I was lucky enough to be raised enjoying thick, handmade burger patties made by my grandmother from meat that came from pastured cows that lived less than a mile from my childhood home. In fact, it was because I knew the cows we ate throughout my childhood — I helped herd them many times — that I became vegetarian at 16. I could no longer look them in the face and then enjoy eating them.
So, I'm that unlikely combo of a vegetarian who also knows what a really good burger tastes like. My burger standards were so high that when I was 8 and went to McDonald's for the first time, I was horrified by the revolting patty of gray meat that came in my long-awaited kids' meal.
When I heard about the Impossible Burger, I was intrigued. This was supposed to be the first truly meaty-tasting vegetarian burger patty, due to an ingredient that even resulted in a burger that "bleeds." That ingredient is the much-hyped (and kind of mysterious) heme.
Heme is, according to The New York Times, a "genetically engineered yeast." On the Impossible Burger's FAQ page it's defined as a basic building block of all life on Earth, including plants, that's found in abundance in animal muscle: "We discovered how to take heme from plants and produce it using fermentation — similar to the method that’s been used to make Belgian beer for nearly a thousand years," according to the FAQ.
"Similar" is the key word there. Soy leghemoglobin, the "heme" here, was made in a lab, and is a genetically modified ingredient (GMO).
Some people have concerns about the long-term safety of heme as a totally new ingredient, though Impossible Burger has fulfilled its legal requirements to introduce a new food ingredient to the market according to both the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and some others who have investigated it. The problem is, for those concerned about heme, those legal standards are inadequate, and have been for some time. A food company that introduces a new chemical only needs to show that an ingredient is safe. The company can keep the tests secret; independent testing by the government, or a third party, has never been required. “If a company decides something is safe, they can go ahead and do it,” Andrew Maynard, a risk expert at Arizona State University told Salon.
"Congress gave [the FDA] the responsibility for policing food additives under the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938. Twenty years later, it added an exemption to allow a company to sell a product without the agency’s review if the additives were deemed safe," according to the New York Times. Consumer groups have gone after the agency numerous times in the past few decades — and again recently — to tighten the rules, but food companies don't want to shoulder the extra cost. So Impossible Burger isn't doing anything that hasn't already been done before. Public concerns about the new ingredient point out what is a problematic system for most of us who care what we put in our bodies.
Taste-testing the burger
But let's get to the meat of it: How does the Impossible Burger taste?
I tasted one recently at Umami Burger in Oakland, California, with a group of friends. (It's currently available at about 40 restaurants around the U.S.) Half of us were vegetarians, and half weren't. It's definitely unlike any veggie burger I've had — it's noticeably soft, both when biting into it and in the mouth. (It's a bit softer than real beef is, but close.) The texture while chewing is spot-on. The flavor, for those who are used to a thick patty of good-quality beef, is much blander than the burgers I remember — there was no explosion of flavor from the bloodier portion in the middle of the burger. However, it was equivalent to a lower-quality burger "like you would get at a diner" my partner said, but still "better than a fast-food burger." But even piled on a good bun with all the fixings, it was obvious to me that it wasn't a meat burger on first taste, or second.
Personally, I really like a good veggie burger — they're lighter and easier to digest and I especially appreciate the black-bean based versions with lots of chunky vegetables, like carrots, corn or zucchini in them. I've tasted many, many veggie patties in my 24 years of vegetarianism and original house-made recipes that are unique to a restaurant are often excellent and far superior to pre-made versions. (So if your only experience of a veggie burger has been a Boca or other packaged type, you have missed out on the creative, unusual, and downright delicious variety of veggie burgers that exist in the world.) Because of my love for a good veg patty, topped with avocado, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles and ketchup piled atop a crusty bun — oh wow, now I'm hungry — I'm clearly not the target market for the Impossible Burger. But who is?
The Impossible Burger diner
It's worth noting that the Impossible Burger isn't designed for vegetarians, but for those who eat meat and want an alternative. Many vegetarians and vegans would probably balk at the fact that the heme ingredient was fed to rats in in the company's food-safety studies. Interestingly, all the meat-eaters in my group chose meat burgers while we veggies tried the Impossible Burger, leading me to wonder if the company's market research was on point. When given the option to have a burger at an establishment with higher quality meat, as Umami Burger serves, meat-eaters wanted that — even though they were open to a meat-free burger.
Eating the Impossible Burger was an interesting experience; going with a group and hearing other people's opinions was instructive — some of the vegetarians appreciated the meat-like flavors, whereas I couldn't help dreaming of a veggie burger filled with veggies and beans. So while I'm curious to follow how this new food does, and am supportive of it in general — anything to get people to eat less meat is a good thing in my mind — it's not something I would be interested in eating again. I'm not really comfortable with GMO foods and just found the Impossible Burger OK, but not great.
But before this is a food company, this is a trendy "disruptive tech company" and so it's already poised for a massive expansion. Soon lots of people will have the option to try one of these burgers for themselves.