What is it that makes a burger smell so good, to sizzle, bleed and “taste gloriously meaty”?
Say you decided to deconstruct the hamburger—singling out the smells, the nuances of the taste, the way it sizzles in the frying pan and bleeds when you bite into the meat. Then you could reconstruct it with different building blocks, none of them coming from dead animals.
That’s exactly what Impossible Food, creators of The Impossible Burger, set out to do. They put the burger through all kinds of electroscopes and tests. One important discovery they made, was that a lot of the burger’s traits come from one specific protein: heme.
That same protein can also be found in the roots of the soy plant. Using heme, wheat, coconut oil, potatoes and other plant-based ingredients, they made a vegetarian burger that bleeds—that looks, smells and tastes pretty much like the real thing.
The way we eat has got to change. Otherwise, our planet will not be able to feed us all. Animal agriculture lays claim to a third of all land, and a quarter of all fresh water on earth. 10 % of the greenhouse gases emitted each year comes from methane released by cows. Animal welfare and ethical considerations aside: Meat production isn’t sustainable.
The Impossible Burger uses 95 % less land, 74 % less water and produces 87 % less greenhouse gas emissions compared to a “real” burger.
Lab-grown meat is coming, too. But through innovations such as plant-based burgers, we already have great alternatives to meat. It’s here right now. The Impossible Burger recently appeared on the menu at White Castle in 140 locations— the first plant-based patty to be sold in an American quick-serve restaurant, according to Quartz. You can get an impossible slider for $1.99. It has a competitor, too—The Beyond Burger, that can be found at supermarkets.
More sustainable burgers can’t “save the world” by themselves. But they are indicative of change.
Among foods, the burger holds a special status. If that craving for a fatty and delicious burger can be satisfied by a plant-based, sustainable product—even among happy carnivores—then we’re probably on the right path.
“The absurdity of growing a whole chicken”
As early as in 1931, in his remarkable essay Fifty Years Hence, Winston Churchill wrote that we “shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium”.
We didn’t get there in 50 years, but we are now. While some, like Impossible Food and Beyond Meat, are creating plant-based alternatives, others are doing literally what Churchill proposed—growing real meat in the lab.
This is often referred to as “clean meat” and it is already in production (or should we say growing?) several places in the world. The challenge here is that it is still demanding and costly to produce. According to Quartz, a pound of cell-cultured beef would have cost 1.2 million dollars per pound in 2013. Since then, the price has fallen more than 99 %, but it’s still much higher than your usual animal-reared meat.
The reason it is so expensive is that especially one ingredient is difficult to get: fetal bovine serum, which is blood extracted from the fetuses of pregnant cows. Growing clean meat also takes a lot of work, as much of the process of sensitive tissue engineering is done by hand, literally harvesting cells from fat and muscle.
Nonetheless, progress is fast. Lab-grown meat may be found in a fancy restaurant near you before you know it.
3D printing and personalization
One more “alternative meat” is … insects. Insects are high in protein and are already being eaten (and considered delicacies) in many parts of the world. The farming of insects is still not industrialized at scale, but many have predicted that it won’t be long before you find frozen grasshopper burger patties at your local supermarket.
And talking about nutritious things that we don’t harvest today: algae might be one of the most important parts of our diet in the future.
Another thing to look into are the new and developing technologies like bio technology and 3D printing, and the trend toward personalization, that will affect the food industry big time.
We learn more and more about the human genome, and with that knowledge comes insight into what the body needs (and doesn’t need). With increasingly advanced bio technology, we’ll be able to engineer plants to have much higher levels of certain nutrients. There is also the impact that 3D printing has had—in the future, we could possibly just print the food we want and need. It will be personalized, with exactly the nutrition the person needs, in the shape and flavor that she prefers. Supermarkets will embrace this focus on functional food, like they do today when consumers want superfood. Today the they have a baby food section, but in the future we will have food optimized for all segments of the population.
So, what will a plate of food look like in ten years’ time? Is lab-grown meat mainstream by then? We may also get some, or most, of our protein from insects, and hopefully we’ll see more plant-based alternatives too. Or perhaps most meals will be simply a cocktail of pills and 3D printed food?
We will at the very least eat differently than today—because we have to. Many more will be vegetarian or vegan, and we will probably care more about the ingredients and nutrition than the form of the food, as everything can be personalized to us.
This might be great news for our bodies and for our planet, but will food stop being art and culture, and just industry and biology? Probably not. Precisely because most smaller meals may be something like 3D printed bars with just what we need, the experience of cooking and enjoying great food will be even more important to us than it is today.
And we’ll still have amazing hamburgers.