Will the next generation of vegetarian patties be able to disrupt their meat counterparts?
The “bloody” battle to build the best next-generation veggie burger is heating up this week, with Impossible Foods’ own Impossible Burger set to debut on Wednesday at one of David Chang’s Manhattan restaurants, Momofuku Nishi. The burger is the first product to come to market from the much-hyped, much-VC-funded Impossible Foods, which was founded five years ago by Stanford biochemist Patrick Brown to develop plant-based alternatives to meat and dairy products.
It seems Chang was chomping at the bit to become an early adopter of Impossible Foods’ burger technology. Eater reports that the Momofuku chef sought out the company after hearing about the Impossible Burger a year ago. “I was genuinely blown away when I tasted the burger.... The Impossible Foods team has discovered how to reengineer what makes beef taste like beef,” he told Eater.
The quest to create a plant-based burger that cooks, smells, tastes, feels, and even seems to bleed like real beef has become something of a Holy Grail for a cadre of headline-grabbing food-tech start-ups led by Impossible Foods and its rival, Beyond Meat. The latter debuted its Beyond Burger at a handful of Whole Foods in Colorado and Washington, D.C., in May. Some locations sold out of the raw patties, slyly placed near the meat counter, within an hour.
For its part, Impossible Foods says it has plans to bring its meatless burgers to as-yet-unannounced restaurants in San Francisco and Los Angeles “soon.” It will make its faux beef available in grocery stores sometime after that.
Among the attributes that have garnered oohs and aahs from early tasters of both companies’ plant-based patties is their sanguineous ooze—that gross-if-you-think-too-much-about-it-but-nevertheless-trademark trait of your classic all-American all-beef burger. Whereas the trompe l’oeil effect is achieved via beet juice in Beyond Meat’s burger, Impossible Foods synthesized cow blood using heme, a molecule most often found in hemoglobin but also found in a few plants—thus, presumably, keeping it all vegetarian.
There would appear to be a dazzling pot of gold waiting for whichever company succeeds in creating a viable veggie burger that is able to pass a blind taste test alongside a run-of-the-mill ground beef patty. But the take-it-slow approach adopted by both Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods in unveiling their burgers suggests there’s plenty of risk in rushing to market—even as it belies the tens of millions of dollars in venture capital funding both companies have received (including from Bill Gates). After all, the American burger is an icon, and the veggie burger market is littered with scores of would-be imitators whose most salient achievement has been to make most consumers wish they were holding the real thing in their hands.
The new generation of veggie burgers would appear to be a whole different ball game, and they’ve attracted breathless reviews beyond David Chang’s. On the one hand, as Americans are growing more conscious of the disastrous health and environmental consequences of our meat obsession, who among us wouldn’t welcome a guilt-free alternative that tastes—and “bleeds”—the same as the flame-broiled patties on which we were raised?
Yet for all the wide-eyed wonder inspired by bleeding veggie burgers, it remains to be seen just how well they might be received relative to another dynamic at play in our current food moment. If more of us are going more vegetarian in our diets, we’re also more suspicious of food that’s been processed beyond all recognition—and it’s hard to get more highly processed beyond recognition than plant matter that’s been engineered to bleed.