At Samba Scientific, we consider ourselves to be science enthusiasts. Some in our group are also cheeseburger enthusiasts. So, when the Impossible Whopper came to town, we took a field trip.
Plants that bleed?
The Impossible Whopper is a veggie burger that bleeds. That’s the idea anyways.
The concept behind Impossible Foods is simple (and brilliant). The bulk ingredient in red blood cells is a protein called hemoglobin. Hemoglobin carries oxygen. Plants need oxygen too, and the proteins they use to carry it are actually pretty similar to hemoglobin.
Grossed out yet? It’s about to get a whole lot more sciencey.
Impossible researchers settled on a protein called leghemoglobin from soybean roots. Unfortunately, extracting leghemoglobin from plants is hard and expensive. More importantly, soybeans are among a class of plants (legumes) that are really, really good for the soil. Legume roots cooperate with bacteria to take up nitrogen naturally in soils where other plants would need added fertilizers. If Impossible Foods went around digging up soybean roots, they wouldn’t be making the positive environmental difference the company strives for.
Yeast that make plant proteins
The challenge, then, is how to get plant hemes without chopping up plants. Fortunately, it’s nothing a little science can’t help. Since the eighties, scientists have been recruiting microbes (yeast and bacteria) to help make proteins that are tough to get from their native source. This started with insulin for diabetic patients and has now become a staple for lots of important proteins like those involved in making cheese.
Impossible Foods recruited brewing yeast to help make the leghemoglobin. By inserting the genetic instructions for making the protein in yeast, they can cook up big batches of leghemoglobin like you would beer or wine. That’s biotech at its best.
Tasting the Impossible Whopper
So that’s the nerdy science bit about how Impossible Burgers are made, the big question is—How do they taste? Do they taste like meat? How do they stack up against other veggie burgers?
The right way to put Impossible Burgers to the test would be to do a double-blind test with a large number of participants who each tasted Impossible Whoppers and regular Whoppers side-by-side in randomized order.
That is not what we did.
Instead, a few team members (N=5) ate only the Impossible Whopper (no control).
But that didn’t stop us from drawing conclusions.
The reviews were mixed. Self-proclaimed Whopper aficionados were not convinced. The more burger-agnostic members of the group readily admitted that they could have been fooled into thinking they were eating real meat.
At the end of the day, it didn’t really matter whether or not the Impossible Whopper tasted exactly like a real whopper. We all felt a little altruistic for making the animal-free choice and a whole lot cooler for adding a dash of science to our lunchbreak.