Friday, July 1, 2016





There’s a Veggie Burger That Bleeds Now, and Here’s Where You Can Find It:
The Bill Gates-backed Impossible Burger has finally come to L.A.

Dining - Los Angeles Magazine 

Vegetables can’t think, or feel, or love, or cry over the movie adaptations of Nicholas Sparks books—but damn if they don’t bleed just like us.
The Impossible Burger, which has been shorthand dubbed “the veggie burger that bleeds” by everyone and their mom, officially made its L.A. debut at Crossroads in Hollywood. The bloody mass of plant matter was developed by Silicon Valley startup Impossible Foods, which, thanks in part to Bill Gates and Google Ventures, raised $108 million in series D funding last year. That’s a lot of cash to disrupt a space currently occupied by Morningstar Meatless Hickory BBQ Riblets (which are actually pretty solid).

In-N-Out Has a Veggie Burger Problem, and Here’s How They Can Solve It
Do the impossible. Or something like that.
Do the impossible. Or something like that.
Photograph by Josh Scherer

But Impossible Foods is doing something a little bit more complicated than mixing soy curds with MSG and potato starch and calling it a riblet. The key to the hyperrealistic fake burger is a molecule that carries oxygen in blood called leghemoglobin, or “heme” for short. Heme naturally occurs in vegetables and legumes, so Impossible Foods took the gene that encodes heme in soybeans and transferred it to yeast to reduce the environmental impact that would come from using soybeans themselves.

Unlike their rival bloody veggie burger from Beyond Meat, which bleeds beet juice, the Impossible Burger bleeds real fake plant blood. I think? Science is hard. All you have to know is that it costs $14, it’s available at Crossroads, and it’s a complete mindfuck.

I wish my veggie burger was a little more on the rare side so I could’ve actually tasted the blood. Before today, that would have been a very confusing sentence to read. But now it seems so reasonable, right? The cook on it wasn’t bad by any means—there was a super hard sear on the outside and it was liberally seasoned with salt and coarse-ground pepper—but it was pretty far on the medium-well side.
At first glance, it almost looks like a real burger. Like, it’s super, super close to looking like a real burger, but there’s something not quite right about the way the edges form into a perfect cylinder instead of rounding themselves off in the cooking process. However, if you took the meat patty out of a Buttery Jack from Jack in the Box, you would also say that there’s something not quite right about it. You’d say it looks pretty similar to ground beef, but the gray tinge and strange, pock-marked patterning on the meat disc manages to miss the mark. So if we aren’t issuing deductions to the Buttery Jack for that, then we must not issue deductions to the Impossible Burger.
It tastes almost like a real burger. It’s chewy, it’s salty, and it has that kind of snap that comes with processed ground beef. You don’t get a ton of beefy flavor—there’s an earthy musk and a little bit of iron twang in the background—but you also don’t get a ton of beefy flavor from the patty inside a Buttery Jack either. So, again, I can’t knock it at all.

If someone had handed me this burger from a drive-thru window wrapped in foil, I would’ve eaten it while road raging at people in traffic and had no idea that it wasn’t meat. And I guess that’s the point.
Chef Tal Ronnen said he tried to emulate the quintessential fast-food burger to honor SoCal—squishy bun, raw onion, leaf lettuce, tomato, and thick slices of dill pickle all ready to be slathered in ketchup—and he serves it along with fries that would be a dead ringer for McDonald’s if not for the occasional clipping of parsley. In context of the white tablecloths and green juices at Crossroads, the Impossible Burger seems out of place. That out-of-placeness might make you question why anyone would spend $14 to eat something that essentially tastes like a Jack in the Box analog.
But then you slap yourself in the face and realize that this isn’t a burger, this is a science project five years and hundreds of millions of dollars in the making and it’s laying the groundwork for ending our emotional and physical reliance on meat, which would have drastic positive effects on curbing climate change, which means that you’re not eating lunch, you’re literally eating the future. I’d pay, like, $16 for that, easy.


The Impossible Burger is Ready for Its (Meatless) Close - Up

Kurt Soller June 14, 2016

A long-awaited vegan burger from Silicon Valley startup Impossible Foods hits select restaurants this month. But can coconut oil and potato proteins compete with the red-blooded original?

