The Biography of a Plant-Based Burger

By | Published Sep 06, 2016 | Pacific Standard
The Biography of a Plant-Based Burger

I’m sitting in a Silicon Valley conference room, gazing at a burger on a plate and thinking about its past. This sort of speculation has been something of a national pastime since 2002, when Michael Pollan wrote a seminal feature for the New York Times Magazine called “Power Steer.” The essay was, as Pollan put it, “the biography of my cow,” and it traced the journey of No. 534, an eight-month-old steer he had purchased, from its birth on a South Dakota prairie, through branding and castration, weaning from its mother, forced conversion to a diet of corn and antibiotics, confinement in a manure-caked Kansas feedlot, and up to its inevitable end in a slaughterhouse, where it would be stunned, skinned, and eviscerated.

Power Steer” illuminated not just the misery of industrial meat production, but also the extraordinary sums of chemical fertilizer, oil, pharmaceuticals, and land required to keep the system afloat — all of which remained invisible at the meat counter. “What grocery-store item is more silent about its origins than a shrink-wrapped steak?” Pollan asked. “If I was going to continue to eat red meat, then I owed it to myself, as well as to the animals, to take more responsibility for the invisible but crucial transaction between ourselves and the animals we eat.”

It’s easy to forget what a radical idea this was, and what an impact the piece had on American food culture. It must have launched a thousand grass-fed farms and farm-to-table bistros. In a sense, it also helped produce the burger before me, now oozing an ocher jus onto its bottom bun. Because the more attention consumers paid to the realities of feedlot farming, the more they wanted out. But organic, grass-fed, and local meat is expensive, and vegetarianism appeals to surprisingly few Americans — just 2 percent, almost all of whom lapse at some point. Meat happens to be incredibly tasty and convenient, and the substitutes we’ve been offered heretofore have done little to help us forget it.

When you sink your teeth into a perfectly grilled burger with all your favorite fixings, there’s a momentary sense of being the luckiest organism on Earth.

But this burger before me, piled with pickles and onions and avocado and looking seriously meaty, may represent the first real solution to Pollan’s dilemma. Which could make this piece a kind of bookend to “Power Steer.” This is the biography of my burger — but it is a radically different story from No. 534’s. Unlike poor 534, my burger actually has a name: It’s called Griffin (which I’ll explain shortly). And if Griffin delivers, then we may be able to close the book on the whole sad, ugly story of industrial meat sooner than anybody realizes, because Griffin happens to be entirely animal-free.

Patrick O. Brown, the creative force behind Griffin, likes to tell the story of the 1830 race between Tom Thumb, one of the first steam locomotives, and a draft horse on a newly constructed segment of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. The race started, and Tom Thumb began to pull away from the horse, but then it threw a belt and the horse passed it. The takeaway from that story, Brown says, is not that the horse won. It’s that the horse was never going to win again.

So what I’m wondering, as the first tendrils of beefiness fill the air of the conference room, is if this race is competitive. If this burger is as good as its inventors say — if it even comes close to tasting like a conventional hamburger — then the cow is never going to win again.

The biography of my burger begins in 2009 — not on a ranch but in the mind of a graying, bespectacled, 62-year-old Stanford University professor. In the 1990s, Brown pioneered DNA microarrays, a technology used to measure gene expression and determine an individual gene’s function, which made possible many of the genetic breakthroughs of the past 20 years. In 2000 he co-founded the Public Library of Science, a non-profit publisher of open-access science journals, as a way of disrupting the pay-per-view journal model. At Stanford, he had his own biochemistry lab for mapping the way genes respond to their environment, particularly in relation to cancer cells.

In 2009, Brown decided to devote an 18-month sabbatical to eliminating industrial meat production, which he determined at the time to be the world’s largest environmental problem. A staggering one-third of the land on Earth is used to raise livestock and their food. The Midwest is a giant feed trough. Reducing meat consumption, Brown figured, would free up vast amounts of land and water, would greatly mitigate climate change, would alleviate the suffering of billions of animals, would eliminate mountains of chemical fertilizer, and would make people healthier. It seemed like a no-brainer.

