Is the humble hamburger our planet’s new hero? It is according to biochemist Pat Brown. In this episode of ‘Fixed That For You’ we visit Brown’s Impossible Foods lab where he’s broken down America’s favorite food into one delicious dataset. Join us as we figure out exactly which molecules make burgers taste the way they do, and then try to find those exact same molecules in plants.
Pat Brown talks about Impossible 2.0 and the future of meat.
Impossible Foods is a must try especially for those that are major carnivores — you may never want to go back to meat again. The possibilities of what you can make is endless, from pizza to meatballs, sandwiches and even chili cheese fries. Find an Impossible Burger near you.
In Los Angeles for a weekend? Stop by Jared Simons restaurant No Name, one of LA’s new secret hot spot. Or if you’re too far from there, check out the recipe from Jared on how to make your own vegan BLT.
Pat Brown: We're not making a replacement for meat, we're producing better meat using better technology.
Cara Santa Maria: Pat Brown is confronting the biggest threat to the environment head on.
Pat Brown: We could basically take away the market that fuels the industry that's destroying the planet.
Cara Santa Maria: And his first target, America's favorite food: the hamburger.
Pat Brown: Our mission is to completely replace animals in the food system by 2035.
Cara Santa Maria: It's a plant-based burger, but not one aimed at vegans. The goal is to lure meat eaters away from beef, and one more thing, Pat's building this burger with data.
Cara Santa Maria: Welcome to Fixed That For You, an original podcast from segment about solving challenging problems with data and algorithms. I'm Cara Santa Maria, and in this episode we tackle the tastiest problem we've dared to so far — burgers.
Pat Brown: It is the largest single category of meat in the US.
Cara Santa Maria: To replace them Pat needs to understand why we love them.
Pat Brown: It is the most important scientific question in the world.
Cara Santa Maria: The answer to that is buried inside a really delicious data set.
Cara Santa Maria: We'll get to the burgers that are going to save the planet in just a minute, but to understand how we got here, you need to know a few things about Pat Brown.
Cara Santa Maria: He's the CEO of Impossible Foods, but he doesn't exactly come from a culinary background.
Pat Brown: I did my graduate research figuring out how an enzyme called DNA topoisomerase enables DNA molecules to pass through one another, then I went to UCSF San Francisco with a goal of figuring out how the AIDS virus inserts its genes into cells that it infects.
Cara Santa Maria: He was a biochemist, but ten years ago he left academia for a new challenge.
Pat Brown: I very quickly came to the realization that by far the biggest threat to the environment is the use of animals in the food system.
Cara Santa Maria: Specifically, raising cows for beef.
Pat Brown: 41% of the entire land area of the continental US is devoted just to beef production.
Cara Santa Maria: Hard to believe but almost half the land in this country is just a feedlot for cows. When you break it down it takes 65 square feet of land to generate one quarter pound burger patty, so if everyone in the world ate as much beef as Americans do, we would need over 36 million square miles of grazing land, which would be tough because there's only 57 million square miles of actual land on the entire planet. Unless you find a way to graze cows in Antarctica we need an alternative. I could keep throwing out numbers like how each cow uses 11,000 gallons of water a year, or how the backend of a cow is responsible for 10% of all greenhouse gases, but as scary as all those stats are, Pat found they don't really matter.
Pat Brown: No amount of education, and no amount of persuasion, is going to get people to change their diets meaningfully.
Cara Santa Maria: So instead of continuing as an academic, Pat became an entrepreneur.
Pat Brown: The solution had to be to find a better way to produce the foods that consumers love, and are going to continue to want, and compete in the market.
Cara Santa Maria: Except he didn't just try to compete in the market. He set out to topple a classic.
Jared Simons: I think people love burgers because one they're classic American food.
Cara Santa Maria: That's Jared Simons. He's the owner and head chef at one of LA's new hot spots, a restaurant called No Name.
Jared Simons: Two, they're very versatile. You can grind just about anything and put it into a burger. Three, they're a comfort food. And four, they essentially capture everything in terms of texture, juiciness.
Pat Brown: It is iconic. For a lot of meat eaters the first thing that comes to mind when they think of meat is a burger. That meant from a psychological standpoint it was the ideal vehicle to deliver a compelling way to consumers the message that delicious meat does not have to come from animals.
