The Secret of These New Veggie Burgers: Heme
Patrick Brown, a 60-year-old Stanford University professor turned first-time entrepreneur, says he has found the secret to replicating the taste of red meat: plant “blood.”
On a recent afternoon in his company’s expansive laboratory, Mr. Brown poured a deep-red liquid into a plastic cup. The thin concoction looks like blood, has the same distinct metallic taste, and is derived from the molecule found in hemoglobin that makes blood red and steak taste like steak.
But this bioengineered blood comes from plants and is the crown jewel of Mr. Brown’s three-year-old company, Impossible Foods, which has so far created a hamburger that looks, feels, tastes and cooks almost like the real thing.
“Livestock is an antiquated technology,” said Mr. Brown, a biochemistry scientist known for his genetic research.
Impossible Foods is part of a wave of well-funded startups seeking to replicate meats, eggs, cheese and other animal-based foods with plant matter. Their aim is not only to upend the trillion-dollar animal farming industry but to also create a more sustainable source of food amid mounting environmental pressures.
Several of these companies, including Impossible Foods, have attracted the financing of Microsoft Corp. MSFT -3.97% co-founder Bill Gates, an investment vehicle of Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing and a slew of venture-capital firms. Beyond Meat, of El Segundo, Calif., sells soy “chicken” strips and beef crumbles made with pea protein and plans to add a burger to its menu. San Francisco-based Hampton Creek Inc., which is in the process of raising $50 million, people familiar with the matter have said, specializes in mayonnaise, eggs and cookie products made from similar ingredients. And New York company Modern Meadow Inc. collected $10 million this summer to make meat, and leather, from animal skin cells.
Impossible Foods, which revealed its company publicly for the first time to The Wall Street Journal, is one of the top-funded with about $75 million in venture capital from Khosla Ventures, Google Ventures, Mr. Li’s Horizons Ventures and Mr. Gates.
A large bulk of that money has gone into Mr. Brown’s manufacturing facility in Redwood City, Calif., a sort-of Willy Wonka lab for fake meat where white-coated lab technicians dump large vats of fresh spinach leaves and other plant matter into a giant blender that breaks down the greens into plant proteins.
Elsewhere, machines rapidly cook raw ground meat and send blasts of smells to scientists, who carefully log the characteristics and strength of each smell. And all across the lab, several tests are happening concurrently, some dedicated to improving the flavor, texture and smells, and others designed to improve the cost efficiency of its processes.
Mr. Brown is more mad scientist than cliché Silicon Valley entrepreneur.
With a thick head of gray hair and a hefty academic resume, which includes a medical degree and two decades as a Stanford University professor, he doesn’t fit the stereotype of the precocious, 20-something founder.
Mr. Brown says he stumbled on the idea for Impossible Foods about three years ago, when he realized while on sabbatical that his background in science could have an impact on the massive animal agriculture industry, which has been criticized for its large carbon footprint.
“The system that we use today to produce meat and cheese is completely unsustainable,” he said. “It has terribly destructive environmental consequences.”
Meat and dairy industry groups have said they are committed to improving sustainability and have taken measures already that reduce their use of resources and their environmental impact, such as developing techniques to reuse waste and biogas.
But to change an industry, he couldn’t just create a better version of meat alternatives found in grocery stores today. Instead, he wanted to understand the fundamental, molecular reasons why meat tastes like meat, and create a product that is on par or better.
“We want the hard-core beef lovers, the guy who’s basically saying, ‘You know, I’m literally on the opposite pole from a vegetarian, in no conceivable universe would I accept any substitute for meat,’” he said.
Tricking carnivores isn’t easy.
Impossible Foods first had to deconstruct the hundreds of basic flavors and smells of cooked ground meat including compounds that alone taste like sulfur and saw dust.
One of the most important findings was the role that heme plays in meat flavor. That molecule unlocks flavors when it is exposed to sugars and amino acids, giving cooked meat its distinct taste.
The company also had to figure out how to solve texture by identifying the right compounds from plants to recreate animal tissue. So far, it has functional versions of fat, connective tissue and muscle made from plant compounds.
The result is a dark red patty that looks and feels like raw ground beef and transforms as it cooks. During a demonstration with the Journal, the patty gradually browned and caramelized on the grill, releasing oil from fats and producing the smell of cooked meat. In the mouth, the patty pulls apart the way burger meat does. The taste isn’t perfect, though—arguably several rungs below a gourmet burger, and more akin to a turkey patty.
Yet there are still many hurdles separating Impossible Foods’ burger and the wide-scale disruption of the animal farming industry.
This small patty, which is currently made in small batches, costs about $20 to produce. Although the burger doesn’t require grazing cows, it still involves harvesting five plant species in large quantities. Mr. Brown says he aims to create cheaper manufacturing processes and the cost of raw materials will fall as scale increases. Impossible Foods, which has already started testing the burger in undercover food trucks, is expected to begin selling to stores as early as the end of next year. By then, Mr. Brown hopes to be on pace to produce 1,000 tons a year.
But even as the taste and cost of the burger improves, Impossible has a giant marketing challenge ahead to woo meat lovers. Even vegetarians, wary of overly processed food, may be suspicious of all the ingredients even if Mr. Brown says they are all natural.
“I don’t get the fake meat movement,” said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University, who is skeptical that such foods will win mainstream adoption or are better for people. “One of my food rules is ‘never eat anything artificial.’”
Source: The Wall Street Journal