Silicon Valley’s Impossible Foods is on a mission to replace the All-American burger with a plant-based alternative to ground beef—that bleeds. Photo: Stephanie Gonot for The Wall Street Journal

FROM THE OUTSIDE, THE HEADQUARTERS of Impossible Foods looks like the set of “Office Space”: a one-story Redwood City, Calif., industrial park with blacked-out windows, fronted by rows of plugged-in electric cars. Inside, there’s none of that sleek, airy aesthetic for which Silicon Valley has become infamous. Rows of drab desks lead to back rooms packed with scientific equipment. “For four years, nobody outside the building knew we existed, which is how we wanted it,” says CEO and founder Patrick O. Brown. Brown’s father was in the CIA; a clandestine work environment may be in his blood. As we continue our tour, Lance Ignon, a communications consultant, quips: “It’s not like investors are complaining about us wasting money on art.”

Investors have hardly been an issue so far. The company, founded in 2011, is one of the best-funded food startups of the decade, with $182 million over four rounds from top venture-capital firms and Bill Gates, who joined the latest round in 2015. “This has all gone a lot easier for Pat because he has so much credibility,” says Samir Kaul, a founding partner at Khosla Ventures, which was the only investor during the first round and has participated in every subsequent one.

Today, Brown works just a few miles from the Stanford campus, where he spent almost three decades as a top biochemist. At 61, he bears a passing resemblance to Apple CEO Tim Cook. A regular marathoner, he’s spry and trim in his wardrobe of dad jeans, T-shirts branded with his company’s logo (they’re free to visitors) and a hoodie from American Giant, which Slate once called “the best sweatshirt known to man.” He’s casual in his manner, occasionally sarcastic, prone to delivering research-driven soliloquies while avoiding eye contact. While at Stanford in the 1990s, he pioneered a new type of DNA mapping called microarray, which some in his field believe could one day earn him a Nobel Prize.

At Impossible Foods, Brown, along with 125 colleagues—pedigreed scientists, nutritionists, techno-marketing experts — is working to perfect a vegan version of the all-American ground-beef patty. His elevator pitch is straight-up Silicon Valley: meatless burgers as a “platform to disrupt” the international meat supply. Cows, according to Brown, are “an inefficient technology” requiring too many inputs to create beef, an output that hasn’t evolved since the Paleolithic age. “The whole mission of this company is to make eating animals unnecessary,” he says. “So, we don’t want our product to just be delicious, we want it to be as delicious as meat.” He would never describe his innovation as “a veggie burger,” which conjures images of bland, frozen constellations of grains and beans. His patty is officially “a combination of proteins, fats, amino acids and vitamins derived from wheat, the roots of soybean plants, coconuts, potatoes and other plant sources.” The goal? To reverse-engineer flavors and textures heretofore exclusive to cows.

Brown’s meat-disrupting motivations are manifold. Industrial animal farming uses a third of the planet’s land, while also destroying millions of trees and sucking up one-third of our water supply; methane gases expelled by cows are contributing to climate change. These problems scale up as countries like China and India develop a taste for beef and the global population as a whole continues to skyrocket. Brown is confident that everyone knows this stuff, but thinks no one is taking it seriously. “We’re getting into this very scarily unstable area where we’ve never gone before in terms of pushing the boundaries of a stable planetary system,” he says. “We’re driving toward the cliff with our foot on the accelerator — and nobody was working on this as a solvable problem.”

But in fact, there’s a cottage industry of technology companies attempting to save the planet by redirecting our food supply. Hampton Creek successfully lobbied the Food and Drug Administration to name its canola-oil-based, egg-free spread Just Mayo; Memphis Meats is using stem cells to culture pork and beef, though an edible product is likely years away. The furthest along is Beyond Meat, which sells plant-based “chicken,” “meatballs” and Beyond Beef beefy crumbles in cute resealable packages, plus a new Beyond Burger, being rolled out in a few Whole Foods stores and sold fresh in the meat aisle.

