It’s fair to say that our species, in general, loves to eat meat. But unfortunately, this practice is not without consequences. It’s unsustainable, often involves poor treatment of animals and has an enormous impact on the environment. It’s because of these reasons that scientists are going to great lengths to come up with smart alternatives that can satisfy both meat lovers and vegetarians alike.
This time last year, the world’s first test-tube burger was cooked and eaten at a news conference in London. The burger, which apparently tasted pretty good, was produced from stem cells that were extracted from cows and then cultured in the lab. But this burger is far from close to reaching our shelves as it cost a whopping $330,000.
Opting for a wildly different strategy, Stanford biochemist Patrick Brown has come up with a weirdly wonderful way to produce environmentally friendly beef burger alternatives at a fraction of the previous cost. Unlike the former burger, his patties are entirely meatless, but they look and taste like meat. That medium-rare delight pictured above is actually one of his burgers, which are now being manufactured by his company Impossible Foods.
The secret to Brown’s burgers is an ingredient called heme which can be extracted from a protein found in leguminous plants called leghemoglobin. As the name suggests, leghemoglobin is similar to hemoglobin which is found in our blood. Both of these proteins are involved in transporting oxygen which is facilitated by the heme groups. Hemes consist of an iron atom centered inside an organic ring, and it is this iron that bestows the molecule with oxygen-attracting properties. When oxygen binds to the iron atom, it becomes oxidized, turning the whole protein more red and hence making the burger look bloody. But heme is not just useful in the aesthetics of this burger, it also helps to create flavors akin to those found in meat.
Brown spent a while tinkering with the recipe to get the taste right, adding various different plant ingredients, and what he has come up with is pretty impressive and certainly looks like meat. However, apparently the texture is a bit more turkey-like than beef-like. Still, it only cost $20 to make, which is significantly cheaper than the test-tube burgers. Brown hopes that with further development, his burger will be so beefy that even meat lovers will want it.