Seeking a Better Burger Through Technology
This story is part of The Food & Wine Guide to Plant-Based Meat.
Ever since Impossible Foods first launched their fake meat patties on the world in 2016, there has been talk. Derisive snarking that these burgers are so heavily processed that they're no better than junk food. That their ingredients list promotes GMOs and monoculture and is potentially as damaging to biodiversity as the agriculture that exists in service to the cattle business.
The United Nations released a report on climate earlier this month with an alarming conclusion: Plant-based diets are vital to saving the planet. This is not a report sponsored by PETA; this is the UN telling us that farmed animals, mainly cows and pigs, now account for 60% of all mammals on the planet by weight, and that 80% of farmland is used for farming animals that only provide 18% of calories eaten.
With a focus on burgers—my personal passion—I set out to find the answers to some of life's biggest questions: Am I a bad person for eating beef? Can a $4 billion dollar tech burger company save the planet? And, where can I get crinkle-cuts in Tribeca?
The nutritional breakdown for an Impossible Burger is actually quite similar to that of a conventional beef burger. The big difference between them comes in cholesterol; beef has 80 milligrams per quarter-pound, while the Impossible has zero. Both contain the same amount of iron and protein, but the Impossible also contains macronutrients like fiber, and micronutrients like folate, B12 and thiamine. And then of course, one came from an animal that had to be fed for two years, then put through the slaughterhouse system. The other was made in a lab.
So, let's look at environmental impact. The sustainability firm Quantis released a life cycle assessment report in 2019, finding that the Impossible Burger used 96% less land, 87% less water and 89% less greenhouse gas emissions than conventional beef.
Claims of a monoculture abound–and the controversial use of GMO soy at the top of Impossible's ingredient list is enough to make consumers forget about the amount of antibiotics used in beef. According to a 2020 report, 40% of all medically important antibiotics, the same that are used in treating humans, are sold for use in US livestock.
It's apples and oranges, GMOs and antibiotics. One is embraced by 90% of scientists yet feared by a third of consumers, the other creates antibiotic-resistance in humans, and according to the World Health Organization, we are heading for "a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries can once again kill."
Dr. David Zilberman is a professor in the Agricultural and Resource Economics Department at UC Berkeley. "I'm a big believer in GMO, in the same way that I'm really concerned with climate change. I think this is the biggest challenge of humanity," he tells me over the phone. "Look at the pandemic; the vaccine is GMO. Without GMO we wouldn't have the vaccine. The same way that we use cell phones and we don't use pigeons anymore, we all need this new technology."
When it comes to hamburgers, he believes in fake meat, but he's also here for beef. "There are three considerations: nutrition, taste and cost. If the cost is the same I will base it on taste. Impossible Meat can be really, really good, but a meat burger, if done right, can taste better."
Taking his 42 years of experience studying agricultural practices, this might seem surprising. Dr. Zilberman is quick to remind me that he's only human.
"When I make a choice I don't think about humanity. People think that they think about humanity, but that is fake, upper-middle-class bullshit. Most people just think about what's good for them."
"My background is agricultural ecology, so I can talk about biodiversity until the cows come home." This is the first thing Rebekah Moses says to me, over Zoom from her sunny living room in San Francisco. Moses is the Head of Impact Strategy at Impossible Foods. I expected a power suit and a barrage of stats. I did not expect cow puns. I'm talking to Moses to ascertain if fake meat burgers from a tech company valuated at $4 billion can be trusted. First off, won't they just be replacing cows with acres of soy and creating a monoculture?
"As food manufacturers there are ways you can show up for biodiversity and agricultural stewardship within how you build your product recipes. Our recipe is not fixed, it's sort of inherently agile. There is a diversity of crops that can be used," Moses explains. "One of the really interesting questions for our industry is how do you actually biodiversify your protein and fat ingredient streams so that you support agricultural diversity within the system itself?"
Moses explains what she calls metabolic inefficiency. "The vast majority of our landscape is devoted to feeding animals; livestock. The best way to avoid soy-based deforestation is to eat a soy-based burger, because then you are not converting that soy through an animal that lives for multiple years." Rather than feed the cow, you set the cow free and eat its plant-based diet directly, preferably on a Martin's potato roll. "It's much more efficient to go straight to the plant," says Moses.
Dr. Zilberman had mentioned price, and Impossible Foods has recently announced a price cut.
