In just two years, food technology has moved consumers from browsing for wan “veggie patties” in the frozen aisle to selecting fresh “plant-based burgers” sold next to the ground beef.
Behind the scenes at the supermarket, giant battles are being waged: Meat producers are suing to have the words “meat” and “burger” restricted to their own products. Makers of meat alternatives like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are vying to capture the global fast-food market, as big players like Tyson and Perdue join the fray. Environmental and food scientists are insisting that we eat more plants and less processed food. Many vegetarians and vegans say the goal is to break the habit of eating meat, not feed it with surrogates.
“I would still prefer to eat something that’s not lab-grown,” said Isa Chandra Moskowitz, chef at vegan restaurant Modern Love in Omaha, Neb., where her own burger is the most popular dish on the menu. “But it’s better for people and for the planet to eat one of those burgers instead of meat every day, if that’s what they are going to do anyway.”
The new refrigerator- case “meat” products already comprise one of the fastest-growing segments of the food industry.
Some are proudly high-tech, assembled from an array of starches, fats, salts, sweeteners and synthetic umami- rich proteins. They are made possible by new technologies that, for example, whip coconut oil and cocoa butter into tiny globules of white fat that give the Beyond Burger the marbled appearance of ground beef.
Others are resolutely simple, based on whole grains and vegetables, and reverse-engineered with ingredients like yeast extract and barley malt to be crustier, browner and juicier than their frozen veggie-burger predecessors. (Some consumers are turning away from those familiar products, not only because of the taste, but also because they are most often made with highly processed ingredients.)
But how do all the newcomers perform at the table?
New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells, our cooking columnist Melissa Clark and I lined up the new vegan burgers for a blind tasting of national brands. Though many people have already tasted these burgers in restaurants, we wanted to replicate the experience of a home cook. (To that end, Melissa and I roped in our daughters: my 12-year-old vegetarian and her 11-year-old burger aficionado.)
Each burger was seared with a teaspoon of canola oil in a hot skillet and served in a potato bun. We first tasted them plain, then loaded with classic toppings: ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, pickles and American cheese.
Our results are presented here, on a rating scale of one to five stars.
>> Note: The nonprofit environmental group Center for Food Safety has challenged the release of the Impossible Burger in retail stores, saying the FDA did not properly approve the additive soy leghemoglobin, or “heme.” Impossible Foods says the substance, derived from soy bean plants, is safe for consumption.
>> Maker: Impossible Foods, Redwood City, Calif.
>> Selling points: Vegan, gluten-free
>> Availability: Served in many restaurants; sold retail in Southern California and East Coast test markets; coming to the rest of the country soon
>> Tasting notes: “The most like a beef burger by far,” was my first scribbled note. Everyone liked its crisp edges, and Pete noted its “brawny flavor.” My daughter was convinced it was a real ground beef patty, slipped in to confuse us. The only one of the six contenders that includes genetically modified ingredients, the Impossible Burger contains a compound (soy leghemoglobin) created and manufactured by the company from plant hemoglobins; it quite successfully replicates the “bloody” look and taste of a rare burger. Melissa deemed it “charred in a good way,” but, like most plant-based burgers, it became rather dried out before we finished eating.
>> Ingredients: Water, soy protein concentrate, coconut oil, sunflower oil, natural flavors, 2% or less of: potato protein, methylcellulose, yeast extract, cultured dextrose, food starch-modified, soy leghemoglobin, salt, soy protein isolate, mixed tocopherols (vitamin E), zinc gluconate, thiamine hydrochloride (vitamin B1), sodium ascorbate (vitamin C), niacin, pyridoxine hydrochloride (vitamin B6), riboflavin (vitamin B2), vitamin B12.
>> Maker: Beyond Meat, El Segundo, Calif.
>> Selling points: Vegan, gluten-free, soy-free, non-GMO
>> Local availability: Safeway, Down to Earth, Whole Foods Market
>> Tasting notes: “Juicy with a convincing texture,” said Melissa, who also commended its “roundness, with lots of umami.” Her daughter identified a faint but pleasing smoky flavor, like barbecue-flavored potato chips. I liked its texture: crumbly but not dry. This burger was the most visually similar to one made of ground beef, evenly marbled with white fat (made from coconut oil and cocoa butter) and oozing a bit of red juice, from beets. Overall, Pete said, a “real beefy” experience.
>> Ingredients: Water, pea protein isolate, expeller-pressed canola oil, refined coconut oil, rice protein, natural flavors, cocoa butter, mung bean protein, methylcellulose, potato starch, apple extract, salt, potassium chloride, vinegar, lemon juice concentrate, sunflower lecithin, pomegranate fruit powder, beet juice extract (for color).
>> Maker: Lightlife/Greenleaf Foods, Canada
>> Selling points: Vegan, gluten-free, soy-free, non-GMO
>> Local availability: Safeway, Down to Earth
>> Tasting notes: “Warm and spicy” with a “crisp exterior” according to Melissa, the Lightlife burger is a new offering from a company that has been making burgers and other meat substitutes from tempeh (a fermented soy product with a sturdier texture than tofu) for decades. That’s probably why it nailed the firm and chewy texture that I found a little bready, but not worse than most fast-food burgers. “Pretty good when loaded up” was Pete’s final verdict.
>> Ingredients: Water, pea protein, expeller- pressed canola oil, modified cornstarch, modified cellulose, yeast extract, virgin coconut oil, sea salt, natural flavor, beet powder (for color), ascorbic acid (to promote color retention), onion extract, onion powder, garlic powder.
>> Maker: Field Roast, Seattle
>> Selling points: Vegan, soy-free, non-GMO
>> Local availability: Natural Foods stores such as Whole Foods Market; other Field Roast meat substitutes are more widely found
>> Tasting notes: Not much like meat but still much better than the classic frozen vegetarian patties, to my mind, and the consensus choice for a good vegetable burger (rather than a meat replica). Tasters liked its “vegetal” notes, a reflection of the onions, celery and three different forms of mushroom — fresh, dried and powdered — on the ingredients list. There was some crispness to like in the crust, according to Pete, but the bready interior (it contains gluten) was not popular. “Maybe this burger would do better without a bun?” he asked.
>> Ingredients Vital wheat gluten, filtered water, organic expeller-pressed palm fruit oil, barley, garlic, expeller-pressed safflower oil, onions, tomato paste, celery, carrots, naturally flavored yeast extract, onion powder, mushrooms, barley malt, sea salt, spices, carrageenan (Irish moss sea vegetable extract), celery seed, balsamic vinegar, black pepper, shiitake mushrooms, porcini mushroom powder, yellow pea flour.
The New York Times tested two other products, the Uncut and Sweet Earth veggie burgers, which are not sold in Hawaii.