When scientists began manufacturing fake meat products—“Tofurkey,” “Fakin,” “not dogs” and the like—their target market was vegetarians, and their goal was to fill a gap presumably left by meat, both nutritionally (protein!) and socially (something to eat at a barbecue!). As the vegetarian population has grown, scientists have focused on making faux meat more “realistic,” and they’re doing well. When Whole Foods mixed up a regular chicken salad with a vegan version, no one seemed to notice. And just last week, the California startup “Impossible Foods” introduced a plant-derived burger that releases a blood-like substance as it cooks.
For the past three years, scientists at Impossible Foods—under the direction of Stanford biochemist Patrick Brown—have been hard at work synthesizing plant-based products that can pass for meat. They’ve attracted $75 million in funding from hotshots like Google Ventures and Bill Gates. The result is an entirely plant-derived patty that doesn’t just look and smell like a beef burger; it cooks like one, sizzling and even emitting a blood-like liquid as it breaks down. (A breakthrough came when Brown and his team figured out that the molecule “heme”—a component of hemoglobin that can be extracted from the roots of certain plants—could be used to imitate blood.) Evelyn Rusli, a reporter at the Wall Street Journal—the first member of the press to sample it—confirms: “Like a regular ground-beef patty, it looks like a jumble of tissue with some lighter fat-like pieces mixed in.” Despite some complaints about the texture—Rusli prefers juicier burgers—“the bites still have the consistency of animal tissue. ... The meat granules cling together, as one would expect in a burger."
But the more realistic the fake meat is, the less it appeals to some vegetarians. “The last thing I want when I bite into a veggie burger is for a bloodlike dribble to start oozing down my chin,” says writer Jessica Misener, who swore off meat as a child because, she says, “The taste and texture of meat have always turned me off.”
I’m in the same camp as Misener: I’m a vegetarian not for any moral or sanctimonious reasons, but because I find meat gross. Obviously, many vegetarians give up meat for some higher cause—the environment, animal welfare, personal health—but a lot of people are vegetarian because they just don’t like meat. We don’t want something that resembles meat in flavor, texture, or smell, and certainly not in taste or bloodiness. (I’m not talking about foods like tofu, tempeh, and seitan, which are sometimes used as meat substitutes but are also foods in their own right.)
Vegetarian journalist Todd van Luling doesn’t get the appeal of “realistic” meat alternatives, either. Eating fake meat “feels like going backwards,” he says. “There are so many great vegetarian things to eat that in no way resemble meat and are not a second-tier version imitating something else.” Dallas Observer writer Alice Laussade, a former vegetarian, recalls from her meat-free days: “The more stuff tried to be meaty, the less I liked it.”
Even some fake-meat enthusiasts are becoming disillusioned with the way things are going. Cookbook author and New York Times columnist Mark Bittman says he’s grown less tolerant of fake meat since he made the case for fake chicken two years ago. “If you’re combining a bunch of powders and turning it into something that looks like meat, I’m not sure you’re doing anybody any good,” he says. “I don't think it moves people in the direction of real food—which is the ultimate goal.”
As a novelty item or a technological feat, Impossible Foods’ burger is impressive. “Tricking carnivores isn’t easy,” Rusli notes. But tricking vegetarians may be even harder.