The Impossible Burger is also sold raw, intended for cooking, and engineered to mimic the taste, textures and chemical characteristics of ground beef. “It’s the single biggest category of meat in the U.S.,” Brown says. “We never thought about launching with some feeble, easy, low-impact thing.” Brown is, unsurprisingly, a vegan and hasn’t eaten the sort of burger he’s trying to emulate in at least 40 years. Still, he’s focused on carnivores and uninterested in appealing to his fellow abstainers. “We can have a successful product that would sell to people who are looking for meat alternatives,” he says. “We’re not interested in that.”

Don’t call it a veggie burger. The Impossible Foods patty is derived from wheat, the roots of soybean plants, coconuts, potatoes and other plant sources.

AS WE PUT ON HAIRNETS TO ENTER THE LAB, Brown points out two women working on a melty, vegan version of American cheese. Behind them sits a giant kettle filled with sweet-smelling yeast similar to that used to make Belgian beer. It’s here that Impossible Foods is refining its secret sauce: a compound called heme, which helps meat taste meaty — and which Brown credits for conferring the same property on the Impossible Burger. Heme shows up in animal muscles as myoglobin, and it’s the reason raw beef is red and bloody. It’s also a catalyst for imbuing vitamins, sugars and amino acids with a richer taste. “I knew that in all of the things we call meat, they have s---loads of heme in them,” Brown says. He also knew, from his years as a biochemist, that nitrogen-fixing legumes — like clovers or soybeans — also contain heme. But according to Brown, no one had isolated the compound for flavoring purposes. “It was surprising to me that this was still left to be discovered, given that people have been eating meat for millions of years,” he says.

The team’s next task was to identify plant proteins and other vegan components that work in tandem with heme to approximate ground beef. Rather than picking vegetables with an inherent beefiness, like mushrooms or carrots, “we started with a bunch of ingredients that in no way resembled a burger,” Brown says. His staff used a machine that isolates compounds on a molecular level so scientists could determine which plants might lend desirable properties. Potatoes were selected for a protein that firms up when heated, giving the Impossible Burger that essential exterior crust. Coconut oil, which starts as a solid and melts as it cooks, adds fat and juiciness. Another machine, used to identify specific scents — the scientific equivalent of Smell-O-Vision — helped researchers determine that something in honeydew melon mirrors the scent of cooked beef.

But smell and taste aren’t the only reasons meat is entrenched in the human diet. In most of the world, beef is a luxury good — a uniquely efficient source of protein, iron and calories in a deliciously convenient package. The cattle industry has made it available at a relatively low cost. For the Impossible Burger to have a shot, it needs to replicate the sensory experience, dietary benefits and affordability of ground beef.

Nutrition was the easiest part. Brown had his burger tested to make sure its plant-based protein is just as abundant and “bio-available” as the protein in beef. A four-ounce Impossible Burger contains more sodium and saturated fat than its red-meat inspiration, along with 10 fewer calories. But it lacks cholesterol, hormones, antibiotics, fecal matter, “pink slime” and other unsavory byproducts of industrial meat production.

Cleanliness and eco-friendliness come at a price; in 2014, The Wall Street Journal reported that a single patty cost about $20 to produce (and tasted like a turkey burger). Impossible Foods said that number “has dropped substantially,” but declined to give specifics. The company expects production costs to decrease further when its Oakland, Calif., production facility ramps up over the next six months, but the burger will be launching, like other Silicon Valley breakthroughs, as a niche product for the rich.

Brown, of course, understands that pricing will be the barrier to wide adoption. This year, the company surveyed 600 “hard core middle America burger lovers,” as he calls them, about their eating habits and asked them whether they’d choose a plant-based burger if it was identical—in taste and cost—to the beef version. Nearly 70% said they would. “People are addicted to meat, and it’s going to be a long time before they move away from it,” he says. “But what that tells you is that the fact that meat’s made from an animal is not part of its value proposition.” And that was before the company mentioned that the Impossible Burger also emits 75% less greenhouse gas than its beefy competitor and uses up a comparatively tiny fraction of both water and land.

This July, a half-decade after the project began, the Impossible Burger will become available for public consumption. Jardinière, a tony San Francisco restaurant, will begin by offering burgers on special occasions, and a small number of restaurants will start selling the Impossible Burger later this summer, starting in New York. Production is limited—the company could manufacture a million pounds this year, less than a tenth of a percent of U.S. beef consumption — so the rollout is calibrated to target high-end diners first. According to Impossible Foods, the retail price has not been set.

