It seems meat-free meat is having a moment. Earlier this month, Tyson Foods — “one of America’s most carnivorous companies,” Vice noted — announced that it plans to invest in Beyond Meat, one of two companies making plant-based patties that look like beef, smell like beef, even bleed like beef. The Beyond Burger hit Whole Foods shelves in May; Impossible Foods’ Impossible Burger debuted at David Chang’s Momofuku Nishi over the summer.
Up until now, these products were regarded mainly as curiosities, but Tyson’s involvement could be a hint that imitation meat is moving from fringe-y novelty to something more, just as veggie burgers did in the later decades of the 20th century. Compared to their veggie-burger predecessors, though, these new meatless creations require a newer, more complicated alchemy: The challenge now isn’t just to please the senses, creating some enjoyable mishmash of ingredients in patty form; it’s to fool the senses, a task that requires an acute understanding of the way humans experience their food.
A few of the weapons in fake-meat manufacturers’ arsenal include a focusing on their products’ fat content (some scientists believe fat may be a taste in its own right, up there with sweetness and bitterness) and a molecule called heme, found in animal blood and certain plants, that’s responsible for giving burgers their faint iron-y tinge. But here’s an important thing to know: What we call “taste” is actually flavor, a sensation caused by our taste buds and smell receptors working in tandem. So interwoven are taste and smell, in fact, that some scientists are currently working on manipulating the odor of healthy food products to make them taste more like junk food, minus the calories. A meatlike meatless burger, then, first and foremost has to smell like meat.
And “meat” is not one unified smell — it’s the result of a staggering number of chemical compounds, each with their own odor, playing off and reacting to one another. “The smell of meat is the simultaneous exposure to these hundreds of different smells,” Patrick Brown, a former Stanford biochemist and the founder of Impossible Foods, told NPR in an interview earlier this year. To figure out exactly what their burger should smell like, Brown said, he and his colleagues put beef into a chromatography mass spectrometry machine, which sorts and isolates chemical compounds; among other things, they detected whiffs of butter, syrup, and even used diapers. (That last one sounds slightly horrifying, but not all food smells are things we’d consider pleasant on their own — some wine experts say that Sauvignon Blanc, for example, bears a striking olfactory resemblance to cat pee.)
Flavor isn’t just smell and taste — it’s texture, too, meaning a convincing imitation has to re-create the chewy, crumbly feel of a mouthful of ground beef. Manufacturers have to consider protein, fat, moisture, and heating temperatures, all of which subtly help to make a burger what it is. A New York feature last year explained Impossible Foods’ multistep process for manufacturing burger texture: “proteins centrifuged from liquefied soy, wheat, and spinach and reassembled to mimic the fibrosity and tensile strength of a steer’s connective tissue,” plus “muscle replica, fresh from a KitchenAid’s meat grinder: fluffy, pale-pink clumps of proteins from the same three crops, isolated because they could form fleshlike gels.”
It may sound obvious, but a burger imitation also has to look like a burger — which is why this advanced fake meat, as it cooks, goes from red to pink to brown. Vision is often the first sense we use to process food, and first impressions are hard to shake. It sounds almost unbearably pretentious when they say it on Top Chef, but you really do eat with your eyes. If the look is wrong, it’s easy to get turned off before you even have a chance to taste (in one well-known study on the psychology of disgust, most people presented with a poop-shaped piece of chocolate refused to eat it, even though they knew it was just dessert). Hence the fake burgers’ bleeding, a seemingly superfluous flourish that actually goes a long way toward simulating authenticity.
But while imitation-meat burgers are playing catch-up to the real thing, they may have one advantage that regular beef burgers don’t: ecofriendliness, an abstract concept that plays out on the plate in very real ways. Eating according to your conscience can influence a food’s flavor — research has shown, for example, that humanely raised meat tastes better when it comes from humanely raised animals than when it’s been factory-farmed.
And all meat, it’s worth noting, tastes better with a slice of cheese melted on top, a fact the imitation-meat industry hasn’t overlooked: The team behind Impossible Burger is apparently working on a similarly high-tech plant-based American cheese, shooting for a near-exact replica of the real (gooey, salty, melty) thing.