SINGAPORE: If it looks like a beef burger, smells unmistakably like one and tastes like one – does that make it a burger?
That was what stumped three local foodies – head chef of Wolf Burgers Ms Sarah Lin, Mr Sheikh Haikel, owner of burger joint Fatpapas, and food blogger Mr Seth Lui – who were invited by the current affairs programme Talking Point to do a taste test of three different burger patties.
They weren’t told what was in store; they were simply asked to review and rank the burger patties in terms of taste, texture and smell.
First up was burger A, which Mr Lui turned up his nose at, saying that it was “kind of dry, can’t smell anything”.
Burger B fared slightly better among the judges, with Ms Lin remarking that “at least this smells like meat (and) tastes like sausage”.
The trio unanimously agreed Burger C had the best taste. Said Mr Lui: “This smells really good. The taste, texture and smell are all right.”
Much to their surprise, the most popular burger of the taste session wasn’t even a real burger.
Engineered in a laboratory, burger C is a high-tech concoction that is 100 per cent plant-based. Yet it even ‘bleeds’ like a rare beef burger, with a bright red rosy hue in the centre and filled with juice.
Burger A was a vegetarian burger formulated from peas, while Burger B was the real McCoy made with actual meat.
Asked if they felt cheated that C wasn’t a “real” burger, Mr Haikal said he would serve it in his restaurant “if there’s nothing wrong with it, if it’s healthy, nice and good”.
He added: “I would have it as there’s not enough meat to go around the world. It is the future, I guess.”
GETTING TO THE MEAT OF IT
The fake meat burger C is a laboratory creation of Silicon Valley start-up Impossible Foods, and it is made of four major natural ingredients, wheat protein, coconut oil, potato protein, and heme – which the company’s chief operating officer David Lee explains is “the magic ingredient that makes this burger tastes delicious”.
Heme is an iron-containing, naturally-occurring molecule present in meat and plants.
“This heme, when you cook it with amino acids and sugar, it creates thousands of different molecules that make a meat-eater think they are enjoying a piece of meat,” explained Mr Lee.
It is the key to meat. You can’t have a meaty taste and aroma without heme.
The heme used here comes from the roots of a plant, the leghemoglobin in the soy plant. Mr Lee said that there is nothing synthetic about the burger – the heme is similar to what one would find in a beef burger.
In fact, in some ways the Impossible Burger seems 'meatier' than meat. It has more protein and iron compared to a normal meat burger of the same weight, Mr Lee noted, with the benefit of having no cholesterol.
Some people have concerns that with this burger, the company has created a new protein, and possibly a new allergen (a substance that causes an allergic reaction).
“We’ve done allergenity testing to an extreme degree, way beyond what is required by regulators,” said Mr Lee. “And in all our testing, there are no major significant allergens that would cause anyone to be worried.”
The company said that it is fully compliant with all United States Food and Drug Administration regulations in terms of food safety.
LESS HARM TO THE PLANET
Six years ago, the founder of the company decided that the best way to reduce animal agriculture was to create a meatless burger.
Animal agriculture uses 30 per cent of all land and 25 per cent of all freshwater; and it creates as much greenhouse gas emissions as all of the world’s cars, trucks, trains, ships and airplanes combined, said the company on its website.
“The reason why we created this Impossible Burger is not just to satisfy the cravings of meat eaters but to do in a way that saves the environment,” said Mr Lee.
So every Impossible Burger versus a burger from a cow makes a really big difference for the world.
The company claims that making the Impossible Burger uses 95 per cent less land and 74 per cent less water; and it creates 87 per cent less greenhouse gas emissions compared to a burger made from cows.
It isn’t stopping at making ‘beef’ burgers either – it is now looking even at plant-based fish
WATCH: From lab to taste test (2:20)
Mr Lee believes that if there is increased demand for environmentally-friendly food, more companies will come in to meet that demand. "The world needs food that is sustainably-made and delicious. I like to think it is the future, and it starts with creating consumer movement.
“We’re now in about 45 restaurants in the United States, but our mission demands that we become global, and so we certainly intend for this to be the future food,” he said.
The United Nations in 2010 warned that a global shift towards a vegan diet is vital to save the world from hunger, fuel poverty and the impact of climate change.
Western tastes for diets rich in meat and dairy products are unsustainable as the global population moves towards a predicted 9.1 billion people by 2050, said the report from United Nations Environment Programme’s international panel of sustainable resource management.
“Impacts from agriculture are expected to increase substantially… A substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products,” said the UNEP report.
In a bold statement, British entrepreneur Richard Branson predicted in a Forbes article last month that animals would be removed from our food system in a few decades.
“I believe that in 30 years or so we will no longer need to kill any animals and that all meat will either be clean or plant-based, taste the same and also be much healthier for everyone,” he said.
SINGAPORE CAN DO IT TOO
It will be at least another six to nine months before Impossible Foods’ cow-less meat patties hit Singapore, but it has already got some investors excited about it. Singapore’s own Temasek Holdings led a US$75 million (S$101m) investment round this year.
The company has also been backed by Bill Gates and Li Ka-shing's Horizons Ventures.
In Singapore, food technology start-up Life3 Biotech from NUS has also come up with a meat-free alternative called Veego – a protein-rich ingredient made from soybeans, mushrooms and even lentils but with the chewiness of meat.
Veego can be wrestled into any type of meat, be it chicken, beef or pork. Founder Mr Ricky Lin said Veego is vegetarian but unlike mock meat, it is gluten-free.
A lot of mock meat is rich in carbo but low in protein; Veego is rich in protein, fibre and without artificial flavouring and colouring, he said.
“Having a plant-based alternative source of protein is definitely a healthier choice. We are not trying to covert everyone to switch to plant-based proteins. But maybe two days or three days in a week, you can have a clean eating habit,” he said.
Watch this episode of Talking Point online here.