Not all plant burgers are created equal. Potography by Jack Lewis Williams.
It’s located, somewhat counter-intuitively, a little way past the many fruits and vegetables on offer in most shops these days. Evidently, the abundant cavolo nero, Jerusalem artichokes, choi sum and Romanesco broccoli are not the right sort of meat-free fare.
Instead, the chilled cabinets marked “Plant-Based and Vegetarian” are directly opposite the processed meats and picnic snacks – pork pies, cocktail sausages and anthropomorphised five-packs of Peperami. As it transpires, this is entirely apt. Very little in the Plant-Based and Vegetarian cabinets is fresh, nor what one might refer to as “everyday edible plant matter”.
Certainly, there’s no shortage of choice – you can pick up a couple of Quorn’s Mozzarella & Pesto Escalopes; or maybe some of Wicked Kitchen’s Italian Inspired Amazeballs (really); or, of course, a tray of Beyond Meat’s Plant-Based Burgers. But there’s nothing here that actually resembles a plant, nor something you might hope to find in a vegetarian cookbook. In fact, most of it looks about as salutary as a Big Mac. It’s a sight that’s stranger to behold the more you think about it. And it’s one of the bewildering paradoxes at the heart of the meat versus plant-based debate. There’s a lot to chew on – and not much of it is very palatable.
Raising The Fakes
How did we get here? There can be no doubt that the effects on our environment from global consumption habits and agricultural practice are . . . bad. As a teenager, I would play The Smiths’ Meat Is Murder and nod darkly at Morrissey’s admonitions before tucking into Mum’s cottage pie. Things have changed – or at least, we have caught up.
Morrissey was concerned with the animals; now the focus has become the planet. Agriculture is responsible for more water consumption than any other human endeavour, and of this around one-third goes on livestock. Meanwhile, one-third of all arable land is cultivated to feed said livestock, which in turn is accountable for 14.5 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization. Beef production is thought to represent just under half of this figure.
Neil Rankin set out to create a burger with flavour that doesn’t cost the earth.
Statistics such as these, along with influential documentaries, such as 2014’s Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret, have been instrumental in shifting consumer opinion and behaviour, albeit on a relatively micro level in global terms. But it was when they caught the attention of businessmen with rather larger ambitions that we began to see the market shift in unprecedented ways. A 2019 New Yorker profile of Pat Brown, the now 67-year-old biochemist, CEO and founder of Impossible Foods, describes the entrepreneurial game changer in swashbuckling terms. “The use of animals in food production is by far the most destructive technology on earth” was Brown’s portentous opening gambit. “We see our mission as the last chance to save the planet from environmental catastrophe.”
He’s certainly having a crack. The Impossible Burger is, according to the California-based company’s own literature, a composite of soya and potato proteins, sunflower and coconut oils, plus methylcellulose and food starch as binders – a combo it also describes, contestably, as “packed with nutrients”. Progress has been swift. His first patty launched in restaurants in 2016 and presently counts thousands among them, including Burger King, now home of the Impossible Whopper. Brown’s impact and persistence have been undeniably impressive. Such rapid expansion has led to Impossible Foods receiving a multibillion-dollar valuation, though the brand’s mission statement remains true to its founder’s word: “Eat meat. Save the planet”.
There are other players in the game, of course. LA’s Beyond Meat is on a par with – if not bigger than – Impossible Foods, both in terms of its reach and the speed at which it has gained traction. Founded in 2009 by the businessman and environmentalist Ethan Brown, the brand’s global market value was estimated to be $9bn by late 2021. You can find its meat substitutes in McDonald’s, Byron Burger and, as said before, in supermarkets. Like Impossible, Beyond Meat’s products are the brainchildren of scientists in white coats (the Beyond Burger contains 18 ingredients), though its backers are rather more high-profile figures – Snoop Dogg is an investor, as is Leonardo DiCaprio. The consensus among market analysts is that the popularity of these brands is greatest among millennials and Gen-Zers because they see them as a way of getting their toothsome fast-food fix in greener, healthier packages. And yet for many, in that one sentence alone, there are at least three bones of contention.
Accounting For Taste
Across the Atlantic, two units on a small industrial estate in a nondescript part of north-west London represent the headquarters of Symplicity Foods, a fledgling albeit pioneering plant-based food business. Sat at a spartan table on a mezzanine above the factory floor, Symplicity’s co-founder, Neil Rankin, is considering my question about the motive behind his transition from acclaimed chef and barbecue aficionado to producer of groundbreaking meat substitutes. What did he initially set out to achieve?
