Mission Impossible Food, Converting Meat Eaters

Impossible Foods wants to win over the meat-eaters of the world, and keep them coming back.

Zach Eckstein used to love meat before he became a vegetarian. Now, he hunts for the best veggie burgers in New York, and recently roped five of his meat-loving bros into joining him for the latest offering, the Impossible Burger, a veggie burger that “bleeds.”

They liked it so much, they came back the next day and had it again.

“I used to be a big meat-eater but I turned vegetarian due to animal welfare issues,” said Zach Eckstein. “I still enjoy meat, I just don’t get to eat it, so this type of product is very appealing to me.”

Eckstein turned to his friends and asked if they enjoyed it, the whole table of meat-eaters nodded, and agreed it was “delicious.”

This scene is the dream scenario for Impossible Foods, the startup that created the veggie burger capable of winning over carnivores. The Impossible Burger is a plant-based hamburger that “bleeds,” sizzles, and cooks up like ground beef. It’s one of a small handful of food tech startups using advance science to engineer meat made out of plants. The goal is to get it as close to meat as possible: in taste, texture, and function, so that meat-eaters will not only accept it, but prefer it.

On Friday, I went to BareBurger, a chain restaurant serving the burgers in Manhattan, with Suzanne Lipton, a sustainable food expert and the project manager at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, to test out the burger and chat about whether the answer to our food sustainability problems could lie in a really convincing veggie burger.

First, our review: the taste was much closer to beef than your typical veggie burger, and it definitely had that satisfying meat umami flavor. The texture was close, but a little softer than we were hoping. Lipton, my colleague Erik Franco, and I all agreed you probably wouldn’t fool anyone with an Impossible Burger, unless perhaps you told them it was a meat other than beef. Which it kind of is.

David Lee, COO of Impossible Foods, told me the secret to that “meat” flavor is partly due to heme: an iron-rich compound that’s found in plants, but is found in much higher concentrations in meat. The Impossible Burger is made of natural ingredients like wheat and potatoes, but also includes heme.

Lipton told me our current practices of factory farming livestock is resource-intensive, contributes significantly to our greenhouse gas emissions, and is awful for the animals.

Livestock production accounts for 14.5 percent of all human-created greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. It takes 106 gallons of water to produce just one ounce of beef (versus 76 gallons for an ounce of chickpeas, for example). Factory farming has also pretty much reached its peak for how many people it can feed, and with a swelling global population, that’s a problem.

“Pasture-raised meat, when it’s done at an appropriate rate—when you have an appropriate amount of cattle for your land area—then it can actually be good for the land,” Lipton explained. “But the amount of meat that we’re eating, that’s not transferable to a completely pasture system.”

In other words, the only way to have a food system that’s good for our planet, instead of harmful, and can feed everybody is if we all start eating less meat. Lipton said this isn’t an easy argument to make—meat is tied to culture, status, and celebration—but that it’s also not insurmountable.

“The big thing in this is a social push that has to come for eating less meat, because we don’t live in a society that’s very regulated by government,” Lipton said. “This kind of burger is a good idea. Education is a good idea.”

Lee told me it’s why Impossible Foods is so focused on creating a burger that meat-eaters, not vegetarians, will love. It’s a strategy a small handful of startups, like Beyond Meat—which makes a similar, “bleeding” burger—and Perfect Day Foods (which makes plant-based dairy products) are all tackling: make a product that’s convincing enough to win over die-hards, and just happens to be good for the planet.

“If we just wanted to solve the world’s nutritional needs in a more sustainable way, it would be vastly easier from a technology standpoint,” Lee said. “Sustainability is meaningless if you don’t create a craveable, delicious product. Otherwise we create a small, niche product that doesn’t help our mission.”

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