There's no meat in this burger? Impossible ...


WILLIAMSTOWN — A meatless burger with academic origins has arrived in one of the county's college towns.

The Impossible Burger debuted at The Tavern at The Williams Inn on Sept. 25, making the Williamstown establishment one of the first restaurants in New England to feature the patty that has generated quite a buzz. While a wide variety of veggie burgers exist, the Impossible Burger has garnered considerable news media attention for recreating the smell, appearance and feel of its ground beef cousin by using heme, an iron-containing molecule that occurs that is found naturally in every single plant and animal. It's what gives ground beef its somewhat metallic flavor and the burger its bleeding aesthetic.

"The consistency is very similar, if not spot-on, to ground beef," said Jason Cotton, regional director of operations at The Olympia Companies, the hospitality firm that manages The Williams Inn. (Cotton helped bring the burger to the inn, which is now selling the item for $15.)

Gillian Jones, a photographer for The Eagle, agreed with Cotton's assessment after trying it one recent afternoon. Jones, who describes herself as an occasional meat eater, said that even though a true burger fanatic might be able to tell the difference between ground beef and this veggie product, she would be comfortable giving up meat burgers entirely for the Impossible Burger because the veggie option's consistency and texture mirror beef's.

Besides heme, though, the burger's other ingredients — coconut oil, wheat protein, potato protein and natural flavors, among others — may sound familiar to label-checkers.

"There's nothing else really spectacularly special or worth noting other than the heme," Cotton said.

Venture capitalists' backing of Impossible Foods' first product has also added to the food-world fuss. The Silicon Valley startup, which aims to release plant-based products as a means to "transform the global food system to support the planet and growing human population," according to its website, has raised $257 million since its founding in 2011 by Stanford University biochemistry professor Patrick O. Brown. The academic was on sabbatical in 2009 when he decided he wanted to combat climate change by making global meat production more sustainable.

"The whole reason the company exists is a sustainability mission," said Rachel Konrad, Impossible Foods chief communications officer, during a recent telephone interview.

The noise related to the Impossible Burger hasn't all been positive. Essentially, Impossible Foods is producing heme in genetically modified yeast, a process that allows the company to generate the vast quantities of the molecule needed to give its meatless patties the opposite appearance. It's a first-of-its-kind ingredient that has both distinguished the burger from its competition and, naturally, raised questions about its production. After a panel of experts declared that the burger's critical ingredient — soy leghemoglobin, technically — was "generally recognized as safe," or GRAS, in 2014, the company went through the additional measure of submitting its findings to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for an independent review. The FDA came back with questions about Impossible Foods' food safety testing. For example, Impossible Foods had not tested the product with animals, according to the company. Subsequently, Impossible Foods conducted rat feeding tests and other studies. The GRAS panel once again found that soy leghemoglobin was safe, and the company submitted its new data to the FDA for another review this summer, according to Konrad. The FDA will either respond with more questions or a "no objections letter" in the coming months, Konrad said.

"The Impossible Burger is totally safe to eat," she wrote in an email.

The outcry following the FDA's response to Impossible Foods' findings was substantial, but it was at least partly motivated by the false notion that food companies need FDA approval to sell certain ingredients. The burger has now been served for more than a year and is featured in more than 100 restaurants across the country.

People shouldn't be worried about heme, according to Cotton. "This is a product that is about as clean as clean gets," said Cotton, a former chef with years of front and back-of-house experience in the restaurant and hospitality industry.

Perhaps what is more interesting about the burger than its contents, then, is its target market. While a vegan burger would seemingly appeal to vegans, mimicking ground beef alienates those who are morally opposed to eating meat.

"We don't market this product towards vegans at all," Konrad said, noting that vegans are already reducing their food consumption's carbon footprint.

Instead, she said, "we need to convert the carnivores."

Cotton thought The Williams Inn, a new member of The Olympia Companies' portfolio, would be a good fit for the new product. The company believes in "food for all," said Cotton, meaning offering a product with good taste and presentation so that even a non-vegan or vegetarian would want to eat it. 

"It's something different for this hotel. This hotel is not stagnant, but it's certainly ready to have some life breathed into it," he said. "I couldn't think of a better way to inspire the team and get their creative juices going and helping them understand that food for all was the Impossible Burger." 


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