The Veggie Burger of the Future Cost $80M to Invent — And Carnivores Will Be Impressed


While many types of veggie burgers are made with thought and care, most come out like a weirdly textured, flavorless puck that tastes like anything but real meat. But one company has done what used to seem like the impossible: create an entirely plant-based burger that could probably fool most carnivores. Appropriately called the "Impossible Burger," the beefy, but beef-free creation is available at chef David Chang's New York City restaurant Nishi. 

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Impossible Foods, the company behind the burger, first made headlines in 2015 for creating a veggie burger that "bleeds" like the standard beef version. (Competitor Beyond Meat started selling its version of bleeding meat-free burgers at Whole Foods in Colorado in May). What really sets this burger apart is the claim it "looks, cooks, smells, sizzles and taste like conventional ground beef but is made entirely from plants," the press release notes. 

So how does the burger taste? The version served Tuesday at a press event in New York City looked like something served at a greasy diner than the lifeless soy bricks found in the grocery store freezer. The outside appeared to be caramelized while the inside was somewhat pink. It packed in some serious umami punch, and most consumers probably won't realize the burger was made of plants. The Impossible Burger might be something the most dedicated of carnivores and vegans could get behind. 

While a bleeding veggie burger sounds anything but natural, Patrick Brown, founder and CEO of Impossible Foods, said all but one of the ingredients is found in most professional kitchens. The 11-part ingredient list includes textured wheat protein ("for chew and a fibrous texture"), coconut oil ("for a fat component... it gives the burger its mouth feel"), potato protein, soy protein ("for flavor") and xanthan gum, which is a thickening agent that can be found in commercial foods like salad dressings. 

The secret boils down to science. The only ingredient that is a bit harder to come by is heme, a molecule that's responsible for Impossible Burger's unique, meat-like characteristics, Brown said. Brown figured out that meat tastes the way it does because of heme, but many plants contain the molecule too. Author and food science expert Harold McGee said at the press event that the finding that heme can give vegetarian foods a meat taste is "a revolutionary discovery in the food science world." 

Khushbu Shah/Mic
Khushbu Shah/Mic

The burger could be really good for the planet. Each time someone chooses to eat a quarter-pound Impossible Burger instead of a quarter-pound beef burger, the world saves the amount of water used in a 10-minute shower and the 75 square feet of land, Brown said. 

According to Brown, the recipe and its team of 80 scientists costs close to $80 million, but it could be worth every penny. Beef production is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions, while Brown claims the production of an Impossible Burger requires about a quarter of the water and one-twentieth of the land required to produce a burger of the same weight from a cow. 

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While environmentally there is a massive difference between the Impossible Burger and a beef burger, nutritionally, they aren't that different. "The Impossible Burger has slightly less calories than a regular one, and it has slightly more protein," Brown said. The major advantage is that the meatless burger has no cholesterol, antibiotics or hormones. 

The version of the Impossible Burger on the menu at Nishi is classically served. It comes topped with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles and special sauce all on a Martin's potato roll. Chang's choice to serve the burger at his restaurant symbolizes an enormous stamp of approval. He's long held a pro-meat, anti-meat substitute restaurant, but the Impossible Burger appears to have changed his tune. Chang said he was "blown away" by the burger when he first tried it.

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At his restaurants, customers can order the sandwich vegan, or with cheese for an extra buck. There will also be a limited-edition patty melt made with the Impossible burger meat. While he plans on only doing a burger for now, Chang said he has experimented with the meat in everything from meatloaf to dumplings. 

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