Pat Brown: There's no hubris here, okay? We have a huge task, and this is the kinda thing we have to do.
Cara Santa Maria: Pat Brown knew how hard it would be, and just to make sure everyone knew what they were up against he called his company Impossible Foods.
Pat Brown: The first thing that we did was to hire and build the best group of research scientists ever to work on food.
Cara Santa Maria: Not chefs, scientists, and most of them came from the medical world.
Pat Brown: What is relatively new is to approach this problem the same way that you would approach a biomedical problem, which is to understand the important properties of a food in sort of mechanistic, molecular detail.
Cara Santa Maria: That level of detail required data.
Pat Brown: You can't do data analysis until you have the data, and the first hard part of it is doing the basic work to generate the knowledge that you can then use in all sorts of ways to create new stuff.
Pat Brown: We spent the first two and a half years just doing basic research.
Cara Santa Maria: Now, you might be thinking, how much data can you get from a burger? Apparently, the answer to that is a lot.
Pat Brown: When you're thinking about ground beef it's basically muscle tissue, connective tissue, and adipose tissue, fat, and those tissues, as living systems, are incredibly complex.
Cara Santa Maria: Pat and his team went looking for data in three broad categories: texture, smell, and, most importantly, taste.
Pat Brown: If I gave you a food, it doesn't matter what it is, you could with pretty high certainty tell me whether it's meat, or not meat. There are certain common characteristics across all meats that are distinct properties of cooking behavior, and flavor, and aroma. That's due to heme.
Cara Santa Maria: They broke thousands of meats and vegetables down to their molecular components, and the thing that jumped off the page was that meat has large quantities of something called heme.
Pat Brown: People are sometimes surprised, well, how could we not have known for example that the reason meat tastes like meat is that it's got heme in it at very high levels. Well, it's because nobody treated it as a basic research problem.
Cara Santa Maria: Among many things, heme is what gives meat its red color. It's found inside a protein called myoglobin, the thing that carries oxygen through the muscle tissue.
Pat Brown: It's a molecule that has one function that keeps the cow alive, and a quite different function that makes meat taste delicious. And all those flavors are produced during that minute of cooking when the myoglobin denatures, and the heme gets out. It transforms in a process that produces an explosion of flavor and aroma.
Cara Santa Maria: So the lab set out to find a plant-based protein that would also released heme when it's cooked.
Pat Brown: The protein is called soy leghemoglobin.
Cara Santa Maria: Leghemoglobin is found inside the roots of soy plants.
Pat Brown: There's enough heme in the root nodules of the soybean crop to replace all the heme, and all the meat, consumed in the US, and therefore we're just gonna go out there and dig up the roots of these soybean plants, and purify leghemoglobin, and voila, we're done.
Cara Santa Maria: If only life were that easy.
Pat Brown: Although the root nodules could come almost for free the task of separating them from the dirt, and all the clean up steps to be able to produce food-grade leghemoglobin was extremely expensive and complicated.
Cara Santa Maria: Expensive and also counterproductive to Pat's ultimate goal.
Pat Brown: The amount of disruption of the soil to pull out these root nodules actually is sorta counterproductive from an environmental standpoint, not nearly as bad as using cows for food, but it releases carbon dioxide from the soil.
Cara Santa Maria: So Pat and his team came up with a plan B.
Pat Brown: We switched to producing it using yeast by taking the gene for leghemoglobin, this soybean protein, popping it into yeast cells, and jacking up their heme production so that it was a practical system for producing it at scale.
Cara Santa Maria: They started growing heme in the lab.
Chris Davis: What we're seeing here is basically a solution of the yeast.
Cara Santa Maria: Chris Davis is a research scientist at Impossible Foods. He gave us a tour of their state-of-the-art biochemistry lab, which sits right next to a test kitchen where you'll find PhDs grilling burgers all day.
Chris Davis: We're using a motor to stir the material, and we're blowing air through it to control the temperature. This gives us complete control of the environment of the yeast. In the fermentor what you do is basically that grows up the yeast with all the heme in it, and then it goes into another entire series of equipment where we basically crack the cells open, and then purify the heme protein to reach the quality specifications.
