/Inside the Fight to Make Cows Obsolete

Inside the Fight to Make Cows Obsolete

Photo: Grub Street/Getty Images

Jon McIntyre, a biochemist who has worked in the food industry for 26 years, can tell you exactly what makes a hamburger so good. “That first bite, where your teeth sink through the meat — there’s texture to it, and flavor,” he says. “If it’s a really good, juicy burger, that flavor pushes out from your teeth, almost into the sides of your mouth, and you feel that really great sensation of the moisture. The flavor, you can almost taste it in your nose — that’s called retronasal.”

This harmony of taste, texture, and smell — call it the Full Burger Experience — is extremely complicated. Think of it as a trillion-piece jigsaw puzzle of animal proteins and fats and acids and fibers. Yet the notion that one can attain FBE without killing a cow is, suddenly, among the most lucrative ideas in food. Led by companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, high-tech, plant-based burger patties aimed at carnivores who want to fight climate change have seen soaring sales at restaurants like Burger King, White Castle, and TGI Friday’s. Nestlé, the largest food company in the world, just announced plans to bring a plant-based burger to U.S. supermarkets by fall. Plant-derived burgers from start-ups such Before the Butcher (just acquired by a major ground-beef producer) and Hungry Planet are also on schedule to debut before the end of the year.

It’s a plant-protein arms race, and everyone has a gimmick: Beyond’s latest burger, released in June, is studded with coconut fat and cocoa fat to mimic the marbling of beef, while apple-juice extract helps the patties brown during cooking. When Nestlé’s Awesome Burger hits stores (under the company’s Sweet Earth label), vital wheat gluten will give it a beeflike texture. A patty called the Perfect Burger, launched two weeks ago by Dr. Praeger’s, offers beet-juice “blood,” a shtick that some competitors have already ditched. The Impossible Burger has soy leghemoglobin, a molecule related to the hemoglobin in cow (and human) blood but found in the roots of soy plants. It’s this heme, as it’s called, that gives Impossible’s faux meat the iron flavor of your favorite burger.

That’s the dream, at least. For all the hype around heme and marbling and pea-protein patties that look and taste just! like! meat!, the hard truth remains: Cow-based burgers are, for the time being, still trouncing the competition, but that’s only encouraging these companies and scientists to push harder and examine the Full Burger Experience in ever-more-granular detail.

At Motif Ingredients, a four-month-old lab in Boston’s Seaport District, the team lead by McIntyre, the biochemist and a former PepsiCo VP, uses molecular science to break down every aspect of the FBE: texture, color, aroma, how meat binds and releases fat, even, McIntyre says, “how flavor is created.” From there, Motif, via its parent lab Ginkgo Bioworks (“the organism company”), plans to make replicas of a burger’s essential proteins and fats, animal-free stunt doubles that are created without ever touching a cow.

Ultimately, Motif and Ginkgo want to sell a tool kit of plant-based components that will allow buyers, from big companies to entrepreneurs, to manufacture their own tastes-like-meat burgers (or any other plant-based protein replacement, even one that doesn’t exist in nature — the flavor of a burger meets the texture of a sausage, say). “My job,” McIntyre says, “is to allow innovators to create all these new things. Isn’t that cool?”

The scientists at Motif, of course, aren’t the only ones meticulously breaking down beef. At Beyond, the R&D staff is 63 employees, triple the size of the company’s sales team. At Impossible, a spectrometer takes readings of cotton fibers that have soaked up the smell of a burger on the grill. And the Impossible Burger 3.0, which will be the second major formula change for the company, has been under development since before the 2.0 launched.

The goal of all of this is to create the burger version of the iPhone, the undisputed market leader. And to do that, execs know they have to build the product that’s indistinguishable from the real thing.

“We know exactly [what] we’re trying to compete against,” says Seth Goldman, Beyond’s executive chair. “In this case, the competitor is a hamburger. What nature, or whatever, has done so well is that interlacing of fat and protein. It’s very, very ornate and complex. When we look at an MRI — and we do, we’ve had MRI scans of our product against a burger — we can see that it’s not identical, but it’s not apples and oranges. It’s maybe two types of oranges. And so how do we get closer to that exact design?”

Goldman is confident that his team can get there using farm-grown foods alone, extruded and compressed in novel ways. Most of his competition — Nestlé-owned Sweet Earth, Hungry Planet, Before the Butcher, Dr. Praeger’s, Lightlife, MorningStar, etc. — echoes that ethos. “We want to have a burger that’s not only non-GMO but also organic,” says Sweet Earth co-founder Kelly Swette. Impossible has come under fire for growing its heme in a lab, rather than sourcing it from soy crops, but even that boils down to replicating an element of a plant — instead of something found in a cow.