"We have an internal mandate to bring our prices down to parity with commodity livestock products, Moses says. "It's not philanthropic, it's just a commitment to figuring out how to make the private sector work for these giant problems."
Moses continues, "Pat Brown did not found this company to get into food manufacturing; he had a pretty sweet thing going on at Stanford. He founded this company to address climate change, to halt a massive, terrifying extinction that's happening around the world. And frankly, the most elegant way to go about solving those crises is to change the way that we eat, and you can't change the way a world consumer base eats if you have a super premium-priced product for the foreseeable future."
I'm stirred by this heartfelt hot take, but nothing makes me more nervous than deifying a lone genius (we've done it for years in food media to disastrous results), and this particular white boy runs a company that's funded with billions of venture capital moolah. I'm expecting her to break out the Patagonia vests, but this is where she goes full Erin Brockovich.
"The amount of investment dollars that Impossible has had the benefit of taking in is absolutely dwarfed in comparison to the amount of financing and capital currently embodied in the animal-farming system. I think it's important to say that we shouldn't send all our resources and all of our investments into two companies. I don't think that's ever the best idea. We should be thinking about other places in the world that can have an important role in growing the plant-based meat industry in a way that embodies crop diversification, and in a way that has geographic representation around the world."
There will always be burgers, but they don't all have to be beef. A 2019 report predicted that by 2040 60% of our meat will not come from dead animals. And this is where the third option comes in: the veggie burger. Made by hand, no tech, animal-free. Let's go to Tribeca.
"Impossible and Beyond introduced people to the notion of eating fake meat burgers, I think people are looking for other options as well. They can have the one that feels a little more like fast food, or they can have one that's really delicious but comes with none of the guilt," says Amanda Cohen, chef-owner of Dirt Candy and founder of Lekka Burger, a vegan Shake Shack serving crinkle cuts and oat milk shakes alongside fresh non-GMO burgers. "My goal as a chef is to get people to eat more vegetables."
A few years ago, Cohen worked on a project for NYU revisiting historical recipes. Specifically, a preparation of temple cuisine from the Song Dynasty. She recreated it and, like Indiana Jones nosing around in the Temple of Doom, discovered an ancient secret. Only hers had less to do with monkey brains, and was instead the basis for a homemade veggie patty that can be grilled.
"I really wanted to figure out a burger that could hold together on a grill. That's what makes it unique from all the ones that are mass-produced. You bite into it and you get the char, it's juicy, you get texture and heady spice, and I think that's what sets it apart from every other veggie burger."
She opened Lekka Burger with Andrea Kerzner in 2019. "What Impossible and Beyond have done is huge. We wouldn't be having this discussion if they hadn't." But she has no interest in selling a mass-produced patty. "I don't understand the point of selling a burger you can buy anywhere else."
Felicia De Rose is the Regional Chef of Restaurant Openings at Planta, a title that sounds like something Dwight Schrute would make up. She's based in Toronto but has spent the past four months in Miami, at the South Beach outpost of the restaurant group known for its smash burger-style veggie patty.
"It'll take more than a UN report to change what we consume," she says on hearing of the climate report. "People feel comfortable eating something that they already know."
For her customers that's the burger. The Planta patty is made with three ingredients: mushrooms, beets and lentils. "In its raw form it's totally edible. Does it taste like meat? No. But does it taste great? Yes. It's cooked on a flat top and it gets nice and crispy."
While Cohen hasn't eaten meat in 30 years, De Rose is an omnivore who still eats beef. "I love our Planta burger, and I still enjoy a good old-fashioned burger, and sometimes I crave a Big Mac. But not the McDonalds patties that go into them."
"A primary reason we are in the middle of a sixth mass-extinction is because of our reliance on cattle to feed ourselves. No one wants to be told they're doing something wrong [but] the type of food you eat, and whether it's livestock versus plant-based, is the most important thing," says Moses. "There is a certain personal agency you can tap into, an empowering message that the choice you're making counts. And it actually does start bending the curve on climate and the rate of biodiversity loss."
"It's not good people versus bad people. Most of us are caring," Dr. Zilberman asserts. He sees science as the way forward. "The message is not what to eat, the message is, be critical, don't panic, and trust science. The key element in science is to learn from experience. Research is we search. We search and we find the solution. Without the continued search, life is meaningless. To try and find the truth, that's what gives us meaning."
And that is where you can begin your journey, one foot in front of the other, giving resonance to this fleeting existence with each step, in the lifelong search for the perfect burger.