Rutgers and the Impossible Burger

For many, burgers are an emblem of American culture. They are eaten anywhere, from high-end steakhouses to concession stands at baseball games. 

But, the amount of red meat that Americans eat takes a large toll on the environment, as the production and maintenance of livestock is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than all transportation combined, according to Time Magazine. The average American eats approximately 100-153 kilograms per year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Red meat has also been tied to increased risks of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and certain cancers, as well as an elevated risk of mortality, according to the National Institute of Health (NIH).

To combat this, several years ago the Rutgers Food Innovation Center (FIC) partnered with Impossible Foods on a “meatless burger” project. The company attracted more than $300 million in funding, and has currently spread to more than 1,400 outlets in the United States, including the fast food chain White Castle, where one can purchase a meatless slider. 

Nolan Lewin, director of the FIC, provided insight into the University’s involvement and guidance of the start-up. 

“The chefs who started Impossible Foods were trying to develop a plant-based burger that had the same look, taste, smell and feel as a regular burger, without having any meat in it,” Lewin said. “They actually employed food scientists … to come in and work on what’s called the blood component, ‘heme,’ that was basically developed for them through a process.”

The heme component is what makes burgers “bleed,” according to Impossible Foods’ website. To make the meatless burger experience authentic, food scientists developed a plant-based version of this “blood” by putting DNA from a heme-containing protein in the roots of soy plants into genetically-modified yeast. After fermenting the yeast, the scientists were able to construct a meatless burger similar to the real thing.

Once developing the heme, Lewin said Rutgers got involved by establishing a space in the FIC where the company could place equipment that cut, chopped and formed the patties.

“Rutgers’ role was one of kind of mentoring and technical assistance, in terms of the equipment and getting them to run efficiently,” Lewin said. “Toward the end of their time at the University’s Innovation Center, we actually helped them to plan out their new facility in California. We had some engineering and technical expertise come in and lay out a design that would work for them out there.”

Not only was mentorship a motivating factor for the FIC, but also sustainability. Lewin said it was easier to grow more plant-based food than animal food, and that there was also a humanitarian aspect to the meatless burger as well.

Pat Brown, a biochemist from Stanford University and founder of Impossible Foods, echoed this idea. He said that the plants grown today have more than enough protein, calories, essential amino acids and nutrients needed to feed 10 billion people. 

“But humans have managed to take that abundance of nutrition and create a world where there’s still almost 1 billion people who don’t have enough protein in their diet, and almost 2 billion who don’t have enough iron in their diet,” he said in an interview with Time Magazine. “That’s because we’ve squandered the nutrition provided by plants by turning it into animals.”

Looking to the future, Lewin said he sees a movement in the realm of food research. The technologies used for the meatless burger are also being developed for seafood as well, with researchers working to make agriculture seafood cells in a laboratory and growing them in a refined space, so animals do not have to be killed.

Due to the success of their partnership with Impossible Burger, Rutgers now has many prospective partners with a range of interests in plant-based foods, such as dips, side-dishes and plant-based milks, which Lewin said were “the hottest trend right now.” 

So regarding taste, does the Impossible Burger really taste like meat?

“They actually taste like a burger,” Lewin said. “If you think about the way a burger is supposed to taste like, you know smokey, you know when you bite down and it’s got a little bit of texture to it, it looks like a burger when it’s raw and when it’s cooked.”