Such a no-brainer, in fact, that at first Brown assumed all he had to do was a little education. “I started doing the typical misguided academic approach to the problem,” he told me. He organized an A-list 2010 National Research Council workshop in Washington called “The Role of Animal Agriculture in a Sustainable 21st Century Global Food System,” which caused not a ripple. Not long after, he determined that the only real way to impact meat production would be to beat it in the free market. “All you have to do is make a product that the current consumers of meat and dairy prefer to what they’re getting now,” he said. “It’s easier to change people’s behavior than to change their minds.”

By the end of his sabbatical, Brown, who has been a vegetarian since the 1970s and a vegan since 2004, had distilled his challenge: He would re-create meat, but with plants. All meat production is environmentally ruinous, but beef is by far the worst offender, so for his initial target, Brown chose ground beef, which accounts for 60 percent of all beef consumption.

Various companies have been trying for decades to concoct a veggie burger that is as juicy and toothsome as a fresh-cooked beef burger, but so far no one has come close. Plant stuff just doesn’t act like animal stuff. But Brown thought it could. “I was exceedingly confident that we could make products that compete on an even playing field with anything the animal-farming industry makes,” he told me as we toured Impossible Foods, his start-up. Brown is lean and owlish and very serious.

Photo: McNair Evans

“The food industry is decades behind the times,” he said. “The stuff we’re doing now that’s new to the food system was old news 40 years ago in the biotech world.” Brown knew he could extract certain ingredients from certain plants and make them do things they had never done before. He believed he could create a meat substitute that would act exactly like ground beef.

Convinced that the moment was right, Brown began to assemble the expensive equipment and tech-savvy minds needed for his burger moonshot project. And that meant turning to Silicon Valley. “If you live around here,” he told me, “you can’t walk down the block without tripping over a venture capitalist.”

When Brown said this, Alison Davis, the 27-year-old manager of special projects for Impossible Foods, was with us. She immediately laughed and said, “Pat Brown can’t walk down the street without tripping over a venture capitalist.” That’s because they all throw themselves at his feet and beg the Gandalf of Stanford to take their money. Brown regularly utters venture capital catnip like, “Our mission is not to make a decent burger, it’s to make the best burger the world has ever seen.” And as much as Silicon Valley loves Brown, he loves it right back. “There’s this sense that there are all these things that are possible that you can’t imagine,” he told me, “that the world can be very different from the way it is today. Out here, you’re more appreciated if you’re doing something insanely ambitious, even if it doesn’t work. There’s a tolerance for swinging for the fences and striking out.”

Brown met with three venture capital firms and came away with three offers. He chose Khosla Ventures because he felt Vinod Khosla best grasped the urgency of the problem, and because Khosla agreed that the company could never be sold to the meat industry, which could have made it disappear for pocket change, eliminating the competition.

Suddenly he had $3 million of seed money. And that meant it was time to leave Stanford. “I never imagined that I’d want to leave,” he admitted. “My job description was: Follow your curiosity wherever it leads you and make discoveries. I was not at all looking for a change. But to do this project, I had to.”

Picture, in your mind, a fat, juicy hamburger hot off the grill. It’s sizzling, it’s weeping a little grease, and it’s pumping out some outrageously tasty aromas. Now raise it to your mouth and sink your teeth in. Hot, salty juice sprays across your palate, your mouth waters, and your brain is filled with smoky happiness.

Humans are hard-wired to go crazy for meat — one of our richest sources of sustenance. Plants are just a few percent protein, but meat is mostly protein, which our bodies use to build brains and biceps and enzymes and more. We crave meat on a visceral level.

“One of the first things we needed to do is to have a biochemical understanding of why meat tastes like meat,” Brown told me as we stepped into the Impossible Foods research and development lab. I gazed at the gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer (GC-MS), a pile of white cabinets and flashing lights that looked as if it had been assembled by a Hollywood set designer. At one end, a lab-coated, safety-goggled guy named Alex was sniffing the end of a glass tube.

