The Veggie Burgers With Meaty Ambition
Science is doing its darndest to create veggie burgers that taste meatier and juicier than ever before. But will they convince the carnivorous to convert?
Can you make a delicious veggie burger? A veggie burger that doesn’t feel like a bad veggie burger—chewy in the wrong way, and with none of the juicy succulence of real beef—but rather one that has the same pleasurable, chewy hit as a regular meat patty.
Impossible, the vegan burger brainchild of Stanford biochemist Patrick Brown, not only looks like the real deal, it even “bleeds” while cooking, during which process the outsides brown and the insides remain pink and flesh-like. They’ve done this with a recipe that includes a compound known as a “heme,” a protein that is found in both blood and the roots of certain plants.
“Heme is the molecule that makes meat taste like meat. It’s the reason meat tastes like nothing else. It’s the reason why red meat, which has more heme, tastes meatier to people than white meat,” Brown told the Wall Street Journal.
With millions of dollars backing him, it’s far from impossible that you’ll see a heme-burger from Brown in the near future. But before that, the Beast Burger is coming.
No, we aren’t launching our own line of signature burgers. The Beast Burger is the brainchild of food wizards and environmentally minded company Beyond Meat, who are already purveyors of a faux ground beef and a faux chicken so convincing that even meat eaters are quick to agree they “almost couldn’t tell the difference.”
Made from a concoction of pea protein and essential fatty acid oils, it boasts, as founder Ethan Brown (no relation to Patrick Brown, incidentally) recently told Outside, “More omegas than salmon. More calcium than milk. More antioxidants than blueberries. Plus muscle-recovery aids. It’s the ultimate performance burger.”
Will meat-lovers ever convert to this new generation of veggie imitators? Americans eat 50 billion burgers a year. That’s a lot of beef, and beef accounts for as much as a quarter of the greenhouse gases that are causing global warming. Billions of cows, just chewing and farting, chewing and farting, all day long. In fact, just to make one damned cheeseburger, you’re averaging the same carbon footprint as a 3,000-pound car driving ten miles.
Even if you go with the organic, free range, grass fed, massaged-twice-a-day happy cows, they’re still sucking in grass on one end and blasting out methane on the other, let alone sucking up our water resources and, at the other end of the processing plant, emerging with e. coli and poop all up in the mix.
Not to mention the human toll—cow flesh has been linked to cancer and heart disease, and our passion for a good slab o’ meat isn’t doing much to curb the obesity epidemic.
And so the veggie-burger seems to offer a whole sunny field of benefits. On the one side, we have veggie burgers. There are tons of options, from your average Gardenburger base of veggies mixed with textured soy protein, to bean and rice patties, to, on the bleeding edge, an “almost meat” meat alternative.
The majority of veggie burgers are made from spices and grains or filler veggies mixed with a chewy dose of textured vegetable protein, which often include soy by products and wheat gluten, in order to provide a vaguely meat-like mouth feel and chewiness—something to make it seem as though you aren’t just chewing plants.
Unfortunately, these ingredients have their potential drawbacks as well: soy has drawn concern in regards to its potential long term effects on men, which may include estrogen-like symptoms, from breast sensitivity and a decrease in sex drive, though there are multiple schools of thought on the subject.” And we live in a society that sees gluten as the food equivalent of the Satan. Plus, it’s becoming harder and harder to get non-GMO soy.
There also isn’t much about any of these products that is going to make your mouth water and say “mmmm…. Burger.” No matter how many savory spices and smoky accents they add, it’s almost impossible to recreate the sheer fatty joy of real ground meat sizzling on a grill.
But the Impossible and Beast burgers get closer to meaty-tasting pay-dirt than most. Both Patrick Brown and Ethan Brown are renegade food chemists with deep scientific pedigree and the favor of Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who sees meat replacements as a positive step towards a less polluted and healthier planet and has offered up funding and business advice for both ventures.
Ethan Brown believes in his product, not just its taste, but its in-the-mouth feel, and smell, and its nutritional value. Indeed, he has thrown down the gauntlet to some of the nation’s best boutique burger joints, offering a free pallet of his Beast meat to all those that were mentioned in this HuffPo article debunking the health myths behind “better,” or allegedly higher quality, beef burgers.
The Daily Beast managed to get our hands on a pre-market Beast Burger sample. How did it rack up? Well, initially it does look, and even smell, like a pre-fab frozen burger you’d get at the supermarket. Portion size is about the same as one Five Guys burger, or maybe a 1/3 pound cooked beef patty.
It should also be noted that when you cook up a Beast Burger, it does sizzle and spit, just like the real thing. Browning the outside enough to get the interior hot and some cheese melted, we served it with a bit of avocado on a standard issue bun.
And you know what? It was damn good—far better than the usual cork disk of smoky flavor one would normally associate with the sort of veggie burger that tries to impersonate the real deal. But was it as good as that real deal? Could you trick someone into believing that they were chowing down on cow, not an extruded mass of plant parts?
Frankly, no. Or, at least, not really. While it definitely beat out any other meatless alternative this writer has had—and he’s had a lot—it also didn’t compare, on a pure meat and fattiness scale, to any mid grade or better beef counterpart.
It definitely was, however, more meat-like than a bottom-of-the-barrel grey slab of fast food “real” burger. I’m not sure what percentage of the 50 billion burgers we eat are from McDonalds or Burger King, but you could swap their offerings with the Beast and everyone would immediately think it was an upgrade. But compared to real top sirloin, or even In & Out? Sorry, Charlie, but you’ll be asking, “where’s the beef?”
The Beast gives burger-eaters the perfect opportunity to go veggie, without feeling like they’re missing out on something wonderful: the birthright of our people, a delicious burger fresh off a grill.
It’s not just vegetarians who are working toward a better burger. On the carnivorous side, a fellow named Mark Post made headlines last year when he grew a burger in a lab with stem cells—just one sampling of cells from real cows is enough to potentially grow 20,000 tons of meat. How’s that for sustainability?
Real animal meat. Completely lab grown. In a petri dish. But it was never “alive,” per se. Never grazed, never drank water, never farted a hole in the ozone layer.
Unfortunately the price, at $332,000 for five ounces of meat, left a little to be desired. As did the taste and texture, which was described as “more cake than steak.”
“The surface of the meat was crunchy—surprisingly. The taste itself was as juicy as meat can be, but different. It tastes like meat, not a meat substitute like soya or whatever,” explained food researcher Hanni Rutzler, who sampled it.
But small details like flavor are fixable, and the animal protein patty could be on store shelves in as little as a decade or two, especially with backers like Google billionaire Sergey Brin pushing for it, not to mention heavy interest from the food industry.
“They’re considering it as a business idea,” Post recently told Time, detailing a bevvy of improvements for lab burger 2.0. For those of us who love our burgers but feel that first world guilt over environmental perils, the future is looking as bright as the coals on backyard grill.