It looked like a burger. It smelled like a burger. But all things considered, I wasn’t sure these were positives.
As a vegetarian for more than 25 years, I’m no stranger to meat alternatives. Trying the latest meat analogue seems like required eating. So, I found myself facing down an Impossible Burger. I asked my omnivore husband one last time if he was sure the burger didn’t contain animal products. Once I was reassured, I took a bite.
It tasted like a beef burger — more accurately, it tasted like what I remember a burger tasting like. It didn’t seem like an especially good burger. It reminded me of seasonless patties served in my elementary school cafeteria. Secondly, its resemblance to beef was deeply unsettling. After a quarter-century of vegetarianism, the smell and taste of meat repulse me.
With each bite, my disquiet continued. “Blood” dripped down my fingers, sparking guilt even though I knew it was only plant-based liquid. I ate a few more bites and stopped, once again persuaded that black-bean burgers are my burger of choice. No matter. I’m not the audience for Impossible Burgers and the other mock meats flooding the market.
Led by Impossible Foods, creators of the Impossible Burger, and Beyond Meat, plant-based meats are hitting the mainstream as never before. According to the Plant Based Foods Association, plant-based food sales have increased 11 percent in the past year. The overall U.S. food retail market grew only 2 percent during the same period. Plant-based foods are big business: The institute’s July 2019 analysis valued the U.S. market at $4.5 billion.
Home cooks aren’t the only ones jumping on the bandwagon. Burger King plans to release the Impossible Whopper to its 7,200 stores across the U.S. this year, joining other national chains like White Castle, Carl’s Jr., Subway, Del Taco, and Dunkin’ also putting plant-based meat options on their menus. They’re just meeting customer demand. Food delivery service Grubhub, for example, found a 25 percent increase in vegan-friendly orders in 2019 over the same period a year ago.
Customers are craving more sustainable options. A 2018 International Food Information Council (IFIC) study found that six in 10 consumers find sustainability important in their purchases — a 50-percent increase from the previous year. That seems to prove true locally, too. Katlyn Badeaux, chef of the soon-to-open Root 66 café, says meat eaters commonly dine in vegan restaurants like hers. “I feel we are at a point where even if someone isn’t vegan 100 percent of the time, they have an interest in practicing plant-based eating. … More than a rise in veganism, I’ve seen a lot of people cutting out certain foods and trying to be more aware of their impact.” This cultural tipping point coincides with technology that has made plant-based meats more approachable for non-vegan and non-vegetarian consumers.
THE FUTURE OF PROTEIN
Meat alternatives are certainly not new. Protein-rich options like tofu have been available in China since the Han Dynasty. Recipes for seitan (wheat gluten) and tempeh (another fermented soybean product) date back centuries. More recently, Quorn, which uses a fermented fungus to create a dough called mycoprotein, launched in 1985. (To me, Quorn tastes and looks like chicken; friends I’ve convinced to try it assure me it does not.) However, many omnivores dub these products unpalatable. Some find the textures odd, while others feel these options have off-putting or nonexistent flavor.
Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have turned the heads of mainstream diners because their products have the taste and texture of meat. With these companies’ burgers, strips, and crumbles, many omnivores feel they don’t have to sacrifice to eat less animal meat.
Science has made meat mimicry possible. Founded in 2011, Impossible Foods uses a base of soy products, coconut oil, and potato protein for its patties. The company’s true achievement is its creation of plant-based heme — the molecule that makes meat taste like meat. To create heme, they started with a protein from the roots of soy plants called soy leghemoglobin. Then scientists inserted its DNA into a genetically engineered yeast and fermented it, similar to the way that beer is fermented.
Founded in 2009, Beyond Meat takes a different approach with a similar goal. It uses peas, mung beans, and rice to provide a complete protein. Beets give Beyond Meat burgers a pink color in the middle and that juice-dripping-down-your-fingers quality when eaten. It moved further toward a meat-like product with the 2016 release of the Beyond Burger, which has marbling made from coconut oil and cocoa butter that melts and tenderizes like beef. It’s so convincing that Whole Foods sold the product in the meat case. These creations may seem like something out of The Jetsons, but are they more sustainable and healthier?
Raising animals for beef requires vast resources and creates environmentally harmful methane emissions. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Animal Science indicates that a single quarter-pound burger takes 52.8 gallons of water and 74.5 square feet for grazing cattle and growing feed crops. Although ranchers have become more efficient, the demand for beef is growing. A United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization study suggested that meat production will have to increase by 70 percent to fulfill the caloric and nutritional needs associated with global population growth and a rising appetite for beef. Plus, when you consider livestock and manure emissions, the EPA observes that the agricultural sector is the largest source in the United States of methane gas, which accounts for 10 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gases.
Impossible Foods’ research says eating one of their burgers will slash these impacts. It uses 96 percent less land and 87 percent less water, and produces 89 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions. Those results earned it (and Beyond Meat) the 2018 Champions of Earth Award from the United Nations, the organization’s highest accolade for environmental justice.
Swapping out a meat-based burger for one made from plants is good for the environment, but is it good for you?
THE MAGIC MEAL
Registered dietician Elizabeth Jaramillo-Lopez, of Santa Fe’s Endurance Nutrition, has observed her clients leaning toward plant-based diets. There are some health benefits to doing so. Red-meat-heavy diets have been associated with a greater risk of cancer, particularly colorectal cancer, and coronary heart disease. However, Jaramillo-Lopez says plant-based meats are not “an option that should be put on a pedestal as the only thing you should eat.”
She sees the quick adoption of plant-based meats as a reflection of the American culture of convenience. “People often try to find a magic food to make them healthier, to make them lose weight, to make us feel good about ourselves,” she says.
Jaramillo-Lopez acknowledges the environmental benefits of plant-based diets but suggests a moderated approach. She advises food plans that combine red meats; other meats, like chicken and turkey; and plant-based proteins. Plant-based proteins can include unprocessed, whole-food options like beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds, as well as more processed plant-based meats. “Adding more of these to your eating plan will help you keep the protein level up and give you variety,” she says. “It can fit into your overall food intake. What’s important is to know your food values and knowing what makes you feel good when you put it into your body.”
For this vegetarian, that won’t include an Impossible Burger anytime soon. But it may for my omnivore husband. ◀