Americans are burger-crazy. On average, Americans eat three burgers a week which means 50 billion burgers a year, made mostly from cows. By now, many of us know that eating large quantities of beef is unsustainable. Raising cattle requires more land, water, and fertilizer than raising the equivalent amount of calories from plants. For example, it takes 460 gallons of water to produce a quarter pound beef burger. This is not to say we should never eat beef, just that we might not want to consume the super-sized quantities we do today. However alternatives are on the way. The first cultured meat burger made of cow muscle debuted in 2013 and it is hoped that manufacturing costs will drop to make it a viable option. For the time being, if even one out of three burgers eaten were meatless, that could have a huge impact. Fortunately, a host of new companies and initiatives are rethinking this ubiquitous American staple and hope to offer consumers new, plant-based options that are good for their palate, their bodies, and the planet.
Rethinking the Meat Case: When grocery store customers want to buy a burger, they usually walk to the back of the store and reach into the meat case. If they want plant-based burgers, they often go to a different part of the store entirely. This year, Beyond Meat, a company that produces plant-based meat substitutes, started selling its products directly out of the refrigerated meat case. CEO and founder Ethan Brown had been selling frozen products for years but specifically created his burger patty to be placed here, rather than with the other vegetarian options. By being in the meat case, the burger is seen by consumers as comparable to meat. Ethan advocates for a rethink of the meat case and suggests that a “protein case” would offer consumers even more choice. Just as the same consumer might buy almond milk for their smoothie and dairy milk for their coffee, so might protein consumers buy plant-based burgers for their weekday meals – perhaps keeping animal protein for their weekends, or even switching their preference altogether. The product is packaged like meat, looks remarkably like meat, and even “bleeds” beet juice.
Tackling Availability and Taste: Beyond Meat is not the only company rethinking the burger. Impossible Foods, another company that produces plant-based meats and cheeses, recently launched the Impossible Burger at New York’s Momofuku Nishi. The burger combines wheat, coconut oil, potato protein, and also contains heme, a molecule found in animal protein that gives meats its texture and “meaty” taste (the Beyond Meat burger contains heme also). Momofuku charges $12 for a burger and fries, a price comparable to other casual restaurants in New York City. By launching the burger at a well-known restaurant, Impossible ensured that it would be cooked in the best possible way, thus winning fans both vegetarian and omnivorous alike. The burger could be a viable substitute for beef burgers in restaurants, providing an option that is comparable in price and taste, but better for your body (no beef fat) and the environment. If the Impossible Burger catches on, an increasing number of restaurant diners may choose a plant-based option in the future.
I went to Momofuku Nishi to try the Impossible Burger last week. It was worth the hype. The burger had a similar texture to a beef burger but didn’t feel heavy or greasy due to the lack of beef fat. Similar to the Beyond Meat burger, the Impossible burger “bleeds” a little when its cooked, making it much jucier than traditional veggie burgers on the market.
Solutions that can scale: There will always be those who prefer meat due to cultural and taste reasons. The Blended Burger Project, a challenge hosted by the James Beard Foundation, strives to make burgers more healthy and sustainable by blending ground meat with mushrooms. 2016 chef participants include well known burger restaurants such as Bareburger and Umami Burger. This work builds off of the Menus of Change principles developed by the Culinary Institute of America. These principles encourage chefs to rethink how they formulate and prepare meals to create menus that are sustainable, responsible and delicious. The blended burger movement enables consumers to keep eating burgers, just with more vegetables and less meat. In fact, food service company Sodexo announced this February that it would be switching the all-beef burger it supplies to schools to a blended burger. As Sodexo currently serves 250 school districts, this will have a significant impact on school nutrition and sustainability.
The blended burger, Impossible Burger, and Beyond Meat burger are all fundamentally disrupting the burger market in the same way – they are shifting the formulation of the burger from meat to plants. While veggie burgers have existed for many years, traditional veggie burger recipes (generally beans and/or rice) don’t try to mimic the taste and feel of meat. These new burgers are designed for people who still want the gastronomic qualities of meat, just with different properties. A burger with a higher percentage of plant-based content means less of an impact on the environment, and benefits for human nutrition. As Ethan Brown, CEO of Beyond Meat states: “Burgers are a celebrated part of the American diet. We enable people to eat what they love.” These new options show that plant-based foods can be as delicious and affordable as their counterparts.
We are working on scaling up access to plant-based proteins through our project: Protein Challenge 2040. The Protein Challenge is the first global coalition exploring how we feed nine billion people enough protein in a way which is affordable, healthy, and good for the environment. To find out more contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Image credits: Impossible Burger / Momofuku; Alisha Bhagat
Momofuku Tumblr Page (August, 2016). Impossible Burger