Can a burger made from non-meat fool geeky taste buds? 

  • This Angus beef patty, complete with unique grill marks, contains 20% fat.

  • It may look like beef, but this patty is made up of wheat protein, coconut oil and something called heme.

  • Impossible Burger test Chris Kolb—courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 4/15/2019 5:39:42 PM

In the name of saving the planet, I ate two burgers on Saturday. No sacrifice is too great for journalism.

One burger was, well, a burger: Angus beef with 20% fat content on a toasted bun. The other had a brand name – Impossible Burger – and was made of wheat protein, coconut oil, potato protein and something called heme, served on an identical toasted bun.

I ate them at 603Grill in Milford, an independent restaurant near where I live. It is one of a handful of eateries in New Hampshire serving the Impossible Burger, an interesting attempt to create a satisfying alternative to beef for environmental reasons.

Raising cattle for meat requires huge amounts of cropland and water supplies and produces a surprisingly large amount of greenhouse gas from cattle burps (not cattle farts, which would be funnier). As India and China get richer they will eat more meat, leading to concern about growing environmental damage. A number of groups are trying to satisfy that craving without actually raising full-grown cattle by making meat substitutes in interesting ways, including efforts to grow meat from cattle cells in a petri dish.

The Impossible Burger, which uses a combination of plant-based products, is furthest along commercially. It is about to become much more visible because Burger King plans to serve them, so I thought I’d beat the BK rush and see what it’s like. And the rush is coming: as I filed this story, a West Coast chain called Del Taco announced it will start selling a fake-meat taco made by an Impossible Burger competitor called Beyond Meat.

The 603Grill has been serving Impossible Burgers for many months. Owner Eric Griffin said he added them to the menu to meet customer interest in healthier and alternative foods and I suspect it’s also helps branding, to show that it’s not a run-of-the-mill diner.

Griffin said that while the Impossible Burger is a small part of total burger sales, it is a steady enough seller that he keeps it as a separate menu item. It probably doesn’t hurt that you have to pay a premium to avoid cow flesh: $12 for one as compared to $10 for a regular burger (with sides, of course).

We asked our waitress, Elizabeth Melanson, why people order them. She said it was “50/50” whether they were just curious about the Impossible Burger or wanted a burger experience without being part of the bovine industrial complex.

And, she added, there are no fence-straddlers with the Impossible Burger. “People either like them or hate them,” she said.

So, you ask, what did I think?

Rather than just act as a food critic, my wife and I ran a single-blind taste test. The beef burger and the Impossible Burger were cooked the same and served on the same type bun with minimal condiments. We cut each one into six pieces. She and I, with eyes closed, ate three samples from each burger in randomized order and had to guess which was which.

(It’s a single-blind test because the person serving the sample knew which one it was. In a double-blind test even the server would be ignorant, to prevent accidental cueing of the test subject.)

I was fooled on three of the six samples. Twice I thought a meat burger was an Impossible Burger and once I was wrong the other way around.

High fives for the Impossible Burger folks, right? Yes, but you must know that from a chef’s point of view my palate is sadly indiscriminate. I was one of those single guys who ate cold soup out of the can for dinner and was perfectly happy.

My wife, by contrast, was not fooled at all. She easily identified the meat burger and the Impossible Burger every time. A few friends who tagged along tried an Impossible Burger, although not in a blind taste test, and all agreed that it looked, tasted and felt different than meat, although all of them also liked it.

It is unquestionably a step up from the traditional “veggie burger” alternative for non-meat-eaters. Whether it will ever be more than a weird niche product remains the be seen.

From a geek point of view, the interesting thing about the Impossible Burger is heme.

Heme, as I have only recently learned, is an iron-containing molecule that I had sort of heard of via “hemoglobin,” which makes blood red. Heme is one of the major taste components in meat and figuring out how to duplicate it with similar molecules derived from plants was one of the breakthroughs that was vital for the growth of Impossible Foods, the California-based firm which makes the burger and is developing other plant-based meat substitutes.

What the Impossible Burger doesn’t have is animal fat, and one of my friends pointed this out as the big shortfall. The fact that 603Grill uses beef that is 20 percent fat may be part of the reason that my wife wasn’t fooled.

As I said above, there are other options being pursued to satisfy the world’s meat craving with non-meat. The most interesting is lab-grown or cultured meat, where stem cells from animal muscle multiply and differentiate inside a laboratory creating slabs of muscle for us to eat.

That’s the idea, anyway. It’s still being developed by a bunch of start-ups but the process is far enough along that cattle barons are alarmed and want to make sure that the product isn’t called “meat,” even if it’s entirely made of cells from a cow. I also wonder how vegetarians will react, since no animals will be harmed.

On a bigger scale, all these efforts are part of attempts for humanity to continue living our current life while doing less damage to the planet. Electricity from solar panels instead of coal, products made of biodegradable material instead of plastic, food made of plants instead of meat – we find it easier to change technology than to change our habits and desires. Whether these techno fixes are going to be enough to stave off disaster is an open question.

While I ponder it, maybe I’ll have another burger. Garcon – surprise me!

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)


David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog granitegeek.org, as well as moderator of Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.



Concord Monitor Office

1 Monitor Drive
Concord,NH 03301
603-224-5301

 

© 2021 Concord Monitor
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy