All about the Impossible Burger

A Stanford professor comes to Brandeis to talk about how he created a vegetarian burger as good as the real thing. The secret of his success — basic science.

So what does an academic with a PhD in biochemistry, expertise in gene-based expression microarrays, and a multimillion dollar lab at Stanford University do for a next act in his career? — He builds a better burger.

In 2011, Patrick Brown started Impossible Foods with the goal of creating a vegetarian burger that could tickle the taste buds of even the most die-hard carnivore. This summer, the Impossible Burger, as it's known, debuted to rave reviews and around-the-block lines at Momofuku Nishi, a trendy restaurant in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood.

Brown came to Brandeis last Tuesday to speak with students and later sat down for an interview with Brandeis Now. He was invited to the university by Professor of Biology Michael Rosbash.

Brown was at the apex of his academic career when he decided to start Impossible Foods. "I felt like I had the best job in the world" at Stanford, he says. "My responsibility was to follow my curiosity and see wherever it took me. If they weren't paying me, I would have been paying them to let me do it."

But he says he also wanted to leave a better world for his kids and grandkids. Since, as he puts it, animal agriculture "is by far the most destructive technology in terms of its environmental impact," he focused on food.

Producing one pound of beef, for instance, requires 1,800 gallons of water, the equivalent of more than 100 10-minute showers. Livestock agriculture is responsible for 14 percent of all greenhouse emissions globally, most of which come from cattle.

Brown took a novel approach to creating a beef substitute. "I approached it as a basic scientist would," he says. "I started by trying to understand basic things about why meat tastes like meat — What is the biochemical explanation as to why it has the physical and textural properties it has? What's the molecular basis of the chemistry of the flavor?"

Several years of research led Brown and his staff to heme, the iron-containing molecule that's responsible for the color and much of the taste and smell of meat. Heme is super-abundant in meat, but it’s also a basic building block of all forms of life, including plants. That meant it could be extracted to create a vegetarian burger that tasted like meat.

"There were zero scientific publications on heme’s role in meat flavor," Brown says. "Nobody paid any attention to it. They were not trying to understand meat in fundamental terms."

Other ingredients in the Impossible Burger include water, textured wheat protein, coconut oil and a potato protein. There's no cholesterol, hormones, antibiotics or artificial ingredients.

Impossible Foods has set its immediate goal on selling to restaurants. In two or three years, Brown expects to produce his company's animal-free beef at the same price as ordinary supermarket ground beef. According to the company, making an impossible burger uses only 1/20th the land and a quarter of the water required to produce a meat burger and produces only an eighth of the greenhouse gas emissions.

According to press reports, the Silicon Valley-based startup has raised $182 million in equity since launching.

Categories: Research, Science and Technology

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