The Veggie Burger that 'Bleeds' Arrives in North Carolina

Plant-based patty at Bull City Burger and Brewery

Only a handful of restaurants in the state carry the “Impossible Burger” and Durham’s Bull City Burger and Brewery is one of them. On a rainy Thursday evening, I called ahead to make sure they hadn’t sold out of the meatless patty. They hadn’t. It was delicious. And expensive. 

The Silicon Valley-based company Impossible Foods spent five years experimenting with ingredients to create this plant-based burger. Their goal (according to their website) was a patty that passes a strict sensory test: it had to taste, smell, feel and sound like a beef patty.So not only does the burger need to have the elusive nutty flavor of cooked meat, it has to sizzle as it cooks and come off the grill with a firm, toasted exterior. When you bite into it, it has to squelch like a medium-rare burger. This burger does most of that.

I love juicy burgers loaded with condiments. But it’s hard to fathom the amount of resources it takes to get one burger on my plate. According to the World Resources Institute, raising cattle requires 20 times more land than plant protein sources like beans. Cattle production also releases 20 times more green-house gases than plant-based protein sources.

So, I wanted to like this meatless burger. 

We ordered a regular burger too, halved them both, and swapped the halves around so we wouldn’t know which was beef and which was plant-based. Here’s the two side-by-side. Can you tell which is which?

 

 

You can sort of see that the patty on the right looks slightly stringier than the one on the left. That’s the Impossible Burger. When I bit into it, the Impossible Burger had a slightly softer texture than the beef burger. The patty had a broth-like flavor I associate with meat, but it lacked that firm-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside, crumbly texture of ground beef. The patty didn’t crumble when it came apart, it smeared. 

How the Meatless Patty is Made

To create their meat analogue, the company used wheat protein, potato protein, coconut oil and heme. Heme is a molecule found in blood that carries oxygen. It’s what makes your blood red.

The research team added heme to the burgers in order to add that slightly-metallic flavor and give the burger its coloring. Heme occurs naturally in plants as well as animals, so the company extracted it from soy plants. By genetically modifying yeast to produce heme, they were able to produce mass quantities of it in a lab without having to grow soy just for the heme.

The burger is only sold in select restaurants. It’s on menus in New York and California, but only recently made its way to the Southeast. After hearing about the burger for years, Bull City Burger owner Seth Gross said he finally managed to convince the food distribution company Sysco to special order the Impossible Burger in January. But it came at a price.

"It cost more per pound than filet mignon to get it delivered," said Gross. "One of the reasons some people eat vegetarian is because it potentially costs less than eating meat. But this burger is an exception."

Is the Impossible Burger Worth It? 

Gross said he was curious about the burger because he wanted another option for vegetarians and vegans. The first four weeks of carrying the burger went well. But Gross said that after the "honeymoon phase" ends, he's reconsidering ordering it.

"I have some real issues with the burger," he said. "Part of our mission is that we make everything in-house. Our buns, our condiments, everything. So I'm hesitant to keep bringing in this highly-processed product." Bull City Burger and Brewery orders its beef from local farmers who raise cows in pastures and don't use antibiotics or hormones.

"I can take you to the farmer and show you where your burger came from," said Gross. "The Impossible Burger compromises those values." 

Gross said that Bull City Burger already carries a popular veggie burger made of out beets. So ordering this burger once for novelty's sake makes sense. But you'll wince at the price tag. 


- Rossie Izlar

Rossie Izlar is the associate producer of Sci Tech Now North Carolina, a weekly show highlighting the latest science stories from North Carolina and across the nation.