This is where Motif, with its focus on biotech over farming, may pull ahead. By injecting a man-made substance bearing the genetic code of an animal protein into yeast, McIntyre’s team can grow that protein sans cow. Then another protein, then a fat, then another fat. If successful, this technology has the potential to create a burger with flavors and textures that pea protein just can’t deliver. By making this technology available as a sort of Lego set and essentially working as an R&D lab for hire, Motif aims to make the barrier-of-entry much lower for anyone who wants to make a high-tech veggie burger.

Even still, Goldman maintains that the cow, not other companies, is the only competition Beyond cares about. “I love to say, you know, a sailor doesn’t steer by the other boats, you steer by the stars. And we know where our true north is,” he says. “The other thing, of course, is that what we’re trying to replicate is static. The cow is not really evolving. We have a target, and we’re just getting closer with every iteration.”

Let’s imagine a world in which some of these companies succeed. They’ve hit full cow, at a price point that’s comparable to slaughtered beef. In five years, will we all eat plant burgers at our Fourth of July barbecues?

Impossible has raised $750 million in funding — and made a point to highlight celebrity backers like Jay-Z, Katy Perry, and Jaden Smith. Beyond had a record-shattering IPO, with shares selling for more than $170 in early June. (One Beyond investor I met mentioned he hadn’t even tried the company’s products. “I guess I should,” he said, shrugging.) Burger King says it’s seen an 18 percent customer boost at locations where the company sells Whopper versions of the Impossible Burger, and plans to offer it nationwide by the end of the year. In all, trend forecasters say the global market for meat substitutes could reach $21 billion by 2025.

But American history is littered with eating trends. In the ’70s, we gave up red meat. In the ’90s, we gave up bread. During the “Diet” and “Lite” surge of the late ’80s and early ’90s, “healthy,” hyperprocessed versions of junk food filled grocery stores. Who’s to say the Impossible Burger won’t go the way of Snackwell’s cookies?

Even for the most ecominded restaurateurs, fake meat remains a hard sell on a mass scale. Rachael Hoover Lekic, the director of sustainability at Indianapolis’s Cafe Patachou chain, says, “When I talk to people about food, their reactions are visceral and emotional and caught up in culture and history and nostalgia. It’s not the logical choice people are making. It’s all tied up in the food your grandmother cooked, the smells you remember from barbecuing as a kid. People get very sensitive about it.”

Still, the interest in plant-based burgers does feel different in one important way. The line on these meat substitutes corresponds with what many see as the most important issue of our time: climate change. An analysis by Quantis, released in March, found that Impossible uses 87 percent less water and 96 percent less land and creates 92 percent fewer aquatic pollutants than industrial meat production. Speaking broadly, these stats — however simplified — have been powerful enough to persuade a generation obsessed with farm-to-table puritanism to get onboard with an ultraprocessed burger.

The ingredient list for the Impossible Burger 2.0 is like an anti-locavore manifesto: water, soy protein concentrate, coconut oil, sunflower oil, natural flavors, potato protein, methyl cellulose, yeast extract, cultured dextrose, food starch modified, soy leghemoglobin, salt, soy protein isolate, mixed tocopherols, zinc gluconate, thiamine hydrochloride, sodium ascorbate, niacin, pyridoxine hydrochloride, riboflavin, and vitamin B12. (The makeup of some of the other burgers is a little more pronounceable; yet it seems like the more natural the ingredients, the further the taste gets from mimicking real beef.)

Regardless of ingredients, the pro-climate message is getting through to consumers. “I love meat,” says David Rubenstein, a 34-year-old lawyer. “Burgers, steaks, pork, chicken, lamb. God, I love lamb. But I’ve grown to realize that I simply cannot justify eating red meat from a climate perspective.” Impossible isn’t the 1:1 substitute he had hoped for, he says, but he’ll still choose it over a traditional bovine burger. “It gets me 90 percent of the way there, and that’s good enough.”

In early June, Goldman was at the Javits Center for the first Plant Based World conference. “I’ve heard people say they want to eliminate the meat industry,” he said at the time. “I just don’t know that that’s realistic. But if what we can do instead is get everyone to have more plant-based meals, that’s far more powerful, when we think about scale, than getting more purists out there.”

In another breath, his hopes for plant meat were appropriately tech-executive epic. “When we talk about ‘meat,’ we talk about it coming from an animal. Instead, can we define it by its composition rather than by its origin?” he asked with a rhetorical flourish. “In the arc of human evolution, that would be a pretty powerful moment — and I think that is something that could happen.”

At least some people remain skeptical of veggie burgers’ world-saving potential. Seth Gross runs Bull City Burger and Brewery in Durham, North Carolina. He dropped the Impossible Burger from his menu and says that he’d rather just eat good meat, even if it means eating less. “Instead of trying to find these Band-Aids to allow us to eat as much meat as we want every day,” he says of his approach, he’d rather people just “cut back.”