“Well,” he says, his native Edinburgh accent firmly intact, “I just wanted it to taste fucking good.”
Like Impossible’s Pat Brown, Rankin has a background in science – he studied physics at Salford University – though this is where any similarity ends. Rankin turned his head to cooking relatively late but quickly made his name as a man who knew his way around a hunk of meat and a naked flame. Having held senior roles at Barbecoa and Pitt Cue, he went on to launch the Smokehouse restaurant brand and Temper, with its focus on “whole-animal barbecue”. However, in 2019, he announced that he would be taking a step back from the Temper operation and spending some time developing a sustainable plant-based project. “It pisses me off that vegan has gone down the processed route,” he said at the time. “I want to be able to grow my own burger in my backyard.”
The rapid conversion from butcher to salad spinner wasn’t as unexpected as it might sound. “Temper was originally my route to sustainability – taking whole animals, breaking them down ourselves, using every last bit,” he says. “But I got a little disenchanted with the solution being meat-based. At the same time, I could see the trajectory the whole plant-based thing was heading in, and I thought, What’s going on? I think it was when I first tried something at Honest Burgers that used a Beyond Meat patty. I was faced with people who I really respect, who have always used great, simple, ingredients, resorting to what I can only describe as being a piece of shit.
“I thought, well, there must be a way to do this better. You know, I make nice food with vegetables at home. There are chefs making amazing vegetable and vegetarian dishes. If you go to L’Enclume or Noma, then you can get incredible food that’s often pretty much vegan-based. Meanwhile, I’d been playing around with fermenting stuff since my days at Pitt Cue. We used to have this fermented mushroom dish on the menu that was as popular as any meat dish. So my thinking was that if there’s going to be an alternative, you’ve got to have a wider choice [than] just either a plate of roasted veg or a highly processed protein burger. For me, there needed to be an element of deliciousness, using ingredients you love, from producers you love, travelling the shortest possible distance from farm to table. So I started to experiment myself.”
Rankin uses fermented veg to create his plant-based burgers.
Rankin began, not in a lab, but in his modest home kitchen. He examined every vegetable and plant-based ingredient he’d ever worked with, along with spices and flavour combinations that he knew worked well. He found a particular kind of relationship between certain tomatoes, beetroots, mushrooms and onions. He dived deep into the fermentation process, playing with various misos and tamaris, going on to produce about 400 different ferments until he settled on a deep umami flavour base that he liked. This living, cultured approach, Rankin reasoned, was preferable because it increased the health benefits, promoting the growth of probiotic bacteria in the gut. It also had the ironic advantage of making vegetables taste less like, well, vegetables – in the same way that wine tastes different to grapes, with more complex, layered flavours. When it came to bringing it all together, he settled on gluten from wheat flour as a base because he knew from age-old bakery techniques that wheat binds.
Eventually he came up with a product that he thought tasted great. What’s more, he had created it in his backyard, or thereabouts. The next step, of course, was to see what other people thought. Rankin opened a small joint on east London’s Brick Lane called Simplicity Burger to try to promote it – or, at least, “to test it out to make sure it wasn’t just bullshit”, he says. “It’s fine me doing it in my own kitchen, then getting excited at 3am and phoning up a neighbour asking them to taste it. But that’s not the real world.” The step change was significant. Rankin’s team had to produce up to 400 burgers a day; come up with salads, sauces, cheese and sides to go with them; and have their food tasted by the press and the public, as well as interested parties. Gratifyingly, the response was positive. Shake Shack was keen. Dishoom came in. Homeslice immediately spotted the potential. “All these people turned up, tried it and were blown away,” he says. “At that point, it was the only zero-chemical vegan burger being sold in that way.”
By this time, Rankin was learning more and more about the wider process, which not only allowed his skills as a chef to prosper, but also increased his dissatisfaction with the approach taken by the likes of Impossible and Beyond Meat. “One of the problems I have with these companies is that the amount of waste is huge,” he says. “We have less waste than them, but it’s there. So what we started to do was construct things from that waste material. For instance, we were making a cheese out of tomato water. But then we’d have leftover pulp, so we started making a ketchup out of that. There was still too much pulp, so then we mixed it with the mince to make a vegan ’nduja. And so on. Some of the burgers were really brittle because we don’t use chemicals, so with that waste we started making a Thai larb salad. We tried to use everything. In truth, it was similar to the approach I had taken with whole-animal butchery and Temper. I just realised that we could be more efficient in terms of waste and cost.”