A GC-MS separates the aroma-carrying molecules in a food and boils them off one by one. Half the flow is directed to the mass spectrometer, which identifies the molecules by mass and charge, while the other half heads for the nose of somebody like Alex, who writes down what he smells. As I peeked over Alex’s shoulder, he wrote: “Chemical. Astringent. Green veg. Sweet. Beef. Sulfur. Cedar bark.”

“When you cook ground beef,” Brown explained, “of the thousands of compounds that come through, maybe 150 have a smell that you can detect. None of them smell like meat. They smell like butter, caramel, dust, garbage, a struck match, lilacs, but not meat. But they become meat” — he tapped his head — “up here.”

In fact, the list of flavors and aromas that make up beef is pretty weird. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association primer on the subject lists the expected beefy, meaty, roasted, fatty, savory, and brothy flavors, but also nutty, mushroom, sweet, sour, bitter, dairy, waxy, buttery, green, grassy, musty, fruity, bell pepper, potato, pungent, metallic, earthy, beany, soapy, sulfurous, rancid, sweaty, and, my personal favorite, warmed over. It makes you realize that, when we know we’ve got a hunk of beef on the end of our fork, we’re pretty forgiving about what it actually tastes like.

Our kids may expect their burgers to come in an audacious array of textures and flavors, none of them held back by the physical limitations of meat.

To choose a representative burger flavor to re-create, Impossible Foods sampled widely in the marketplace. “Some of the bad ones are really shitty,” said Celeste Holz-Schietinger, Impossible Foods’ lead flavor scientist. (And that is literally true: When Consumer Reports tested 300 samples of ground beef around the country, all 300 tested positive for fecal contamination.) On the other hand, in taste tests, top grades of beef like Kobe don’t significantly outperform Safeway 80/20 ground beef, which is what Impossible Foods ended up choosing. “It’s the most standard beef out there,” she said. “It’s a good reference point for most people’s experience.”

Most key beef aromas are generated through the alchemy of cooking, when heat transforms the proteins, fats, and sugars in raw beef into new compounds. Nailing the perfect raw-beef replacement doesn’t mean mixing a cocktail of the final flavors; it means finding the right precursors. And this is what no veggie burger has ever been able to accomplish. The best try to maximize brothy flavors while suppressing cereal ones, but none has ever gone beyond a savory miso — not bad, but not beef.

What’s missing is blood.

Beef contains hemoglobin, which, Impossible Foods researchers found, is the secret catalyst that transforms raw flesh into yum.

If your blood were a start-up, you might say that its core technology is heme, an iron-containing molecule with the ability to grab oxygen from the lungs and deliver it through the bloodstream to your cells. Oxygen particularly loves to bind with iron (hence rust), and, when this happens, the resulting compound turns red. Heme is why hemoglobin is red, and it’s also what separates red meat from white meat. Ground beef is about 10 parts per million heme, while chicken is only two parts per million heme. Pork is in the middle at three to eight parts per million. Add heme to raw chicken, cook it, and people start to think it tastes like beef. Add too much heme and it tastes like liver.

As soon as heme was added to the Impossible Foods formula, the classic beefy scents and tastes emerged. Which made the first challenge obvious: The meatless burger needed blood.

I’d always assumed the animal kingdom had a lock on hemoglobin, but it turns out that soy and other nitrogen-fixing legumes make it too. Dig up a soy plant and you’ll find red marbles amid the roots. These are root nodules, which capture nitrogen (an essential component of protein) with the help of millions of symbiotic bacteria. Root nodules are red because of the presence of hemoglobin, which the plants use to maintain proper oxygen levels for the underground bacteria to do their work.

Initially, Impossible Foods hoped to source the heme for its burger from soy root nodules. But harvesting underground soy roots would have entailed developing a new supply chain, and would have released quite a lot of carbon into the atmosphere as well, so the company tried the Silicon Valley approach: taking the snippet of soy DNA that codes for heme and inserting it into a standard yeast strain.

