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Competitors Sink Their Teeth Into The Meatless-Meat Industry


How do you convince a carnivore to eat a burger that doesn't have any meat? There are a few companies that think they've got the answer, burgers that look and taste like ground beef, but they're made entirely out of plant material. These burgers have been around for a few years, but now they're attracting big-time investments, and new competitors are trying to get into the meatless meat game.

I should disclose at this point, I love hamburgers. Like, actually hamburgers - made from cows. And I am slightly suspicious of products that try to simulate this culinary experience. NPR's food editor Maria Godoy paid a visit to my kitchen recently to try to show me what it is all about. And that meant trying out two of the two biggest brands, the Beyond Burger and the Impossible Burger 2.0.


MARTIN: Ooh. (Unintelligible).

MARIA GODOY, BYLINE: It's a good sizzle, isn't it?

MARTIN: But these look very different.

GODOY: They do look different. Well, they are different. They have different ingredients. They both have coconut oil. Coconut oil, like real animal fat, is solid at room temperature so it turns liquid at a higher temperature. And it sort of, the coconut oil, gives it a nice fatty feel.

MARTIN: OK. I like that.

GODOY: The Impossible one we're making is Impossible 2.0. So it's made of soy protein, and it's got some sunflower oil, too. And the big thing it has is something called heme.


GODOY: Yeah. Heme is a compound that's found in our blood. It's actually what makes blood red. And it carries oxygen, and it's really abundant in animal flesh. But you can also get it from plants. Some plants have it. And so Impossible Foods figured out how to take the heme from soy plants and use yeast to manufacture it in vast amounts.

MARTIN: So what does it do in this burger?

GODOY: Well, heme, the idea is that it's going to make a bleed.


GODOY: OK. It's going to give it that, like, fleshy, red taste...


GODOY: ...And give it that slightly metallic flavor that meat has, that real meat has.


GODOY: That's the idea, anyway. And so the Beyond Burger is a different color because that uses beet juice to achieve that.

MARTIN: Interesting.

GODOY: And it does look a little purplier (ph), doesn't it?

MARTIN: It definitely looks redder.

GODOY: Yeah. We don't want to overcook them because then you're going to, like, dry them out. You know? This isn't an actual animal meat (laughter) so...

MARTIN: Except, we may have overcooked one of them.


GODOY: (Laughter).

MARTIN: So we opened a few windows and then got back to the burgers.

Maria, can you just explain, what is driving demand right now? Because plant-based meat products have been around for a while in some form. But this is, like - this is a new level of interest in these products.

GODOY: Well, there's, like, growing concern about the environmental toll of meat production, specifically red meat production. And so both of these companies have a report suggesting that the greenhouse gas emissions that they put out are about 87 to 90 percent less from the time they're made to distributed than it would be with a conventional beef patty.


GODOY: Yeah.

MARTIN: So that's a big difference.

GODOY: It is a big difference.

MARTIN: What's the price point?

GODOY: So these are expensive. They're $3 a patty, which translates to about $12 a pound.


GODOY: Right. So that's a lot more than you're going to pay even for grass-fed, organic, you know, beef at the supermarket.

MARTIN: Right. I imagine there are people who are still developing new kinds of meat substitutes. Right?

GODOY: Yeah. Well, the interesting thing is, it's not just meat substitutes. There's actually people who are looking at the molecules that make up things like cow's milk and trying to make yogurt, like, vegan and vegetarian yogurt that is the tastier and has that texture...


GODOY: ...By breaking down the biochemical properties of cow's milk. And, you know, there's also people who are using plant-based seafood. There's actually plant-based tuna out there that's being sold next to regular tuna pouches...

MARTIN: Really?

GODOY: ...In grocery stores. And plant-based crab cakes and fish sticks. And then further out, there's something called lab-grown meat.

MARTIN: Lab-grown meat?

GODOY: Yeah (laughter). Or, you know, they call it cellular agriculture or clean meat. But, basically, the idea is you're taking animal tissue and putting it in a bioreactor and feeding it a bunch of nutrients to get meat. And it's not just red meat. I mean, they're looking at poultry and fish, too. It sounds very sci fi, but it's real. The technology has been out there for almost six years, and people are just now trying to work to get it to a scale where it's affordable. When it first debuted in 2013, a burger cost $330,000 to make.

