Patrick Brown is on an improbable mission: Make a burger Americans love, minus the meat.
Veggie patties have been around for decades, but Mr. Brown and others want to make foods without animal products that look, cook, and taste like the real thing — and can finally appeal to the masses.
"We are not making a veggie burger. We're creating meat without using animals," said Brown, a former Stanford scientist who has been scanning plants in search of compounds that can help recreate meat.
Brown's company, Impossible Foods, is part of a wave of startups aiming to wean Americans off foods like burgers and eggs, and their efforts are attracting tens of millions of dollars from investors. The goal is to lessen the dependence on livestock for food, which they say isn't as healthy, affordable or environmentally friendly as plant-based alternatives.
The challenge is that most Americans happily eat meat and eggs. That means that, without a breakthrough, those seeking to upend factory farming risk becoming footnotes in the history of startups.
To understand the difficulty of their task, consider the transformation raw chicken undergoes when cooked. It starts as a slimy, unappetizing blob, then turns into a tender piece of meat.
LEARNING TO MIMIC NATURE
In its office in Southern California, Beyond Meat works on "chicken" strips made with pea and soy proteins that have been sold at places like Whole Foods since 2012. But founder Ethan Brown concedes the product needs work.
To give the "meat" its fat, for instance, canola oil is evenly mixed throughout the product.
"That's not really how it works in an animal," said Brown, a vegan. "The fat can be a sheath on tendons."
To form the strips, a mixture is pressed through a machine that forms and sets the product's texture with heating and cooling chambers. The method isn't new in the world of fake meats, but the company says it fine-tuned the process to deliver a more realistic offering.
Brown dismisses the idea that fake meat might weird people out and says it's a "desirable evolution."
"It's like moving from the horse-drawn carriage to the automobile, or the landline to the iPhone," he said.
But Beyond Meat isn't quite there yet; The Huffington Post described the strips as having an "unpleasant" taste that inhabits a "strange territory between meat and vegetable."
At Impossible Foods, the patty is made by extracting proteins from foods like spinach and beans, then combining them with other ingredients. The company, which has about 100 employees, expects the product to be available in the latter half of next year, initially through a food-service operator.
Few have tasted it, but the vision continues to gain traction. In October, Impossible Foods said it raised $108 million in funding, on top of its previous $74 million. Among its investors are Bill Gates, Google Ventures and Horizons Ventures.
CULTURING MEAT, JUST LIKE YOGURT
Another startup isn't totally ditching the cow.
With $15.5 million in funding, Modern Meadow in New York City takes cells from a cow through a biopsy and cultures them to grow into meat. At a conference in February, company founder Andras Forgacs likened the process to culturing yogurt or brewing beer.
"This is an extension of that," he said.
Modern Meadow doesn't have a product on the market yet either. The company says it doesn't necessarily want to replicate steaks and burgers, and gave a hint of the type of foods it might make by presenting "steak chips" for attendees at a small conference last year.
Only about 200 people have tried the chips, which Forgacs describes as "crispy, crunchy beef jerky."
Citing the demand for more openness about how food is made, he sees a day when people tour meat plants, as they do with breweries.
"There could be your friendly neighborhood meat brewery," Forgacs said.
BANNING THE WORD 'VEGAN'
In San Francisco, Hampton Creek's mission is to replace the eggs in products without anyone noticing. In trying to appeal to the mainstream, co-founder and CEO Josh Tetrick has a simple rule.
"Number one, never use the word 'vegan,'" he said.
To avoid perceptions its eggless spread Just Mayo won't taste good, Hampton Creek even removed the V-word from the label. Tetrick says what makes the product different is that it tastes better and costs less — not that it's made with a protein from a Canadian yellow pea instead of eggs.
"The egg-free thing is almost irrelevant," he said.
Swapping out a single ingredient in a product may make it easier for people to swallow change. It may also make change simpler to achieve; Just Mayo's consistency and taste are similar to mayonnaise. The product, which is available at retailers including Target and Wal-Mart, is gaining enough traction that the American Egg Board, which is responsible for slogans like the "Incredible, Edible Egg," sees it as a "major threat," according to emails made public through a records request.
So far, Hampton Creek has attracted $120 million in funding. It continues to screen plants for compounds that can help replace eggs in recipes and plans to eventually introduce a scrambled-egg product.
ON THE CUSP OF SOMETHING BIG?
For those looking to lessen the reliance on animals for food, there are encouraging signs all around.
Last year, Pinnacle Foods, the maker of Hungry-Man dinners, paid $154 million to acquire Gardein, which makes frozen veggie patties, nuggets and crumbles. Pinnacle CEO Robert Gamgort said he thinks meat alternatives are in the "early stages of a macro trend," similar to the way soy and almond milk changed the dairy category.
But for now, vegetarian products remain a niche market. And even if people cut back on meat and eggs for health, environmental or animal welfare reasons, they might not want literal replacements.
Morningstar, a longtime maker of vegetarian products owned by Kellogg, says people are becoming more accepting of vegetables as main ingredients. As such, it wants to evolve from a maker of meat substitutes to a brand known for its "veggie cuisine," such as bowls with brown rice and black beans.
Yves Potvin, Gardein's founder, also thinks veggie alternatives don't have to replicate meat, so long as they taste good. It's why Gardein's products are shaped to be reminiscent of meat, but don't try to mimic their exact flavor and texture.
"What people like is the experience," Potvin said. "They like the memory."