Photo: McNair Evans

Yeasts are the single-celled workhorses of biotechnology, so malleable and undemanding that they can be genetically tweaked to make almost anything: alcohols, oils, proteins. Genetically modified yeasts have been used for years to produce things like pharmaceuticals and the animal-free rennet used in cheesemaking. Impossible Foods has invented a yeast that makes plant blood.

Inside the Impossible Foods pilot plant, 24 hours a day, five days a week, stainless steel fermentation tanks filled with this proprietary yeast crank out bright-red heme. If you were to sample it, you’d think you just bit your lip. It runs through tubes, is purified in a series of columns, and then is frozen in ice-cube trays until it’s time to make burgers. (Though most of the yeast is filtered out of the heme — and no GMO crops are used — there are still trace amounts of genetically modified ingredients in the Impossible Burger, which, I suspect, may attract some level of antipathy from the natural foods crowd.)

Much of the company’s first year was devoted to developing, patenting, and proving its heme technology. Then it was time to design the rest of the burger. Each significant burger iteration is codenamed after a bird, starting with A; both Anhinga and Blue-Footed Booby tasted more like “rancid polenta,” in Brown’s words, than beef, but he caught a glimpse of the path to success. He had 25 employees and counting, and was well on his way to beating meat. But there was just one problem. He was out of seed money. So he went back to the venture capitalists and raised another $75 million. He’d learned over time how to better frame his pitch. “I kind of hadn’t realized how much businesspeople focus on money,” he admitted to me. “Which sounds incredibly naive. But I’d go in and my pitch would be, ‘This is such a huge problem for the world, and we have a solution.’ And almost as a footnote, I’d say, ‘Oh, and by the way, this is a trillion-dollar industry.’ Over time, the footnote became the headline.”

Heme may be the magic that manifests the Beef Experience, but a burger is mostly just a lump of flesh. All the carcass trimmings that don’t fit neatly into one of the more valuable cuts of beef get dumped into meat grinders and extruded as the pink squiggles we know and love. Most of this tissue is fat and muscle, but there are also blood vessels, nerve tissue, and a lot of connective tissue — the membranes and collagen that hold the animal together. That connective tissue plays an important role in building a burger, contributing the slightly gristly chew that gives the thing its bounce, which is also something no veggie burger has been able to duplicate.

Photo: McNair Evans

Inventing an analog for connective tissue was the job of the Protein Discovery Team. There’s a lot to discover. Every plant species contains 20,000 to 40,000 proteins in its genome, any one of which could have surprising functions once separated from the rest of the plant.

“It’s never-ending Christmas for a biochemist like me,” declared Allen Henderson, who was standing at a stainless steel table in the lab, wearing the Impossible Foods lab uniform — white lab coat, plastic gloves, safety goggles. He handed me a rubbery, beige hunk of mystery and said, “I just feel like I’m playing the whole time.”

Soft-spoken, with kind eyes and a touch of professorial gray in his beard, Henderson embodies the Impossible Foods vibe. He was a postdoc at the University of California–San Francisco when the company found him. “I’d been building this career toward a professorship,” he recalled. “But when I interviewed here, the culture and the scientific questions were so compelling that I actually walked away from everything. I spent a long weekend torturing over it, and the thing that tipped the scales was that I realized this was the one thing I could do as a scientist that would make the biggest impact on the world.”

Henderson described what he does as protein speed dating. “I’m learning a lot about how proteins do or don’t play well together.” The rules are turning out to be very different than we thought. “They do things that are completely unexpected. I have over a decade of training as a biochemist, and I’m still like, Why did that just happen?” Impossible Foods has patents in the works for using proteins to bind, emulsify, gel, and stretch in novel ways. The hunk in my hand squeezed and tore like chicken breast, with noticeable muscle fiber striations, but was actually made from soy proteins.

“When you cook ground beef, of the thousands of compounds that come through, maybe 150 have a smell that you can detect. None of them smell like meat. They smell like butter, caramel, dust, garbage, a struck match, lilacs, but not meat.”

