The Impossible Cheeseburger

By Stephan Kamrad

I have previously written about Just Mayo, a vegan mayonnaise that contains “pea proteins” instead of egg yolk. Another start-up company founded by Patrick Brown, Professor of Biochemistry at Stanford University, makes not only the condiment but the entire burger vegan. Their Impossible Cheeseburger is made entirely from plants and imitates beef in taste, texture and appearance almost perfectly (according to tasters).

Medicago italica root nodules

Medicago italica root nodules

Just imagine a perfectly grilled burger: Juicy and just a tiny bit bloody in the middle. The molecule responsible for the characteristic red colour and distinct, slightly metallic taste is a complex molecule called haem. Haem contains a co-ordinated iron ion and is part of haemoglobin, the protein that transports oxygen in our red blood cells.

The Impossible Cheeseburger gets its haem not from the blood of kettle but from a plant of the legume family (which includes beans, peas and peanuts). These naturally produce leghaemoglobin which is functionally and structurally akin to mammalian haemoglobin. It is red in colour, also contains the haem co-factor and apparently makes a fake burger just as bloody as real beef.

 
Legumes live in symbiosis with Rhizobia bacteria that populate specially formed nodules in the roots. Those bacteria convert atmospheric nitrogen (N2) to ammonium (NH4+) which the plant is then able to use for growth and development. In exchange, the bacteria are supplied with sugars. Nitrogenase, the bacterial enzyme that fixes N2, is sensitive to oxygen and it is thus important that oxygen levels in the nodule are as low as possible while still being high enough for the bacteria to live. And this is where leghaemoglobing comes in: It is present at high levels in root nodules and buffers oxygen at a constant but low level. All that the scientists at ‘Impossible Food’ had to do was to harvest root nodules and extract the haem (which was probably a lot harder than it sounds).

Whatever your reason to eat vegan is (and there are plenty), there is an emerging industry that will allow you to do so without changing your actual eating habits or losing flavour. While this is potentially a great thing for the customer and the planet, it is important to realise that this product –while being vegan- is in no way natural. It was born in the lab, created not only by chefs but also by biochemists who miraculously turn vegetables into meat. The “Recipe” and exact ingredients remain (just like in the case of Just Mayo) the company’s secret which makes it increasingly difficult for us as consumers to know what exactly we are eating.

The Impossible Cheeseburger will not be available in stores for another few months. If you can’t wait that long, check out this vegan burger recipe based on carrot, kidney beans and cumin.

 

Vegan Mayonnaise: The Future of Food?

By Stephan Kamrad

Our diet, even today in the globalised age, is made up of surprisingly few plant species: Wheat, rice, potatoes and maize are the major carbohydrate sources for almost the entire planet. When it comes to livestock fodder, fruit and veg, the range is a bit broader but still limited to maybe a few hundred plant species and that although there are estimated to be over 400,000 plant species living on this planet!

So why is that? The reason for this is historical or at least traditional. Since the beginning of agricultural farming (~12,000 years ago) plants have been selected for productivity, palatability and resistance to pests, disease and environmental stresses. The plants we eat today are a reflection of our history, culture and tradition: the exploration of America marked a turning point in world history as well as European diets since it was the Spanish conquistadores who brought the potato plant back from their travels. Today in our globalised world, exotic fruits are flown around the planet so that we can enjoy kiwi, peaches, and strawberries, all year around. Still, rice and wheat remain the main food crops in Asia and Europe respectively as they have been for millennia.

Credit Jennifer Barry

Credit Jennifer Barry

But are we not missing out on the other 99.9% of plant species? Who can imagine what delicacies remain forever out in the wild because they have not been traditionally bred as crop plants or are simply unusual and scary to us? (Would you just eat a random berry you find in the wild?)

A company that has picked up on that is Hampton Creek, a food company based in San Francisco. They have developed a vegan mayonnaise substitute called Just Mayo. The key in developing this product was finding a substitute for the egg (yolk) traditionally used in mayonnaise. Just Mayo instead uses “Pea Proteins” as they declare it on their ingredients list. The company has screened, according to their press releases and adverts, many thousand plants for their properties and potential to replace eggs and continue to do so. “Pea” usually refers to the seeds of the Fabaceae family but what species and variety is actually used and how the protein is being extracted from the pea remains the companies secret. Known is that the product has only 65% of the saturated fatty acids of conventional mayonnaise and is cholesterol free.

“So what?” may you ask. After all organic food stores and supermarkets have been stocking plant-based alternatives for a long time, especially soy-based dairy substitutes and tofu. But the general conception is that vegan food is for hippies and leads to vitamin and protein deficiencies although it is in principle a lot more sustainable and more or just as healthy (with animal welfare being a whole other issue in our intensive meat industry). So in a way, Hampton Creek took and old idea and turned it into something more: looking at their ads and website, Just Mayo almost appears to be a superior lifestyle product with supreme nutritional value. In a funding campaign in February, the company raised 23 million USD, they were in Bill Gates’ The Future of Food feature and recruited Chris Jones (contestant of an American cooking reality show), Joshua Klein (CalTech graduate who previously worked on HIV treatment discovery), and Dan Zigmond (formerly Lead Data Scientist at Google Maps). Up to now, Just Mayo was mostly sold at up-town organic food stores, but their products are now available in Walmart (the world’s largest retailer) which will surely bring production volumes up and prices down.

Hampton Creek’s success has shown that there is a growing market for vegan products. Will this be the future of food? Are we learning to use the plants around us so that our diet becomes healthier and more sustainable without actually losing variety, money or taste?