Humans have been eating meat since, well, before we were human.
But there are so many of us now eating so much meat that raising all those animals is having a big impact on the global environment, including the climate.
That has people around the world scrambling for meat substitutes, but something better than those dry and pasty veggie burgers.
Patrick Brown, founder and CEO of Impossible Foods, thinks he's hit the jackpot. His company invented a veggie burger that claims to taste, feel and even bleed like the real thing.
It’s on the menu already at the trendy New York restaurant Momofuku Nishi.
Bartees Cox is from Oklahoma. He’s one of eight diners who convened at Momofuku Nishi to test out the new burger. He says his family grew up buying whole cows from a rancher and storing them in an extra freezer.
“You put it in the garage,” he says. “You could put a Fiat in this freezer.”
Joining him at the table are Chris Berube and Bridgette Burkholder. Both are vegetarians and both are nervous about the impending tasting.
“Everything I've read about it says, it bleeds like a hamburger,” Berube says. “So when you bite into it, there are all these liquids that come out. I'm actually very anxious about this in a way that I didn't think I would be.”
"It’s a little weird. The idea of biting into a slab of meat-like substance is a little weird," Burkholder adds.
The bar for pleasing all three of these folks is high. But on the other side of the table it gets even higher.
Seven-year-old Theo McCabe, his twin Tadhg and his 8-year-old brother Callum are sitting together and are without a doubt the most selective members of today’s panel.
“I like hot dogs. I like hummus and pita, I like mac and cheese. Sometimes I like burgers — not all the times,” says Theo.
“[Tadhg] is happy with a hamburger,” says their mom, Allyson, “as long as it has mustard." But the mustard has to be yellow. “They’re very picky eaters."
All the diners at the table have plenty of time to mull over what they’re about to bite into. The place is busy, and the wait is about a half hour. But when the Impossible Burgers finally make their entrance, piled high with lettuce, tomato and cheese, it’s immediately clear they look astonishingly close to the real thing.
“It's pretty rare. It looks like it's a real, bleeding, hunk of meat,” says Burkholder.
Everyone digs in. And very quickly, the verdict is in. The burgers are a hit. Not only is their appearance spot on, they taste just like the real thing.
“It’s really, really really good,” says finicky 7-year-old taste-tester, Theo.
Even the anxious vegetarians give it two thumbs up.
“This is spooky. It feels like witchcraft,” says Berube. “This is a bad path. You’re going to find me surrounded by wrappers, in a park, a couple of days from now.”
It isn’t witchcraft, but even though they love the burger, some of the diners are still put off by the idea of fake meat created by science. Especially one ingredient, heme. The group, at least the adult members, pull out their phones and start googling.
“I think it’s interesting when you Google something that’s in your meal and the first thing that comes up is a picture of molecules,” says Berube. “All of these are pictures of molecules. None of these are what a food looks like.”
“It does kind of break my, 'If you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it' rule, since we don’t know what it is,” adds Burkholder.
Heme is an iron-bearing molecule that’s found in hemoglobin. It’s what makes our blood red. But Brown is ready for all of their concerns.
“In our burger, pretty much all the ingredients that you may or may not be able to pronounce are the same things that are found in the cow,” he says. “If pronunciation is an issue, read the ingredients in a cow, and decide whether it meets your standards.”
Much of the food we love, notes Brown, only exists because of collaborations between humans and nature.
“To make a loaf of bread, you don't you don't just pull up a wheat plant and grab some microbes and mush them together and munch them down,” he says.
Brown first dreamed up the Impossible Burger seven years ago while on sabbatical from his job as a professor at Stanford Medical School. He decided he wanted to work on the most important problem in the world that he could contribute to solving — food made from animals. Eventually he came to a realization, “the only way to get animals out of the food system was to out perform them in the market.”
Thus, heme. Meat has a lot of heme. It’s what gives it its meaty taste. But other organisms also have a tiny bit. And that’s what makes the impossible burger possible — yeast that’s been genetically tweaked to produce huge amounts of heme. Brown says ultimately, heme is the strategy that will help draw in the skeptics.
“Deliver a big, red juicy meaty burger, so that the person who's craving that can get exactly what they want. And so the overall strategy is don't ask customers to compromise anything they care about.”
Eating his burger instead of beef, says Brown, saves as much water as skipping a ten minute shower, frees 75 square feet of land and prevents as much greenhouse pollution as you’d create driving 18 miles. Bonus — it has as much iron and protein as the real deal, but no cholesterol.
But when it comes back to the Impossible Burger’s main claim to fame, using plants to mimic the taste of meat, not everyone is impressed. “So what,” says Erich Joachimsthaler, founder and CEO of Vivaldi Partners, a brand consultancy.
“If you just have achieved a matching on taste — so what? And if you now tell me that the reason for that is because of social responsibility or some other larger environmental benefits — really?”
Making a veggie burger taste the same as meat isn’t good enough, says Joachimsthaler. Most consumers, he notes, just don’t care that much about the environment. “I think consumers make choices based on here and now, rather than then and in the future and a hundred years from now,” he says.
So if vegetarians are freaked out by meat grown by science, and everyone else is hell bent on wrecking the earth, is anyone going to buy this burger? Maybe the Chinese.
“I think they could accept it pretty easily,” says Kian Lam Kho, a food writer and author of the cookbook Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees.
Chinese have been making imitation meat for, I would say millennium,” he says. “So I think the acceptance would be pretty easy.”
Notes Kho, “you can actually buy mock spam in China, you can buy mock ham. Mock turkey. Mock chicken, mock pork. Even shark's fin.”
But Kho says most of the imitation meat in China is being eaten by vegetarians. The real trick would be to attract some of the millions of carnivores contributing to the country’s current meat boom.
Although it might sound tough to overcome our primal desire to eat the same thing our ancestors chased down, Brown says before we decide to pass up imitation meat, we should think twice about the real thing.
“If anyone still has the illusion that there's anything natural about where their beef comes from, it doesn't take a tremendous amount of research,” he says, “to realize that there's almost nothing remotely natural about how it's produced.”
Besides, Brown says, while cows aren’t getting better at making beef, the impossible burger is going to continue to improve. Meanwhile back at Momofuku Nishi there’s one burger left — almost untouched. Callum says he loved it, but he filled up on French fries.
And despite the skepticism, you can tell everyone at the table wants to take it home.