For practicality, the Protein Discovery Team limits its experimentation to plants that are already part of the food system and can be sourced relatively inexpensively around the world. The muscle tissue in Griffin comes from select wheat and potato proteins, while the connective tissue comes from soybeans and wheat gluten. The fat is coconut oil, emulsified so that it mimics flecks of beef tallow, which partially melt during cooking. Together, these fats and proteins act like ground beef when heated, searing and cohering into a springy, moist matrix.

Griffin’s predecessor, Falcon, chewed like beef and had the bloody savor of beef, but something was still missing. So it was back to the ol’ gas chromatograph, which indicated that Falcon needed a touch of some sweet and fatty aldehydes and ketone molecules, many of which are common in the cucurbit family, which includes cucumbers and melons. Could that really transform Falcon into beef?

“A few weeks ago we had a melon party,” Alison Davis told me. “We had four people in the kitchen all day slicing and boiling melons. We had special melon music playing.”

They tried mixing each one into the formulation. “Cantaloupe was a no-go for sure,” Celeste Holz-Schietinger recalled with a shudder. “We tried watermelon. We tried some squashes.” All weird. Then they tried honeydew. “It was a yay! We knew right away.” With honeydew in the mix, they decided they were ready to take on beef.

But I get to be the judge of that. After watching a technician mix muscle tissue, connective tissue, heme, and a few flavor compounds into a pink patty, I follow her to the conference room, where she fries a burger on an electric griddle, plates it expertly on a cute bun with avocado, caramelized onions, egg-free dijonnaise, and cornichons, and presents it to me with a basket of chips on the side.

And now I lift the burger, and bite, and chew.

It is profoundly awkward to be chewing a burger in silence with the eyes of five Impossible Foodies fixed upon me. It’s a tense moment. Their nervousness is palpable. They really, really want me to like this burger. And I really, really want to like it too. I want it to be the best burger I’ve ever eaten. I want Tom Thumb to leave the horse in the dust. I want steer No. 534 to be out of a job.

And it’s…

Not quite there.

It’s a solid burger, better than any veggie burger I’ve tried (and I’ve tried them all), but it’s not a mind-blower. The chew is right. The smell is right. What’s missing is the joy. When you sink your teeth into a perfectly grilled burger with all your favorite fixings, there’s a momentary sense of hitting the jackpot, of being the luckiest organism on Earth. And that, I think, will be hard to replicate.

Would I opt for this burger instead of the mind-blower, sacrificing a soupçon of taste for a generous helping of righteousness? Absolutely.

Would Joe Beef? Not likely.

I manage to utter some nice things about the burger, congratulate them on strong work, and, soon after, my visit to Impossible Foods ends.

But that is not the end of this story. Because in Silicon Valley there is never an end. There is only a next. Honeydew proved hard to come by in the quantities needed, and so was withdrawn from the formula, while other ingredients were added along the road to refinement. After Griffin came Harpy. And Harpy begat Ibis, which begat Jailbird, which begat Kiwi, which led to Loon. And in May 2016, two little pink shrink-wrapped sliders arrive at my door in a foam box. It had taken some cajoling to convince the company to ship them to me. I even had to agree to a Skype tutorial on how to cook them (the upshot: fry in a little vegetable oil until brown, then flip).

The burgers are accompanied by three pages of instructions, their own buns, and tiny containers of chopped cornichons, caramelized onions, and homemade dijonnaise sauce, all of which I immediately discard. My plan is to fry a Loon slider alongside a slider of real ground beef in a separate pan.

Photo: Sam Kaplan; Styling: Victoria Granof

The raw Loon burger looks unquestionably like ground beef, only slightly paler and more finely grained, and it even smells like raw meat, cool and dank. In the pan, it immediately begins to sizzle as fat melts out, though significantly less fat than the Walmart Special beside it, which is hissing and spitting like a Chinese sparkler.

