meat consumption with plant-based alternatives that use considerably fewer resources. In the case of the Impossible Burger, released this July, it uses 95 percent less land and 75 percent less water than beef, and generates 85 to 87 percent fewer greenhouse-gas emissions. And it’s delicious.
The current iteration of the Impossible Burger arguably passes the meat equivalent of the Turing test, in which beings classified as Homo sapiens determine whether an artificial intelligence is human or not. Its catalyst is heme, a basic component of life that’s found in nearly all living things. By adding heme to water and the right proportions of a few other common materials — potato protein, wheat protein, coconut oil, and xanthan gum — you can have a plant-based burger that sizzles when you cook it, entices you with its aroma, and that can easily pass muster with a meat-eater who doesn’t already know the difference.
You can have a burger without the cow.
‘Meat Without Compromise’
“Cows are really inefficient at converting plant material into human-available protein and calories,” says Rebekah Moses, Impossible Foods’ senior sustainability analyst. “By the time beef reaches human consumption, it’s lost 97 percent of the calories and protein that went into the cow as a feed crop.”
“They’re alive for several years,” she adds of this bovine wastefulness. “And it’s a pretty flatulent species.”
I’m at Impossible Foods’ Redwood City headquarters, nondescript even by the standards of an exurban office park, for a tour and a demo. The front offices of the 130-person company look like any other, and much of the lab space looks more like an industrial-size commissary kitchen for a restaurant that specializes in molecular gastronomy. The vacuum-sealed sacks marked “dried spinach protein” that line one set of shelves could have been shipped by a scientific-provisions firm, or possibly delivered on a truck from Sysco.
Impossible Foods’ conference rooms have names of ordinary foods. We’re sitting in Avocado, where Moses notes that the beef industry is globalized, with feed from Latin America feeding herds in California — and of course, the methane in their farts doesn’t respect geopolitical borders. In fact, she says, animal agriculture matches the entire global transportation industry in terms of overall emissions and uses 30 percent of the world’s ice-free land. You can sense her measured caution, her reluctance to ring alarms — but also her awareness, which all scientists share, that the situation on planet Earth is quite urgent.
“Beef is the No. 1 driver,” she says. “An order of magnitude more resource-intensive than other animal-based protein. But there’s no reason people in future generations can’t have the same experience of eating beef.”
Celeste Holz-Schietinger, Impossible Foods’ principal scientist, holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry and claims to have caught alligators. She’s also eaten an Impossible Burger almost daily for the past several years. (Pure research, one supposes.) By looking at meat from the molecular level, she and her team came to understand what causes its array of flavor compounds to emerge in exactly the ways that trigger a human appetite. They then produced a platform that replicates meat’s sensory elements: tastiness, caramelization, juiciness, and what she calls its “transitions,” the processes by which cooking transforms raw meat’s red color, slightly metallic-bloody taste, and soft, malleable texture to a brown, meaty, chewy, juicy burger. The guiding principle is “meat without compromise,” meaning that the three criteria of nutrition, taste, and sustainability are equally important.
Ground beef was chosen as Impossible Foods’ first project because it’s so inefficient, but also because it’s central to American culture, Holz-Schietinger says. Because cows are, effectively, made out of the chemicals in the plants they ingest, it didn’t require looking beyond nature to source the Impossible Burger’s components. Hence heme, which Impossible Foods derives from yeast through a process of fermentation. (It’s as red as blood, but not nearly as viscous, and less metallic-tasting. I wouldn’t call it delicious, but it’s definitely not gross.)
Like cheesemakers and brewers, who also use fermentation, the technicians continue to refine their work. Impossible Foods’ current results contain the same nutritional content as beef — minus its main drawbacks.
“There are key things about a cow that aren’t the best for you,” Holz-Schietinger says. “Cholesterol, antibiotics, the fact that it’s been through a slaughterhouse. We’ve removed all of that. We keep improving on those elements, so what you taste today is what we have to show you today. In the lab, we have better prototypes.”