Cara Santa Maria: That process when done at scale is fast and economical enough that they don't need any farmland at all, so by analyzing the data Impossible Foods had identified what was responsible for that classic burger flavor, and isolated a yeast-based version of it. Their heme legit looks and tastes exactly like blood. I know. I've tried it. Alright, next came smell. If you're anywhere near a grill loaded with sizzling burgers you know instantly what's cooking. The aroma's unmistakable.
Pat Brown: You can thank heme for that intense aroma experience with cooking meat. It is the molecule that catalyzes all the chemical reactions that take simple nutrients, simple biomolecules like amino acids, and sugars, and vitamins, and so forth, that are in the animal cells, and turns them into hundreds of these volatile compounds odorants that produce the aroma, and taste, of meat.
Cara Santa Maria: Getting the perfect smell was about more than just adding heme.
Chris Davis: So we're in the analytical section lab.
Cara Santa Maria: That's Chris Davis again.
Chris Davis: And here we're really focused on the detection, and characterization, and measurement of small molecules. This particular machine is a gas chromatic graph, and mass spectrometer, so what it does is it separates all the volatile compounds out based on their boiling point and their hydrophobicity.
Cara Santa Maria: Deconstructing the aroma into individual elements is a mechanical process. Identifying what each component smells like is a job for a human.
Chris Davis: Some of the signal goes to the mass spectrometer to determine what the compound is. The rest of it comes out of a nasal port, and basically you sit there with your nose in it sniffing constantly for half an hour at a time, and as each peak comes through you say, grassy, meaty, burnt, rubber, whatever it happens to be, and you record the time.
Cara Santa Maria: They know which compound it is at any given time, because they know how long it takes for each compound to boil. Each smell report was added to the growing pile of data. That research revealed some nasty surprises.
Pat Brown: When you deconstruct the unmistakable, distinctive aroma of cooking ground beef into the individual molecular components that combined smell like meat, and none of them smell like meat. They smell like grass, and like a diaper pail, and a like musty basement, and like flowers, and maple syrup, and butter.
Cara Santa Maria: Thankfully, the hole is much nicer smelling than some of its parts. Just as the taste team did the smell experts identified plant-based ingredients that emit the same gases in the same ratio as animal beef. Those ingredients became the new recipe. The final hurdle for Pat and his team was texture. Anyone who's had a plant-based meat alternative will know how much it doesn't really feel like meat. A burger needs to be firm, but soft, and it should never be crispy, or chewy.
Cara Santa Maria: The specific protein they zeroed in on is called myosin, It's the thing that allows your muscles to move.
Pat Brown: What matters is that myosin at a certain temperature goes from being kinda, in a concentrated solution, sort of a squishy liquid to a firm gel.
Cara Santa Maria: Once again, they went looking for a plant protein with similar properties. They found their winner in the humble potato.
Pat Brown: A potato protein when it unfolds at a certain temperature it goes from a viscous liquid to a firm gel.
Cara Santa Maria: But then, the question became how firm is the perfect burger? To give them a target they put a beef burger into a chewing machine. Chris Davis showed it to us in the lab.
Chris Davis: We've squished the meat between two plates, and then you vibrate the plates, and that puts different amounts of shear and strain upon the meat, and the pull back of the meat then gives you a measurement of its elasticity, or its fluidity.
Cara Santa Maria: They created a data set of how a burger reacts when it's raw, cooked medium rare, and well done.
Chris Davis: When we make a plant-based analog we can then run it through the exactly same tests and see how well it matches that curve.
Cara Santa Maria: Pat, Chris, and the texture team were also looking at something called mouth feel.
Pat Brown: The way it feels in your mouth depends on the melting temperature of the fat. To get the right mouth feel it needs to go from liquid to solid roughly at the temperature that's inside your mouth. The other thing is that a lot of the flavor molecules that are generated during cooking by the heme catalyzed reactions are fat soluble.
Pat Brown: The fat is kinda a flavor delivery vehicle that delivers those odorants to the back of your mouth.
Cara Santa Maria: The proper fat ratio in a meat burger is hotly debated, so finding a good plant-based source of fat was critical.
Pat Brown: Most of the fat right now is coconut oil, coconut fat.
Cara Santa Maria: But no one wants a burger that tastes like a pina colada.
Pat Brown: Actually, it's pretty simple from a processing standpoint to separate the flavor molecules from the oil, so you can get a pretty, virtually flavorless, coconut oil.
