What if plants could actually mimic the flavor and texture of meat? Many have attempted it with varying degrees of success, as most us who have tried a dry and uninspiring veggie burger can attest. At best, it tastes good, but not remotely like meat. At worst, there's the resignation that nothing will ever truly compare.
Certainly, it's difficult to convince meat-lovers that anything could fully resemble the sensory experience involved, from the sizzle of the patty on a hot grill to the charred, caramel aroma that permeates the air, to that first, juicy bite of a burger that's still slightly pink in the center. Only in the fictional world of "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" could Oompa Loompas in white lab coats achieve the impossible by creating chewing gum that tasted like a scrumptious dinner.
But this is Silicon Valley, where scientists in lab coats really do seek to achieve the impossible, albeit without the wonky blue wigs.
While on sabbatical from teaching at the Stanford University School of Medicine several years ago, biologist Pat Brown founded Impossible Foods, seeking to curb the environmental impact of meat production by using plants and sciences to create a more sustainable, meatless burger that still tastes like the real thing.
"I decided that problem was the use of animals as food technology. (It) is by far the greatest threat to the global environment right now, and it was apparent that nobody was really making a serious effort to treat it as a solvable problem," Brown said in a media open house at the company's Redwood City headquarters last Thursday.
People around the world who love meat, fish and dairy are not going to stop eating them, creating a tremendous demand for food whose production is causing an ongoing environmental catastrophe, he said.
Rebekah Moses, Impossible Foods' senior sustainability analyst, highlighted the environmental impact of beef consumption with the example of a single cow. According to Moses, this cow is alive for 1.5 to two years, during which it's walking around, burning calories and emitting methane gas. By the time it gets to the plate, it has consumed 12 pounds of grain for every pound of beef.
In terms of land use, about 30 percent of the ice-free surface of the planet is devoted to producing animals directly, Moses said. As for freshwater use, about 25 percent goes into animal agriculture, at about the same level of emissions as is produced by the entire transportation industry -- planes, trains, cars and rocketships included.
This was what led Brown to establish Impossible Foods in 2011.
"So animals are really, if you think about it, just a technology for transforming plants into meat, fish and dairy foods," Brown said. "We had the opportunity to basically take a fresh look at that problem and say, 'OK, if you were in 2016 trying to come up with the best possible way to make this category of foods sustainably, affordably, scalably, delicious, optimized for nutrition and so forth, how would you do it?' Well, the last thing you would probably ever think of is, 'Let's just put plants into animals and kill them and eat them.'"
So Brown took a 21st-century approach to solving a 21st-century problem. He and a group of scientists have spent the past five years developing a fundamental molecular understanding of what makes meat, meat.
At the Oct. 6 open house, Celeste Holz-Schietinger, a principal scientist at Impossible Foods, demonstrated assembling the company's flagship product: a plant-based burger.
"We chose ground beef -- the burger. It is central to American culture and so many other cultures as well. It's also something that we thought we could do, even though very difficult," she said.
According to Holz-Schietinger, one of the first things the scientists noticed is that meat is made up of transitions: in color, from red to brown; in texture, from squishy to chewy; in flavor, from blandly sweet and metallic to roasted, caramelized notes.
Based on this observation, they used science to tackle the "meat experience."
The burger Holz-Schietinger assembled started with water, wheat and potato protein. But the truly novel secret ingredient was a heme protein, which makes blood red and allows us to breathe and hold oxygen. It's found in muscles and in most plants as well.
"For us, what we identified and had never been discovered before was that to create meat flavor, all of those aromas that take place upon cooking, heme is what drives that and what creates that," she said.
In fact, when in the presence of heme, the nutrients, amino acids, proteins and sugars in beef react to create the aromas and the meat flavor, she explained.
After introducing the heme, Holz-Schietinger added coconut oil, which has a similar melting property as tallow from an animal, she explained. This "fat release" combined with a soy protein controls how the burger cooks as well as its melting profiles. It also contributes to what Holz-Schietinger described as the "mouth-coat" or "mouth-feel" of ground beef.
Glycogen, a carbohydrate; konjac, also known as Japanese yam; and xanthan gum are added to help hold the ground beef together.
Inside the Impossible Foods lab, scientists explained how they use various instruments and machines to gather data on the molecules and components that make meat smell, taste, feel and behave the way that it does under various conditions and temperatures. For example, there's the gas chromatography-mass spectronomy machine that typically is used to measure alcohol in blood samples or to detect traces of flammable liquids at suspected arson sites. At Impossible Foods, it's used to identify the flavor molecules in food.
Across the lab, past beakers and scales and stainless steel equipment, Sergey Solomatin, another principal scientist, explained how various machines help to collect data about the texture of meat. One machine measures the force needed to puncture a piece of meat while another measures how beef firms up as it's being cooked, and yet another collects data on how fat melts. All of this data characterizing animal meat and its components and behavior helps scientists find plant components that produce the same elements.
The burger is also completely vegan- and nut-free, and has no cholesterol, hormones or antibiotics, according to Impossible Foods.
Impossible Foods is starting to find success beyond Silicon Valley labs. The company is partnering with restaurants in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles to serve its burger. It was announced Wednesday that the "Impossible Burger" will debut in San Francisco at French fine-dining restaurant Jardinière and the San Francisco-inspired Cockscomb. The first restaurant to serve the burger was well-known chef David Chang's Momofuku Nishi in New York City.
When Chang first tasted the burger, he posted a photo on Facebook of a dripping, juicy Impossible Foods burger, declaring: "Today I tasted the future and it was vegan ... I can't really comprehend its impact quite yet ... but I think it might change the whole game."
Last week's cooking demo was followed by a picnic -- the moment of truth during which reporters had the chance to taste the burger for themselves. With a light pink tinge on the edge of the patty, the burger not only looked meat-like, it tasted so as well. Notably, it was not dry and did not fall apart. And by the end of the picnic, almost all of the burgers were gone.
Though it may be a while before the Impossible Burger's ground beef is available at your local grocery store, the company's scientists continue to push the boundaries of the impossible as they look to re-create other meat, fish and dairy products in the most scalable, environmentally conscious and nutritious way.