SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
A Michelin-starred bistro in New York City is serving up a new dish - a burger made entirely of plants. Now, this isn't just another veggie-tofu knockoff burger. This burger looks, cooks, even bleeds like the real thing. As part of our Food and the American Dream series, NPR's Allison Aubrey introduces us to the scientist who created it.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: For 25 years, Pat Brown was a professor at Stanford University. He was one of the stars in his field studying a range of biomedical topics.
PAT BROWN: Genetics, genomics, stuff like that, cancer research - nothing to do with food.
AUBREY: But about seven years ago, his work took a turn when during a sabbatical he decided to tackle what he saw as a really big problem for the planet.
BROWN: Basically the use of animals as a technology for food production is the most destructive technology on Earth.
AUBREY: In other words, he says, the meat industry is causing big problems for the environment. It's a strong position, but he says there's lots of science to back him up.
BROWN: Animal farming - it's been very well-studied as a scientific environmental issue.
AUBREY: Think of all the U.S. cropland. Two-thirds of all the calories produced from these crops are used for animal feed to produce meat, dairy and other animal products. Livestock production uses a lot of water and is a big contributor to climate change. He says when you think of all these effects...
BROWN: It's just insane.
AUBREY: The ecological footprint of meat production, he argues, is just not sustainable. But the obvious problem is this - billions of people around the world love meat. We've been eating it for thousands of years.
BROWN: You're never going to get people to just change their diet, you know, stop eating meat, fish and dairy - ain't going to happen.
AUBREY: After all, veggie burgers have been around a long time, and they certainly haven't replaced beef in most people's diets. Now, what Brown wanted was to literally recreate the taste of beef without cows, so he started by deconstructing its composition down to the molecular level.
BROWN: Why does meat taste like meat? So we had to take on that question.
AUBREY: There had to be something that gave beef its unmistakable flavor. Early on, he and his team honed in on one compound in the blood of cows. It's called heme. You and I have it, too, in the hemoglobin in our blood.
BROWN: Heme is responsible for the bloody flavor of raw meat, and you generate this explosion of flavor and aroma when you cook it.
AUBREY: He says discovering this was the key to his quest because it turns out that plants have heme, too, but in very small amounts. For instance, soybeans have heme in their roots. So to recreate the taste of beef, he had to figure out how to produce large quantities of this plant-based heme. How did he do it? He and the scientists he works with went right down to the soybean gene that helps the plant produce its heme.
BROWN: We took the gene from soybeans and put it in yeast.
AUBREY: And he ferments the yeast in a big steel tank.
BROWN: It's just like making beer, basically. You just grow vast quantities of this. I mean, it's scalable and very low environmental footprint.
AUBREY: So little impact on the environment and lots and lots of heme, more than enough to make a juicy burger. Brown has lots of people excited about his burger. Bill Gates has invested in his start-up, Impossible Foods, which is already supplying seven high-end restaurants.
(SOUNDBITE OF BURGER SIZZLING)
AUBREY: So how is the burger?
BRAD FARMERIE: I'll give this a little flip.
AUBREY: That's chef Brad Farmerie of Public, the Michelin-starred bistro in New York City. He has just put Brown's burger on the menu at Public and at a second restaurant, Saxon and Parole.
FARMERIE: I'm just going to season it with a little bit of salt.
AUBREY: In the skillet, the patty looks remarkably similar to ground chuck. As he puts one in the hot pan, he tells me in addition to all that heme, the patty has bits of wheat protein and potato protein to add bulk.
FARMERIE: It looks, cooks and sizzles like beef, and when you see me flip it over, you're going to be amazed. It carmelizes like beef as well.
AUBREY: After a few minutes in the pan, Farmerie offers up a taste.
Whoa, it's really juicy. I can see what people are saying that it's so like a burger that it almost bleeds.
FARMERIE: I like it a lot. I think it has that nuttiness that you get from good beef. I think it has great moisture, great mouthfeel.
AUBREY: Farmerie is known for his unusual and fancy meat offerings, like kangaroo and sweetbreads, so his customers weren't expecting a bleeding plant burger. Phillip Duff, who was sitting at the bar, decided to try one. He says he likes it, but...
PHILLIP DUFF: You know, it kind of falls apart a little bit.
AUBREY: And he's not sure about the $17 price.
DUFF: I think this would sell for about the same price as a regular burger.
AUBREY: To charge a premium, Duff says the makers will have to work hard to tell the story that this burger is better for the Earth because he doesn't think the taste will stand out for people.
DUFF: But if you never told people about this, they quite literally wouldn't know.
AUBREY: But that's exactly what Pat Brown wants, for his burger to be so tasty that it's indistinguishable from a regular beef burger. He knows he needs to scale up in order to bring the price down. And eventually he wants to out-compete beef, even if it takes him years to get there. Allison Aubrey, NPR News.
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