The ‘Impossible’ Veggie Burger: A Tech Industry Answer to the Big Mac

George Motz, a burly, mutton-chopped Brooklynite, fashions himself as America’s hamburger expert. An enthusiastic carnivore who has chronicled his love affair with ground beef through books and films, Mr. Motz estimates he has eaten more than 14,000 hamburgers over the last 20 years.

But on a frigid Monday in December, Mr. Motz sat down for a burger that promised to be unlike any he had eaten before. He was at Momofuku Nishi, a new restaurant from the celebrity chef David Chang, and he had come to eat the Impossible Burger.

The Impossible Burger wants to be the tech industry’s answer to the Big Mac. Concocted by a team of food scientists in Silicon Valley, it is made from wheat, coconut oil and potatoes, yet it aims to be more than just another veggie patty. Thanks to the addition of heme, an iron-rich molecule contained in blood (which the company produces in bulk using fermented yeast), it is designed to look, smell, sizzle and taste like a beef burger.

Patrick Brown, the founder and chief executive of Impossible Foods, said the goal was to disrupt the multibillion-dollar market for ground beef without killing cows. “You can have uncompromisingly delicious meat without using animals,” Mr. Brown said in an interview.

When he took a sabbatical from Stanford six years ago and pondered what big problem he could help solve, he zeroed in on the idea of reducing the consumption of meat.

Never mind the business of killing billions of animals for food. The farming, fishing and production of feed for livestock and poultry strains the earth’s finite resources — consuming fossil fuel, emitting greenhouse gasses, hogging farmland and polluting waterways. “It is seriously imperiling some of the world’s ecosystems, Mr. Brown said.

“But there is a solution,” he said. “Produce all those same foods, with all the specifications consumers demand, but do it with a much lower environmental footprint, without using animals as the technology. That, I realized, was something that was fundamentally doable.”

There is a lot of money riding on Mr. Brown’s eco-vegetarian zeal. Impossible Foods has raised more than $180 million from investors including Google Ventures, UBS and Bill Gates. It is part of a new crop of food companies — Soylent, Hampton Creek and Juicero among them — that is aiming to revolutionize the way we eat. Another company, Beyond Meat, is also making a plant-based ground beef alternative and is already selling in Whole Foods and other stores. It, too, aims to entice meat eaters.

An Impossible Burger starts as a mixture of wheat, coconut oil and potatoes.CreditJason Henry for The New York Times
Heme, an iron-rich molecule contained in blood, is used to make the veggie burger taste, smell and sizzle, above right, like a beef burger.CreditJason Henry for The New York Times
In blind taste tests, some people could not distinguish between the Impossible Burger and a beef patty, according to the company’s founder.CreditJason Henry for The New York Times

There is a growing market for these products. Sales of meat substitutes are up 18 percent in recent years, to more than $1 billion in the United States this year, from about $850 million in 2012, according to Euromonitor International, a research firm.

“This is a big step in the right direction for the veggie burger,” Mr. Motz said. “And I haven’t burped yet. I usually burp.”

Mr. Brown said he was only getting started. The Impossible Burger is being served in just a handful of high-end restaurants for now. There are plans to expand distribution this year and make it available for consumers to cook at home. He and his team are continuing to improve its formula, he said.

“The cow is never going to get better at making meat,” Mr. Brown said. “It was not optimized for beef. It did not evolve to be eaten. Our burger was. We’re always getting better.”

Perhaps Mr. Motz will revisit the Impossible Burger in the future. For now, he is sticking with ground beef.

“I’m proud of the fact that they have gone and made the veggie burger for the proletariat,” he said. “But any carnivore will take one bite of this burger and know it’s fake.”

With that, Mr. Motz left Momofuku Nishi. His destination: a nearby food truck, where he ordered a real cheeseburger.

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