Unlike ground beef, which becomes firmer during the cooking process, the Impossible Burger initially softens, which would make it difficult to grill. But soon I see a firm brown line creeping upward from the bottom of the burger and droplets of “blood” seeping out of the perimeter. I flip. The top has a gorgeous brown crust — much more so than the hamburger, thanks to those potato proteins — and the patty has firmed up nicely. It smells like steak and caramel. I let it cook another minute, then nestle it in a bun with ketchup and tomato, and chomp down while still standing there at the stove. Juice squirts out the back of the burger and hits the hot pan with a hiss. I know that sound, and it doesn’t come from a veggie burger.

This time around, my world shifts a little. That semi-crispy crust is a savory revelation, even if it’s not entirely hamburger-like. The inside isn’t overly homogenous, as veggie burgers tend to be. It’s chewy without being gristly. It feels clean yet flavorful, and I can already see that any kid raised on the Impossible Burger would likely be repulsed by a greasy hamburger. To that generation, “Power Steer” may be nothing but a historical curiosity, the Jungle of its time.

In other words, if you own shares in livestock, it might be a good time to sell.

By the time you read this, the Impossible Burger will be making its debut at a handful of upscale burger joints, and the market will begin to decide its fate.

But this story doesn’t end with Loon either, of course. “A cow will never get better at being meat,” Brown says, “but we’ll get better and better at understanding meat and using that information. When we get to the point where our burger is just as delicious as the best burger you’ve ever eaten, we don’t have to stop there.” I find myself fantasizing about Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker and Zebra Finch. Our kids may expect their burgers — and dogs and nuggets — to come in an audacious array of textures and flavors, none
of them held back by the physical limitations of meat. To them, the prospect of making burgers out of something as bland as beef may be as appealing as riding from Baltimore to Ohio on a horse.

That moment is not yet here. The initial price of the burger will make it more alluring to sustainability freaks like me than to Joe Beef. But in a few years, once the company has its production plant up and running, the price will start to drop. At that point, Brown and his team will have their sights trained right on Safeway 80/20.

Those same economies of scale will reduce the burger’s environmental footprint, which already is a fraction of a hamburger’s. The Impossible Burger uses one-ninth the water and one-twelfth the land and produces one-quarter of the greenhouse gases as a beef burger. “It isn’t that our process is so brilliant or efficient,” Brown says, “it’s that when you’re competing against cows, you’d have to be deliberately trying to fail to be as bad as they are.”

The last time I saw Brown, we were hurtling down Highway 101 from South San Francisco, where Brown had inspected (and rejected) a defunct dried-soup facility that he had hoped to lease. Impossible Foods had grown from 25 employees to 125, Brown had a fresh $108 million from investors, and he was scrambling to find new digs before the insatiable Google snapped everything up. (He eventually found an industrial space in Oakland.) It was late in the day, the soup facility had been a bust, and I wondered if saving the world was turning out to be a bit of a grind.

Brown was undeterred. He told me that once the burger was launched, he’d be going after other foods. He mentioned bacon, sausage, cheese, and blue fin tuna, which also derives its meaty flavor from heme. That rubbery prototype I’d held in the lab was possibly on its way to being steak. Chicken and fish were also in the works. There were several patents pending.

It all sounded so Silicon Valley. Meanwhile, back on planet Earth, meat was still big business, with tremendous political and economic clout. I told Brown that he was taking on a very big opponent, one that wasn’t going down without a fight, but he waved off my concern. “The livestock industry is intrinsically fragile,” he suggested. “It’s got small margins, it’s got very long planning cycles, and it does not deal well with instability.” His voice had the flat, declarative tones of somebody explaining the law of gravity. “The fundamental economics of it are completely unsuited to 2016,” he said. “And that means it’s not going to exist in several decades.”

“You think so?” I asked skeptically.

“Absolutely. It’s just a matter of time. Someone else was going to outcompete it, if not us.” Brown shrugged, and, for the first time all day, allowed himself a smile. “But as it happens, it is us.”

 Rowan Jacobsen’s research on plant-based proteins was supported by a fellowship from the McGraw Center for Business Journalism.

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