By the time the Impossible Burger hits supermarkets — “in the next few years,” according to the company — Brown hopes to have built enough buzz that grocers will display his meat prominently in the butcher’s case, instead of hiding it in the frozen-food aisle. He’s following the model used to launch Kite Hill, a brand of nut-milk products he co-founded in 2014, which is now among the few nondairy lines stocked in cheese cases at Whole Foods. WFM 0.43 % The idea is to grow slowly, ensuring his burger is increasingly in demand among consumers while the company itself remains small enough to fly under the radar of beef lobbyists. “My feeling is, right now, that we’re in the fortunate position where the beef industry is not inclined to feel threatened by anyone like us,” Brown says. “We’re not having a war of aggression on the meat industry — at least overtly.”

I LEAVE THE IMPOSSIBLE FOODS LAB with a lunchbox full of raw, slider-size burgers and head to the San Francisco restaurant Jardinière. Chef-owner Traci Des Jardins is a consulting chef at Impossible Foods, where she has spent the past year developing recipes and teaching scientists about flavors and cooking techniques. Today, she’s making a version of the Impossible Burger that she plans to serve in July.

The patty sizzles like beef in the pan, which gets my appetite going. But the burger Des Jardins delivers to the dining room is improbably loaded with condiments. Inside a small potato roll, a seared patty is covered with dijonnaise — made with vegan Just Mayo, of course — avocado slices, mashed avocado, caramelized onions, tomato and gem lettuce. If a burger needs this many add-ons, how good can it be?

Surprisingly good, it turns out. The rich crust gives way to a soft, slightly tannic pink center. The taste is complex — fruitier, funkier and more barnyardy than any other plant-based veggie burger. The aroma, which accounts for about 80% of what we experience as taste, is exactly like cooked beef. But the texture is slightly off. When I roll a crumb of burger between my fingers, it goes grainy, lacking meat’s melty quality. Still, there’s a bona fide beefiness to the patty; Des Jardins’s accoutrements aren’t hiding anything. I ask for the chef’s opinion. “There’s a little bit of a cereal note to it,” she says. “But I equate this to when grass-fed beef first hit the market. Initially consumers were skeptical, but now some prefer it.”

‘The taste is complex—fruitier, funkier and more barnyardy than any other plant-based veggie burger. The aroma, which accounts for about 80% of what we experience as taste, is exactly like cooked beef.’

Part of grass-fed beef’s appeal is its artisanal nature and the way it varies from purveyor to purveyor, which is something an engineered mix of isolated compounds can never provide. So the Impossible Burger lacks the elemental excitement of a burger blend made from what was once live animals. To Brown, that idea of tastiness is arcane. “We’re going into completely unexplored territories, where there might be flavors and qualities humans have never experienced before,” he says.

Already, his team has accidentally veered into pork territory a few times, then set those experiments aside. They’re entirely focused on replicating 80% lean, 20% fat, middle-of-the-road ground beef. But in chasing that goal, Impossible Foods may have optimized itself into a corner. The burger is designed for a crisp char and sears nicely in a pan, but Des Jardins admits it hasn’t worked as well when cooked over a grill. Supermarket beef is far from an ideal product, and an engineered, Silicon Valley version is…what, exactly? It’s a vegan take on carnivorism — delicious, admirable and still somewhat anemic.

Later, as I’m driving to the airport, I notice that my hands are sticky with juices that seeped from the burger at lunch. Tentatively, I lick my fingers, expecting beef, but finding nothing. In that moment, I’m convinced that the Impossible Burger is a simulacrum, a brilliantly concocted facsimile of the real thing. When a simulation comes this close to reality, the shortcomings are impossible to ignore. Especially since, as a flight attendant distributes tiny bags of pretzels, I realize that I still want lunch.

Corrections & Amplifications

Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat both make plant-based burgers that are raw and intended for cooking. An earlier version of this article incorrectly suggested the Impossible Burger was the only such burger. (June 17, 2016)

Read the WSJ article at:


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