Those prototypes extend to fish, chicken, eggs, and other products. Because heme catalyzes flavor compounds to whet the human appetite, Impossible doesn’t have to go back to the drawing board every time it tackles a new food. And although it’s vegan, Holz-Schietinger is adamant that this is beef.
“We call it beef, because why define beef by what it comes from versus the sensory experience?” she says.
I see her point, but the tension is also clear. Asking a devout vegan to consume something that’s becoming increasingly indistinguishable from beef might be a harder sell than talking Joe Six-Pack into ditching the Whopper. Doesn’t Impossible Foods’ method risk alienating everyone?
It turns out that Holz-Schietinger isn’t particularly interested in wooing vegans. After all, if they’re already eschewing industrialized animal-agriculture in their diets, then the planet gains nothing by winning them over.
“We’re trying to do a mission,” she says. “We’re not just here to be a business. So with that, we need to convince the meat-eaters. Maybe they’re harder to get, but if we have a vegetarian who brings along a friend, and they try the burger, the conversation begins. The more people hear about it and say, ‘Wow, this tastes like something I want to eat,’ then it’s, ‘Do I want to eat something that’s hurting the environment, or something that is conscious but also meeting all the other things I want out of food?’ That’s my job, to make it as tasty as possible. If that’s not right, we’re not going to convince everybody.”
Having worked on stem cells in her doctoral research, she dismisses research into cultured meat, like the so-called “test-tube” burger that cost $330,000 in 2013. That figure, in all fairness, has come down enormously since then, but Holz-Schietinger doesn’t see cultured meat as a way forward with the technology we have now, in terms of cost and safety.
“Let’s look to nature and use what we have as foods now,” she says. “Each of those key elements are in plants. We’re not making lab meat.”
The way she presents all this information makes Impossible Foods’ endeavor look so effortlessly logical that I have to ask: If it’s so easy, then what took so damn long?
“The hard part is really figuring out what key elements are necessary. In reality, our earlier prototypes were much more complicated,” she says. “We didn’t know what were those key aspects or key transitions necessary. The more we learn, the more we simplify and say, ‘We need this ingredient and it needs to be processed in a certain way. This is how we need the wheat protein to be to get that texture.’ Identifying which of the nutrients that go in here is actually a lot of work. That’s how a biochemist likes to work: Take a very complex thing and look at what’s important, and it becomes a very simple problem.”
The Impossible Foods tour continues through the two laboratories, in separate buildings, where I struggle with my beard-net. We’re shown petri dishes of yeast, red-colored because they’ve been engineered to produce the maximum amount of heme. At one point, a cheerful scientist holding a vial of heme gestures too forcefully as she explains the extraction process, and a few drops land on the floor. They’re crimson, almost indistinguishable from blood. In the context of a lab, it looks like a biohazard — but they’re as harmless as a bit of spilled coffee, and the demo continues unabated.
Chris Davis, Impossible Foods’ research and development director, observes that it’s been five years from abstract idea to physical product, and only time will tell how much better things get five years from now.
“When the iPhone came out, you thought that was perfect,” Davis says. “Now, you couldn’t sell an iPhone. That’s what we’re doing in this room, how to make the iPhone 7: something more delicious, more nutritious than anything that came before.”
And just like Apple simultaneously developing the Apple Watch, Impossible Foods has many other products it’s deemed viable — in terms of the human palate, that is — but right now the main hurdle is scale. Going from current production levels to being nationally distributed is an obstacle that the company is currently working on.
(Other difficulties, Davis notes, are more easily surmounted. Even if it meant his co-workers had to endure early versions of a vegan filet mignon, they still clamored to join that test group.)
When we reach the pilot plant for large-scale heme production, process engineer Aaron Risenmay shows us the machinery — essentially giant blenders — he uses to make heme. We’re lucky enough that Risenmay is “in the middle of a processing week,” so we get to see purified yeast run through membrane dividers and the finished product move through thick, transparent tubes. He talks about heme in such a way that, scientific terminology notwithstanding, it sounds almost like an alchemist who’s discovered how to make qi, or the life force itself.
