Thoughts on taste: eating the Impossible Burger

Recently, during a visit to New York for the Reducetarian Summit, I had the opportunity to eat my very first Impossible Burger…

Impossible Foods, as you may know, is a company started by world renowned Stanford professor Patrick Brown, who, with his extensive knowledge of chemistry, set out to create the ultimate plant-based burger. Impossible Foods has raised 180 million dollars in venture capital to do this. Today, the burger is available in select locations in the US, and has received lots of media attention. It’s become something of a hype.

I had my Impossible Burger at Bareburger, a burger place near New York University (end of May 2017). While this restaurant was modest and low key, the burger is also available in more upscale establishments. My burger came with lettuce, onions, dill pickles, and a “special sauce”. Cheese and bun by default were not vegan, but I had those substituted. I had the burger with French fries and a glass of “American white”, as it was listed on the menu. The burger cost $13.95 or about $18 including tax and tip – definitely not cheap for this kind of food, even if it’s New York City.

This picture will not win any food photography contests, but it’s meant to show the meat-like texture of the Impossible Burger.

As you can see on the picture, the burger looks like and has the texture of very juicy minced meat. I would have preferred the product to have been cooked a little more: it almost seemed raw (looking a bit bloody indeed). I don’t know if this is according to Impossible Foods’ idea and instructions, or if this is the way Bareburger likes to make it (or even if it was just due to the chef, or completely accidental). In any case, if you’d do this with meat, you’d risk not killing the bacteria in it.
Most importantly: the taste. I quite liked it, but I detected some flavor or aftertaste that I’m less fond of. It’s hard to describe, but I would call it an “animal” or “earthy” flavor. I’d need to have the burger again to be sure that I wasn’t making this up, or that this flavor didn’t originate from something other than the burger.

So how does it stand up compared to other vegan burgers? And is this product really such a breakthrough? It’s hard to answer these questions as someone who hasn’t eaten meat in over twenty years. The Impossible Burger is made to convince meat eaters. Vegans are not the primary intended audience, and indeed, only the vegans who could theoretically still appreciate the texture and taste of meat (the ones who don’t shy away from convincing imitations) need apply. To me this burger certainly seemed the closest imitation to meat – both in terms of taste and texture – that I can recall. However, I have tasted many other vegan burgers that I enjoyed at least as much – but again, I’m not the target audience.

I also realized that by the time I sat down to have my first bite, I was already heavily biased. This burger is kind of the hottest thing under the sun in Vegan-country right now. And I was having it in the coolest place on earth: New York City. I was going to have an experience that hardly any one of my vegan friends back home had had. It would be very hard not to like it.

All this made me think of the role that basically irrelevant non-taste factors can play in a taste experience.

When companies spend a lot of money on advertising, they are not just making sure the public knows about their products existence. The advertisements also serve – very obviously – to create a certain positive image for whatever the company is selling (including their brand). This image can be built around all kinds of values, like coolness, innovation, exoticness, strength, safety, happiness, etc. When people associate positive values (i.e., values they cherish) with the product in question, this will not just incite them to buy the product: in the case of food products, these value associations can also influence what they feel the product actually tastes like.

To see more clearly how taste experience can be influenced by non-taste factors and how this relates to plant-based foods, let’s briefly look at one study. A 2008 paper titled The Interactive Effect of Cultural Symbols and Human Values on Taste Evaluation concludes that what influenced study participants in how they rated the taste of foods, was what they thought they had eaten rather than what they actually ate.
The setup was as follows: study participants were given either a beef sausage roll or a veggie roll. Some of those who got the veggie roll were told they got a beef roll, and some of those who got the beef roll were told they got a veggie roll. Researchers asked participants to fill out a questionnaire about how they rated the product they ate, but which also contained questions about values. What the researchers found was that especially the people who endorsed the values traditionally represented by meat (power, strength, virility…), would rate the meat item as better in taste… even when they thought they were eating meat but were actually eating a vegetarian product. Conversely, people who ate the vegetarian product but thought they were eating beef, would not rate the taste of the vegetarian product less than those who ate beef. “What influenced taste evaluation was what they thought they had eaten and whether that food symbolized values that they personally supported.”

The implication of this, of course, is that apart from getting the taste (and also texture, aroma, etc.) right, we also need to make sure that people associate plant-based products with values and ideas that they cherish. We need, in other words, to build a good image for meat alternatives. (Alternatively, we can try to change what values people find important, which is probably a slower way, but which, of course, can be necessary in some cases – cherishing values like virility or power is not necessarily beneficial for individuals and society).

Even though we associate the words and concepts vegetarian and vegan with values like compassion, care, sustainability, etc, they are, in the minds of many other people, also associated with negative values and ideas. Vegans themselves can, of course, contribute to changing the ideas and values associated with veganism and vegan foods. But like it or not, commercial advertising, marketing, branding… can also help do that. They can help change the associations people have with animal product alternatives, and get them to consume more of them. The Impossible Burger, while impressive in taste and texture, is helping to create a better, trendier, more innovative image for plant-based foods.