After years of being teased, American home cooks on both coasts are finally getting their first crack at the Impossible Burger, the famous vegan meat that bleeds. Available previously only in restaurants—including Burger King—it hit West and East Coast grocery shelves this week, and is slated to arrive in other American markets in the coming months.
Impossible Burger joins Beyond Meat, which makes its own bloody vegan burger and has been available in grocery stores since 2016. In May, Beyond Meat (the company) enjoyed a heart-stoppingly big IPO; by July, its market cap was “beyond ridiculous,” according to an investor who talked to CNBC, with the California company valued at nearly $14 billion. Meanwhile, a plant-based chicken product made by Beyond Meat sold out in mere hours last month during a one-day trial run at an Atlanta KFC.
Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have captured most of the attention in the meatless-meat market, and they've captured most of the market too. But other manufacturers are rushing to get in on the action, including big players in the meat industry: Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer, is launching a line of plant-based meat products called Pure Farmland, and Tyson enters the alt-meat scene this fall with Raised & Rooted. The grocery chain Kroger, meanwhile, is set to introduce Simple Truth Plant Based, an extension of its natural-foods brand.
How big is the hype around plant-based meats? A recent analysis estimated that, by 2040, only 40 percent of the meat the world consumes will come from traditional animal sources; of the remainder, 35 percent will be lab-grown, and 25 percent will be vegan meat.
Wait—lab grown? What are the vegan burgers made of, anyway? And why in God's name do they bleed? In this era of plant-based, vegan, meatless meat, there are many, many questions. Here, we try to answer a few of them.
What’s the problem with (meat-based) meat?
It’s environmentally unsustainable—not just in the vague sense of it’s bad for the environment, but in the very concrete sense that the environment simply cannot sustain the rates at which humans consume meat (particularly as the world population is projected to grow to 10 billion by 2050, from more than 7 billion today). Meat production is tremendously inefficient, requiring lots of land, water, fertilizer, and monoculture crops to serve as animal feed: A study in Science found that this sector provides humans with relatively few of our calories (18 percent), and relatively little protein (37 percent), compared to the fact that it takes up 83 percent of the world’s farmland and accounts for nearly 60 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions of the agriculture industry in general. Meat production and the land it requires have also been linked to animal extinction. And cattle ranching accounts for 80 percent of deforestation in the Amazon, which is, not incidentally, on fire.
“Moving from current diets to a diet that excludes animal products,” the authors of the Science article wrote, “has transformative potential,” freeing up land and freshwater, cutting greenhouse emissions, and reducing ocean acidification; if allowed to revert back to a natural state, the land no longer used for livestock farming could actually absorb atmospheric carbon, mitigating rather than worsening the climate crisis.
By 2040, 25 percent of meat will be vegan.
“For the United States,” the authors continued, “where per capita meat consumption is three times the global average, dietary change has the potential for a far greater effect on food’s different emissions.” In other words, if Americans cut out, or even just cut back on, eating beef, we could really moooove the needle. At the beginning of 2018, Americans were set to consume a record amount of meat and poultry: a per capita average of 222.2 pounds annually, according to the USDA. This reflects, partly, a deep, widespread, and ultimately confounding hunger for protein, which Americans consume more of than anyone in the world—twice as much as most of us require nutritionally. Recognizing that that’s a cultural habit not likely to change, the meatless-meat producers are offering an alternative protein: the protein that grows in plants.
What is vegan meat made of?
Different manufacturers use different ingredients, but the flashiest fake-meat maker in this space has been Impossible Foods, whose burgers “bleed” due to the inclusion of heme. Heme is an iron-containing molecule found in all plant and animal life, but particularly in animal flesh; it’s what gives meat its "meaty" flavor, as well as its red color. In animals, heme is located in a protein called myoglobin, which stores and carries oxygen in the muscles; the Impossible Foods scientists found a “functionally identical protein,” called leghemoglobin, in the roots of soybeans. Rather than dig up a ton of soybean plants, though, Impossible “engineered a type of yeast to make soy leghemoglobin,” according to a company explainer, growing the yeast “in fermenters like those you would find at a brewery.” The rest of the ingredient list is more mundane: soy and potato proteins, coconut and sunflower oils.