Suddenly, I realize it’s been done before — in fiction. In the HBO series True Blood, the reason vampires “came out of the coffin” is because Japanese researchers synthesized a blood surrogate — TruBlood — that they could live on in lieu of drinking from human veins. I mention this to Risenmay, who demurs at the (admittedly overheated) comparison. He asks if I’d had any heme earlier, possibly looking to account for my sudden exuberance. Yes, I tell him.
“Cheers,” he says. “Strong stuff.”
A distinguished biochemist at Stanford, Impossible Foods founder and CEO Pat Brown landed on the idea of heme while on sabbatical. In his own telling, he ripped up a patch of clover in his backyard to get at the root nodules, which contain a related compound called leghemoglobin. Brown knew that the global market for foods made from animals “is well over $1 trillion, and I would say it’s just a matter of time before better technology replaces it,” he says. For Brown — who, coincidentally, shares a name with the visionary governor who built the California State Water Project — it’s important for him to make it accessible to as many people as possible. Would that include Five Guys, someone asks?
“We can see ourselves in — and have every intention of being in — every venue where, currently, meat is served,” he says.
In order to do that, though, the mission must become a brand. And the inevitable collision between marketing-speak and scientific discourse, in a world where few adults possess much scientific literacy, usually wreaks havoc. We live in a culture where people demand antibiotics for viral infections while refusing vaccines and object to penny-per-ounce taxes on drinks that cause widespread diabetes and childhood obesity, a world where “genetic modification” is considered to be an ingredient, and also where the word “all-natural” is meaningless and “organic” is following close behind. It’s easy to be skeptical of an idealistic company whose noble promise of saving the earth aligns rather closely with conquering worldwide market share — skeptical not merely over the purity of Impossible Foods’ motives, but of the way the general public might greet this promise of salvation.
One can imagine any number of scenarios for how humans will eat in the decades to come. But to follow contemporary trends yields a future of nutritious, delicious, sustainable food for the elite, while the rest make do on corporate swill produced with the barest governmental oversight — that is, if we’re not tilling the irradiated Earth with human femurs or something truly apocalyptic. Will a society trained to be suspicious of anything that contains “chemicals” regard the Impossible Burger as elitist or populist? Impossible Foods would much prefer it be the latter. Still, it’s easy to envision a no-cow burger selling very briskly at Whole Foods or Costco. It’s harder to imagine it leaping off the shelves at Foods Co — if that discount chain chose to stock it at all.
Vegans vs. Carnivores
Either way, the path to mass-market appeal has to start somewhere. It began with four high-profile chefs from a wide range of culinary backgrounds, of whom three are in California: Traci des Jardins, Chris Cosentino, and Tal Ronnen. (A fourth, David Chang of New York’s Momofuku restaurant group, declined to comment for this article.)
“Our mission and our business is designed to please many and all, but we have to start with a brand you can build to make sure those first experiences pay off,” says Impossible Foods’ COO David Lee. “The place where we’ll end up is not at all where we started.”
Here in San Francisco, the classically trained French chef Traci des Jardins of Hayes Valley’s Jardinière first became aware of the Impossible Burger through a member of a company’s board of directors — and promptly eliminated the traditional burger from her menu.
“We’re not a big burger house,” she says, “but we would only serve something that’s delicious, and it met that criterion — and the product is fantastic and pretty friendly to work with. For me, it’s about having some alternatives and looking at the big picture to be able to support the idea of plant-based products and products with a smaller environmental footprint.”
“I love to eat meat,” she adds. “I won’t lie. I can’t really say I’m committed to going toward an all-plant diet, but there is no question that the environmental impact of beef production is very high. And that’s something we should be paying attention to.”
It’s a big enough phenomenon that it warrants its own section on Jardinière’s menu, where it’s available after 7:30 p.m. in the bar and lounge. Des Jardins later introduced the Impossible Burger to whole-animal aficionado Chris Cosentino (who was at one time her employee). Known as a meat-eater’s meat-eater, Cosentino is a winner of Top Chef Masters whose devotion to “haute offal” is peerless. To keep it “clean” and avoid contamination from being cooked in proximity to meat products during the dinner rush, he’s serving the Impossible Burger only for lunch at his SoMa restaurant, Cockscomb. But he’s tried the raw material in various other preparations, too.