Cara Santa Maria: After four years of research, Pat's scientist had created a massive data set of what a beef burger tastes, smells, and feels like, and which plant products share those same characteristics, so you'd think they could just plug it into an algorithm.
Pat Brown: The problem with an algorithm is that if you're using some kind of deterministic algorithm you have to know in advance a lot about how each of the components will perform. The very first time that we officially made a burger prototype it was described by one of the tasters as tasting like rancid polenta.
Cara Santa Maria: Rancid polenta. That's very specific, and I don't know, disgusting.
Pat Brown: I'm proud of that fact, because I feel like that's what you do. You take the stuff you think you know, you use it to try to make something that's a test, you observe the results of that test, and then you say, okay, what do we need to fix?
Pat Brown: What matters is how does it all come together in the consumer experience, which we can sorta predict to some degree from our data, and make deliberate choices, but not well enough that it replaces the sensory testing.
Cara Santa Maria: Chris Davis agrees.
Chris Davis: In the end, the only method to measure whether or not food is good is to taste it.
Cara Santa Maria: And that requires a team of highly trained eaters. Ooh, I want that job.
Danilka: I do like every day three to five tastings.
Cara Santa Maria: Danilka, a senior research associate eats a lot of burgers, and records all her findings.
Danilka: In these four samples I find salty, and I'm getting some soy flavors, and a bitterness, and savory, and also like oily.
Cara Santa Maria: Individually, those reports are really subjective, so each tester's descriptions are fed into a word sorting algorithm to turn their opinions into data.
Chris Davis: It's a matter of getting sufficient statistics by having enough different tasters in order to build a model of what are the underlying flavor compounds that we'll measure in the sensory performance that we're measuring?
Cara Santa Maria: Turning words into numbers to turn plants into burgers.
Pat Brown: We understand what we need to do based on this very technologically enabled laboratory research, and then we choose mostly familiar simple ingredients, and combine them in a way that's quite simple. You have to simultaneously optimize all these things. It's more complicated than just saying, well, if we turn this knob we could bump up this flavor. You have to be able to turn this knob and bump up the flavor while at the same time improving the texture, and shelf life, and stuff like that.
Cara Santa Maria: That's how Pat finally created the impossible burger.
Pat Brown: We wanted to launch in restaurants where the very fact that this chef is putting it on the menu as a meat — putting their reputation on the line, their livelihood on the line, is a very strong signal to consumers that this is unlike any plant-based product you've ever eaten, and it literally deserves to be called meat.
Cara Santa Maria: One of those restaurants is No Name run by our friend Jared Simons.
Jared Simons: It cooks like beef and quite honestly it tastes like beef when put into a burger.
Cara Santa Maria: His customers agree.
Jared Simons: We still sell the same amount of burgers, however, now it's split more 50/50 between beef burgers, and then the Impossible Burger.
Cara Santa Maria: A good start, but 50/50 isn't enough for Pat, so he continues to optimize his burger. A new version has just been released.
Pat Brown: We have a huge advantage over the animals in the food system, and that is that we can get better every single day, and as soon as we have a delicious burger the next day we're working on an even more delicious burger, and the cow is not doing that.
Cara Santa Maria: That's because the cow doesn't have Pat's data set.
Pat Brown: If you look at the history of our burger the major protein components have changed like five times. For any given property of a protein that's relevant to the sensory experience, and so forth, we've identified quite a number of different plant derived candidates that could potentially fill that purpose.
Cara Santa Maria: So there you go. It's a great story about a tasty meal that's gonna save the planet, but it does come with one major caveat.
Pat Brown: Our goal is to completely replace animals in the food system by 2035, and as of right now at our current level of production we are like one, one hundred thousandth of the way there, so this is no time for us to be resting on our laurels, because we're not done until we have a product that is so good that no one in their right mind would buy a ground up cow instead.
Cara Santa Maria: Alright. That's it for Fixed That For You, a podcast by Segment about big problems solved with data and algorithms. If you wanna find out more about Impossible Burgers, or find a restaurant near you that's serving them, maybe you'll see me there too, just check out the show notes.
Cara Santa Maria: You can find us at segment.com/podcast, plus subscribe at Apple podcast, Google podcast, Spotify, or wherever you do that sorta thing. We drop a new episode every two weeks. I'm Cara Santa Maria. Thanks for listening.