MARTIN: Wait. What?

GODOY: Yeah. And now they're trying to get that to a scale where you could buy it one day. I mean, we're still several years off from that, I think.

MARTIN: Finally, the burgers were ready and it was time to dig in.


MARTIN: OK. Here we go.

GODOY: You know, it's interesting. They both have about 20 grams of protein per patty, which is about the same as a, like, 4-ounce patty of beef. The big difference is...

MARTIN: Protein.

GODOY: Yeah. The big difference is they don't have any cholesterol.

MARTIN: Now this is good 'cause now we can see the inside of it.

GODOY: Look at that. OK. So that's the Beyond, and it still has that - let's see how...

MARTIN: Looks pretty meaty.

GODOY: Let's see if it's - if we over or under-cooked it. Ready?


GODOY: Dig in. Bon appetit.

MARTIN: Needs more salt.

GODOY: Yeah. Needs more salt.

MARTIN: Doesn't it?

GODOY: But it's - I could get the meat...

MARTIN: It's fine. It's not bad.

GODOY: No. It's not bad. I wonder if we could've made it a little bit - maybe cooked it a little longer. But I don't know. It's a little pink inside.

MARTIN: It's...

GODOY: Even though I like my burgers...

MARTIN: Right.

GODOY: ...A little pink. Yeah.

MARTIN: I still can't get over - like, it's not a burger.

GODOY: (Laughter).

MARTIN: It's, like - it's a fake burger.

GODOY: But it's not bad. It's not bad. I would eat it.

MARTIN: No. It is. It's fine. It's just, like, visually, I'm still getting my head around it. OK.

GODOY: Let's try the Impossible.

MARTIN: Let's try the other one.


MARTIN: What do you think?

GODOY: I like the crispy exterior.

MARTIN: I know.

GODOY: (Laughter). It's good, right?

MARTIN: We thought we burned it, but I sort of like it.

GODOY: No. I do, too. It's, like - it adds to the texture.

MARTIN: But I have to say, I don't even taste the burger.

GODOY: Really?

MARTIN: Yeah. I don't know. It replicates the burger experience, for sure.

GODOY: Yeah. It does. Doesn't it?

MARTIN: Mmm hmm.

GODOY: It's funny, I was going to say we covered it in condiments so you can't taste the burger. But that's what my daughter does with, like, burgers.

MARTIN: I know. It's true. And this one is way, way more realistic. This looks like a burger. When you put all the fixings on it, it totally tastes like a burger. I mean, my kid, who is a connoisseur of hamburgers, I feel like, would eat this burger.

GODOY: It's pretty good. Yeah.

MARTIN: I'm into it.

GODOY: The idea is not to get people to give up burgers for good. It's to just eat...

MARTIN: Right.

GODOY: ...A little less. You know?

MARTIN: Every - like, alternate. You know?

GODOY: Exactly.

MARTIN: Like, it's a Tuesday night...

GODOY: Right.

MARTIN: ...Maybe you don't need to have, like, a big, old cheeseburger.

GODOY: Like, maybe Meatless Monday...


GODOY: ...Is a plant-based burger.


EUGENE MIRMAN: (Singing, as Gene) I want some burgers and fries. I want some burgers and fries. There's some right here.

MARTIN: That was Maria Godoy and me trying out plant-based burgers from Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. My personal take? Anything tastes good when you put enough Mayochup on it. But you can decide for yourself.


MIRMAN: (Singing, as Gene) I want some burgers and fries. Well, there's some right here.

KRISTEN SCHAAL: (Singing, as Louise) Don't you tell me no lies.

DAN MINTZ: (Singing, as Tina) Don't you tell me no lies.

MIRMAN: (Singing, as Gene) I want some burgers and fries. I want some burgers and fries. Well, there's some right... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Maria Godoy is a senior science and health editor and correspondent with NPR News. Her reporting can be heard across NPR's news shows and podcasts. She is also one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.