I haven’t eaten a burger—and I’m talking a real burger—in almost twenty years. It sounds crazy, even to me. I used to love them—my dad made a killer burger, and there’s just nothing like the smell of ground beef on the grill. I stopped eating meat in high school, and while you might catch me lingering next to a barbeque with my eyes closed, I don’t regret it. In fact, I feel loads better and don’t have to feel guilty about participating in one of the most disgusting and arguably unethical industries humans have ever come up with. But sometimes, veggie substitutes for meat foods are lacking, or even straight-up nasty. I think it’s a mistake to try and make something vegetarian taste like the real thing. I’ll happily eat marbled strips of soy, but if you tell me they’re soy bacon, or “fake-on,” then I have a whole different expectation. Hence the problem with veggie burgers: they don’t taste like real burgers. Sure, when you drown them in mustard, ketchup, onions, etc, you can trick yourself into forgetting what is all too evident. I’ve had some damn tasty veggie burgers in my day, but the best ones were inventive—lentils, quinoa, and walnuts, or some combination of things you’d never find on a real burger. It’s best not to beg the comparison. But I may soon be eating my words—a Stanford biochemist claims to have made a totally convincing veggie burger with “plant blood.”
In addition to being a scientist—and in addition to being one of the folks responsible for the PLOS (Public Library of Science) journal—Patrick Brown has been vegetarian for over 30 years, and has been vegan for 7. A couple years ago at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting, he called animal farming “the biggest environmental catastrophe.” He’s not wrong. According to the Food & Agriculture Organization of the UN, livestock—or more accurately, their methane emissions (read: farts)—comprises 37% of human-caused methane and 65% of human-caused nitrous oxide. These two gases contribute to the greenhouse effect far more than carbon dioxide does, and, overall, these emissions amount to more than those generated by cars and airplanes combined.
Not only is animal farming contributing directly to global warming, but it’s also a huge land drain. Feeding animals means growing crops, which means using huge swaths of land (like 70% of what used to be the Amazon rain forest), energy, and fertilizer. In short, Brown wants to “eliminate animal farming on planet Earth.” Sure, it might seem extreme, but hey, the diets of the masses change a lot over time. You never know. Still, it raises the question of how in hell consumers and manufacturers could be convinced to give up meat.
The answer, according to Brown, is by making vegetarian food better, cheaper, and more widely available. If it costs too much to raise, sell, and buy meat, then maybe manufacturers can be convinced to go green. He took a year off to meet with chefs and researchers to develop better tasting veggie fare, and he now thinks that the answer is one of the molecules that comprises hemoglobin.
Hemoglobin exists in the red blood cells of people and vertebrate animals (people with anemia generally don’t have enough), and it transports oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body, releasing oxygen along the way. Hemoglobin is what starts the metabolism process. Hemoglobin, or molecules much like it, also exist in plants and help transport gases such as carbon dioxide. According to Brown, it’s this hemoglobin, made into a thin, red brew, that will elevate the veggie burger, as well as other vegetarian and vegan fare, into something even carnivores will enjoy.
His start-up, Impossible Foods, will attempt to recreate and replace meat, cheese, eggs, and anything else that comes from animals. Hmm, I wonder what he’d think about cricket chips? I have to say, “plant blood” might not be the way to sell this stuff, but whatever it’s called, I’ll give it a try. After all, it sure beats a lab-grown burger.