The new Impossible Burger might make some vegetarians uncomfortable.
Impossible Foods, which launched its much-hyped meatless burger two years ago, announced a new version on Monday at CES in Las Vegas. The startup is trying even harder to make its fake beef patties look, taste and feel like the real thing.
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Depending on how it's cooked, the latest Impossible Burger can be juicy and red in the middle — more so than the last version. The texture, which purposefully isn't uniform, contains small chunks just like real beef. And judging by the sliders and burgers we tested at lunch, it tastes a bit more like a real hamburger than its predecessor.
"They're really made for meat lovers, not so much for vegetarians," said chef Mary Sue Milliken, who serves Impossible Burger at her Border Grill in Las Vegas.
A veggie burger isn't exactly the kind of cutting-edge technology you expect to find at the world's largest consumer technology conference. But it fits with a new theme the show is testing out this year called "resilience." It includes companies using technology to address the impact of climate change on the environment, cities and individuals' health.
Eating less meat has long been promoted as a way to help the environment. Cattle generate large amounts of carbon dioxide, even more than other livestock.
"The mission of the company really is to eliminate the need for animals in the food system," said David Lipman, Impossible Foods' chief science officer. "We're not going to get there by telling people to eat beans and peas and stuff like that. We have to come up with a plant-based meat that people will actually choose instead of beef."
Founded in 2011, the startup now supplies meatless products to more than 5,000 locations in the United States, including restaurants like Fatburger and White Castle. It expanded into Hong Kong last year, its first overseas market.
The next step is making the product inexpensive enough that everyone can afford to buy the product, which costs about as much as premium beef. The company says the price will drop as production scales up.
Cracking beef's 'molecular code'
A considerable amount of technology goes into creating the small brown patties, which are produced at a factory in Oakland, California.
The new recipe is gluten-free, thanks to a switch from wheat to soy protein, and has less salt and fat. The company's food scientists and chefs spent the past year making sure their meatless burgers had a better "chew" closer to real beef.
The biggest difference Impossible fans might notice is where the product ends up when it launches in February. The changes to the recipe and texture make it more versatile in the kitchen, so it can be used in a wider variety of dishes, including sauces, nachos and larb.
"We cracked the molecular code of beef flavor," Lipman said. "When you take raw beef it really doesn't have much flavor. When you start to cook it, with no spices, it starts to get its flavor. What sort of magic is happening there?"
The scientists found that a high concentration of heme, a molecule in all foods, is the secret behind beef's unique taste. They tried to reproduce the effect in the first burger, and say they have gotten closer with the new recipe, which also includes coconut oil, sunflower oil, and potato protein.
"That's what really makes that crave-able flavor when you start start to cook it," Lipman said. "It's this sort of bloody ... I can't even begin to describe it."