While you may have heard about the Impossible Burger, you might not realize that Fran’s has been serving it ever since its location changed to Willard in the winter. The Impossible Burger, a vegan burger patty invented by Impossible Foods, is an attempt to bring a classic burger into the future with some clever engineering.
While non-meat burgers are much better for the environment, many people prefer real beef burgers. Impossible Burgers aim to replicate the taste, smell and even the feel of a real burger – so much so that everything from cooking to eating their burger seems the same.
With crazy statistics about meat sustainability, like the standard American diet needing over 4,000 gallons of water per day compared to the 300 of a vegan, it’s astounding how much better for the environment eliminating meat from your diet is. According to Impossible Foods’ website, the Impossible Burger utilizes 95 percent less land, consumes 74 percent less water and creates 87 percent less greenhouse gas emissions.
In their quest to replicate a beef burger, scientists at Impossible Foods spent five years searching through what’s in a burger and have figured out what they deem to be the most essential part of meat. According to them, the most important part is a protein called heme. Heme is an iron-containing compound that makes up part of the hemoglobin molecule, which gives beef its color and slightly metallic taste. These scientists found that heme is key in making the meat sizzle, smell and taste just like a regular burger would.
They also discovered that heme is not only in meat, but it’s also in plants such as soy. They quickly discovered that their magic ingredient isn’t very abundant in soy, but found a clever solution to get all the heme they need. If they put the genes for soy’s leghemoglobin protein, which contains the heme, in a special species of yeast and help the yeast grow, then they can have enough heme to supply their burgers. Impossible Foods is currently the only company to utilize this method.
While heme is important it’s not the only reason Impossible Burgers are supposed to replicate real burgers so well. To figure out the other key ingredients in a burger, the scientists used a common technique in food science called gas chromatography mass spectrometry system. This process heats a sample of food and picks up the molecules that are released to create the scent. These molecules are then analyzed, and the machine can tell scientists what compounds are responsible for the smell. Since smell and taste are so intrinsically linked, this gives them the ability to recreate flavors and smells.
Not only can the company use gas chromatography to initially build its flavor profile, it can also test and improve its product to help it get even closer to the true taste of meat. After flavor and smell, Impossible Foods had to nail the texture. Texture is very important in food, and often is lacking in foods that are trying to replicate another dish without a key ingredient. To replicate the texture of real meat, Impossible Foods figured out which proteins are in ground beef and what similar proteins exist in plants. To get the texture right, they are using a mix of wheat protein, coconut oil and potato protein. The wheat gives the Impossible Burger the proper chewiness and firmness of ground beef, and the coconut oil is there for the fat of meat, although it has the flavor taken out – so your burger doesn’t have a tropical twist. Finally, the potato protein helps the burger cook similarly to a real burger by retaining water, which cooks out and allows the burger to reach the optimal firmness.
While this is all great from a science and technology perspective, Impossible Foods has hit a snag when it comes to winning over the FDA. Most countries require government approval before a company can market new food ingredients, but the U.S. has a rule called “generally recognized as safe”, or GRAS, which allows foods to be marketed without FDA approval if experts say it’s safe. While Impossible Burgers have been GRAS-certified since 2014, Impossible Foods decided to submit its burgers to the FDA to get approval of their heme ingredient. So far, they are on their second attempt, although the FDA has decided to take up to 90 extra days from the April 24th deadline.
Of course, as a dutiful journalist I can’t just take other people’s word about how good this burger is without coming to my own conclusion. So after writing all of this, I decided to go Fran’s myself and try their offering of the Impossible Burger. Since I live on south campus, I already frequent Fran’s fairly often and am a big fan of their regular burger.
While the Impossible Burger at Fran’s comes completely vegan as standard, people, including myself, often add toppings like mayo and cheese to make it a little less dry. When the burger came out, I was surprised at how legitimate it smelled. It did look a tad bit different and felt a little different from a real beef burger, but it was close enough that I probably wouldn’t have noticed if I wasn’t paying so much attention to it.
After the first bite I was definitely impressed. It didn’t quite have as much flavor or really the full juiciness of a well-cooked burger, but for something vegan trying to imitate meat, it was pretty good. As I kept eating it, I kind of noticed more that the texture was more off than the flavor: Traditional meat kind of crumbles as you eat it, but this burger was a little stiff. But halfway through, as I became more focused on my computer, I started to forget that I was eating a substitute burger... or at least as much as I can forget while still jotting down notes occasionally.
By the time I was finished, I was very impressed but also conflicted. It lived up to all the praise that I had heard of it, but it was just missing something special that I couldn’t describe. I felt a little less full and less physically satisfied than I normally am with a burger. I also really just love the normal burger at Fran's, but I was really happy that I had just saved around 500 gallons of water. While I’m not sure if I’ll keep getting this meat substitute, Impossible Foods is definitely on to something here, and with the impressive environmental sustainability of this burger, it truly feels like the future of food.