The world’s population could reach nine billion people by 2050.
The bad news for carnivores: There aren’t enough resources on the planet to support sustainable animal agriculture at that scale. Raising chickens, pigs, and cattle already takes up 30% of the Earth’s surface.
A number of companies are tackling the challenge with meat and dairy alternatives, but one stealthy startup out of Redwood City, California, has garnered buzz with a veggie burger it says is indistinguishable from real beef.
Impossible Foods recognises that most veggie burgers resemble pan-fried Frisbees more closely than meat. Their mission to reinvent the burger targets the most ardent meat-lovers, with an offering that sizzles, smells, and even bleeds on the griddle.
The Impossible Burger became available at Momofuku Nishi in New York over the summer. Starting October 13, people on the West Coast of the US can try the burger at three restaurants in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Unfortunately the burger is not available in Australia yet.
Business Insider recently toured the lab and test kitchen at Impossible Food’s headquarters to see how the future of plant-based meat comes together.
In a Redwood City, California, office building with blacked-out windows, scientists, foodies, and Silicon Valley veterans work on making the perfect veggie burger.
But don't call it a 'veggie burger' within earshot of founder Pat Brown and his team. In 2011, they set out on a mission to make a plant-based burger unmistakably meaty. While a black bean or mushroom burger fools no one, the Impossible Burger might.
'I have no reason to believe cows make the best meat,' Chris Davis, director of research and development at Impossible Foods, tells Business Insider.
After years of research, the team learned there isn't just one molecule that creates the smell of beef, or generates the familiar beef taste that's nutty, caramelised, and slightly metallic when you sink your teeth into it.
A tasty burger is an amalgamation of ingredients that, when separated at their molecular level, give off aromas ranging from pineapple to cabbage to dirty socks.
A secret ingredient ties it all together: heme. The molecule carries oxygen through the bloodstream in animals and through mechanisms that produce energy in plants.
Heme gives blood its colour, turns meat pink, and lends the traditional burger its slightly metallic flavour and delicious aroma when it's exposed to sugars and amino acids.
You won't find heme in specialty food stores. Impossible Foods looked into collecting it from the heme-rich nodules on soybean roots, but discovered it would require ripping up millions of plants to collect enough heme for production.
Instead, Impossible Foods decided to whip up heme in the lab. Scientists took the genetic code in soybeans that makes heme and injected it into yeast.
The yeast becomes a temporary heme factory. A whirling vat of frothy white liquid turns the colour of strawberry milkshake as the molecule ramps up production.
The mixture gets filtered through these tubes to remove the yeast and water and concentrate the heme. The process takes about a week from start to finish.
Textured wheat protein, a popular animal-product substitute, provides the foundation of the Impossible Burger. It's processed in a pressure cooker to imitate the feel of animal muscle, though it looks like tuna salad.
A large baked potato provide as much protein as a serving of cheddar cheese. Its inclusion in the Impossible Burger also adds some chewiness.
Coconut oil, fat, salt, sugar, additives found in processed foods, and other ingredients find their way into the mix.
Even with its pink center and mouthwatering flavour, the Impossible Burger didn't fool me, a meat-eater. A rubbery, mushroom-like texture gave it away.
Still, the patty seared on the grill just like real beef. The outside crisped and darkened, while the inside leaked familiar, fatty juices. It easily beat any veggie burger I've tried.
Big-name investors might agree. The company has received backing from Bill Gates and Google Ventures, and in 2015, Google made a failed attempt to acquire Impossible Foods.
Starting October 13, people on the west coast of the US can try the Impossible Burger at Jardiniére and Cockscomb in San Francisco, and Crossroads Kitchen in Los Angeles. Unfortunately the burger is not available in Australia yet.
'In five years we've gone from an idea to what you ate today,' R&D guru Chris Davis tells me. 'Five years from now, it will be even more delicious.'
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