The chickenless nuggets from Tyson's Raised & Rooted line get their protein from peas, as well as egg white and flaxseed. (The manufacturer of the vegetarian—but not vegan—nuggets is also set to begin selling blended burgers, consisting of actual beef, cut with pea protein.) Recently MorningStar Farms, a subsidiary of Kellogg, announced plans to use non-GMO soy and a "proprietary plant-based blend" in a line of alt-meat products that will include, yes, a bleeding burger. The brand is called Incogmeato, a name that, one can only assume, is still being workshopped. The bloody Beyond Burger, meanwhile, gets its pink coloring from beet juice extract, added to a mixture of pea protein isolate and canola and coconut oils, among other ingredients.
What about those lab-grown meats?
Lab-grown meat is a related but separate category. Rather than deriving protein from plants, lab-grown meat gets its protein from actual animal cells. Under a microscope, it looks just like beef, but no cow was killed to produce it. In other words, it's complicated.
At present there is no lab-grown meat available in grocery stores or restaurants, though ice cream made with lab-grown dairy was released earlier this summer, and promptly sold out.
Are these vegan/meatless meats highly processed?
Compared to a homemade mushroom burger, yes. And that's been a bone of contention for critics including Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, a longtime vegan who complains that the new alt-meats are "highly processed," and therefore unhealthy.
Processed is kind of a tricky label, though, which can describe a range of treatments from the benign or beneficial (fermenting yogurt, pasteurizing juice) to the truly miraculous (whatever processing it takes to create a Cheeto). It seems somewhat more constructive to focus on what's in the products, which is—in general—some kind of plant protein or proteins mixed with some fats, flavorings, and binding agents. And some soy-derived imitation blood, if you're an Impossible Burger.
Is meatless meat healthy?
On the one hand, it’s not red meat—and so by definition it’s not linked to the specific health risks that may come with eating red meat. On the other hand, some nutritionists are irked by the suggestion that these fake-meat burgers constitute some sort of a health food, pointing out that they’re high in saturated fat, and higher in sodium even than a regular old beef burger. (A four-ounce Beyond Beef patty contains 18 grams of fat, or 28 percent of the recommended daily allowance.)
The relative healthiness, compared to burgers, is what constitutes most manufacturers' selling points. Makers of the new meats put them on a kind of sliding scale, with actual beef burgers at one end, and at the other end a—I don't know—stalk of broccoli. As Impossible Foods founder Patrick O. Brown said recently in an interview with Yahoo Finance, "I think it is a healthier option than what it replaces. And that's our goal. If we said, ‘Listen, here, you ordered a burger, but we're going to give you a kale salad' or something like that, that's not going to work."
Are meatless meats better for the environment?
That's also kind of a sliding-scale question. Better than beef? Sure.
But environmental advocates have also raised questions over Impossible's use of genetically modified soy and its potential effects on the environment. More than 90 percent of soybeans grown in the U.S. are genetically modified, mostly to be resistant to pesticides and herbicides—so farmers can keep bugs and weeds down without killing the cash crop. But the widespread adoption of pesticides has devastated ecosystems; a new study links pesticide use with the fact that 40 percent of the world's insect species are facing extinction in the next few decades, in what's been characterized as an insect "apocalypse." (Pollution, "mainly that by synthetic pesticides and fertilisers," was the second most powerful driver of insect extinction; the first was habitat loss.) On Medium the activist Anna Lappé wrote, "New evidence is revealing we are teetering on the edge of an era of massive extinction, propelled in large part by the very pesticides and practices used with genetically engineered crops like that soy destined for Impossible Burgers." (Environmental groups have also raised concerns about the safety of soy leghemoglobin.)
Impossible Foods founder Brown—also writing on Medium—defends its use of GM crops and says that "about 80% less herbicide is required to produce the Impossible Burger than an average American cow-derived burger." GM soy is actually a recent addition to the Impossible ingredients list; Brown says his company needed it to keep up with demand. And demand, at least for the time being, does not appear to be slowing down.
Originally Appeared on Epicurious