“I tasted it as a tartare, as a burger, I even made a pasta bolognese with it,” he says. “All the applications made sense. It’s transparent, too — you can recognize every item that’s in the actual meat.”
Cosentino sells his burger — which comes with lettuce, Dijon mustard, caramelized onions, and bread-and-butter pickles, on a dairy-free bun —for $19, and a cheese-free vegan version made with chick pea-derived mayo Fabianaise is also available.
“Not that I don’t eat burgers,” Cosentino says of this version, adding, “It’s not fake meat. It’s not a meat substitute. It’s just another option for somebody to have something different.”
At the plant-based Mediterranean restaurant Crossroads Kitchen in Los Angeles, chef Tal Ronnen had never served a burger before.
“Most of our guests aren’t vegetarian or vegan, they’re foodies,” he says. “But there was never anything [plant-based] that would fit our clientele, and when I first tasted the burger, I knew it was something made for people who love food, not just vegetarians or vegans. And everyone knows eating less meat today is a better step for your health and the environment.”
“Los Angeles is known for hamburgers,” adds Ronnen, who is vegan. “It’s where burgers started. So we wanted to create that Southern California-style, fast-food burger. We did a simple build: lettuce, tomato, that special sauce you see at a lot of Southern California chains. We have people coming back three times, four times a week to eat it.”
In other words, the Impossible Burger managed to pull off something of a coup, satisfying a traditionalist, a vegan in the land of burgers, and a passionate carnivore — and selling well at all three of their restaurants.
The American Dream
Just as there’s a porous boundary between marketing and science, cultural attitudes toward beef consumption may be hard to rectify. Even among the company’s own scientists, there exists a tension between “this is vegan” and “this is beef.” As we walk from one lab to the next, Davis, the R&D director, mentions the issue of subjectivity. Someone might like Kobe beef, which is soft and mushy, he says, while other people love McDonald’s, which is more fibrous.
“I can make it more chewy or less chewy,” he says of the Impossible Burger formula, calling such an adaptation a “skew.”
“Five years from now,” he continues, “it could easily be different for different countries. There’s no reason to believe to believe the perfect burger for Korea is the perfect burger for India or America.”
Although not everyone there reveres cattle, isn’t a “perfect burger for India” almost a contradiction in terms?
“We need nutrient-dense, highly delicious food for India,” Davis says. “This is vegan, so it probably won’t taste like cow. We have a choice of what it tastes like.”
But this might all be a luxury. Taking the macro view, Earth looks, well, rather doomed. We’re blowing past what only a decade ago seemed to be the high end of climate-change models for melting Arctic ice and sea-level rises, and every year seems like the hottest year on record. It’s now considered within the realm of possibility that climate change might not only be irreversible, but locked into a series of feedback loops that turn Earth into another Venus. The planet will house nearly 10 billion humans by midcentury, and while we have enough trouble feeding 7.4 billion people now, they have every right to demand not merely survival but abundance, of the kind that most Americans take for granted. Achieving Impossible Foods’ goal of revolutionizing food will require concurrent revolutions in the power grid and in transportation networks, and a restoration of the beef-tainted global ecosystem to undo all the damage before it undoes us.
It’s not fair to ask all this of any one company, of course. But even if we do get there, it’ll hardly be an uninterrupted, linear path. The requisite changes must be massive, and prompt. Starting with food — the most visible part of it all — makes sense.
A thought experiment: Imagine teenagers listening to music while driving to get a cheeseburger. It’s easy because it’s practically America in microcosm, and it’s the image of carefree affluence that the U.S. has exported to the world for almost 75 years. Instead of AM radio, though, it’s Spotify. Instead of a Camaro, they’re riding in an autonomous, zero-emission car. And instead of a Double-Double, the burger is derived from plants. This scene still isn’t hard to visualize — although it feels like it belongs to a marketing pamphlet for a future that might be available only to the few. But the survival of our species may be predicated on it seamlessly becoming the new American Dream, and the whole world adopting it in a hurry.
Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly‘s arts editor. Follow him on Twitter at @WannaCyber.