The team at Symplicity believes in a zero-waste approach towards plant-based food.
… And Thinking Big
Simplicity Burger made its point, but the small scale meant that it wasn’t ever going to be a transformative business. For that to happen, it needed Mark Wogan, founder of Homeslice Pizza, to come on board. “We had been pushing more towards a plant-based menu for some time,” says Wogan, “because pizza is such an obvious vehicle for it. But we found that all we were really doing was cooking vegetables well. What we could never find was a cheese replacement that didn’t taste like cat sick blended with sawdust, frankly. Meanwhile, I’d been an admirer of what Neil had been doing. So we got talking, and we kept coming back to each other, and then ironically [an] opportunity came at the beginning of lockdown. Neil needed somewhere to make this stuff and I had a load of restaurants sitting empty. So that’s where the business partnership – Symplicity Foods – developed from. Our joint starting position was simply: how do you do this properly? Because there’s lots of stuff out there, and you see rows of it in the supermarket, and I don’t want to eat any of it. But I do want to eat less meat, and I want to make actually eating meat a proper occasion. So what do you eat in between?”
Depending on who you ask, the answer to that might be Subway’s T.L.S. sandwich (that’s Tastes. Like. Steak.), or perhaps the imaginatively named McPlant from McDonald’s. But this would rather miss the point. When Burger King first launched the Impossible Whopper in all its US restaurants, the company’s then chief marketing officer, Fernando Machado, said, “Burger King skews male and older, but Impossible brings in young people and women, and puts us in a different spectrum of quality, freshness and health”.
This in turn begs the question: compared with what? Impossible’s key selling point is the way in which the burger remains pink in the middle throughout cooking and imitates the juicy, bloody texture of meat. This is achieved through the use of a patented genetically engineered yeast called heme – it may well be ingenious, though it’s more of a stretch to call it fresh. As for health, well, that again is up for debate. Impossible and Beyond burgers have similar amounts of protein and kilojoules as regular beef patties, yet contain around five times as much sodium. Besides, when you’re serving them up with cheese, mayonnaise, chips and a bucket of soft drink, any attempt to play the health card is inevitably going to come up short.
For the record, a Symplicity patty trumps one from Beyond when judged by virtually any nutritional metric you’d care to throw at it – 293 fewer kilojoules, 5g more protein, almost 5g less saturated fat and 4g more fibre. But it’s curious that, in trying to create such a point of difference between his products and those of the big US labs, Rankin should choose to kick off with something as ubiquitous as a burger.
“Look, I just wanted to create something that people could cook with,” he says. “And the burger is so culturally significant. There’s an argument that the best way to adopt a plant-based diet is just to start eating daals and vegetable curries. Which is fucking delicious, by the way, and I do it myself. But with something like a burger, there’s this huge cultural significance that many just aren’t prepared to discount in order to go vegetarian. So I knew this was something I had to recreate in people’s minds in order for them to feel comfortable with it.
“Plus, the vast majority of the beef that you get in burgers tastes like shit on its own. Believe me, I’ve done the research. Go into any of the big burger chains in this country and take a bite out of the patty itself – just the meat. It’s grim. Fucking grim. So, for me, beating the taste of that wasn’t hard. Vegetables might have their limitations, but they also have their advantages. They suck up flavour, they suck up spices, they’re easier to cook, and they’re inherently healthy. So I don’t have this retroactive thing of trying to make it healthy – it’s already healthy.”
Symplicity now supplies top restaurants and Michelin-star chefs alike.
The Cost Of Going Green
When Pat Brown started out in the plant-food business, he didn’t mention much about improving animal welfare or the health of citizens. He merely wanted to safeguard planet Earth. The success of his succinct message, neatly marketed, has been in large part because the gist of it is broadly supported by the scientific community. “Avoiding meat and dairy, for the large majority of people, is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact,” said Oxford University researcher Joseph Poore, co-author of a report on the global consequences of food production. Very few would contend with this. However, it also masks a more complex, nuanced reality. Plainly, our environmental problems don’t begin and end with the quantity of land and water utilised by beef production. For instance, sustaining biodiversity is arguably more important. Yet mass-producing the
likes of soya and pea protein, as used in Impossible and Beyond burgers, means perpetuating the use of monoculture crops, an approach to farming that’s widely understood to be hugely detrimental.
“It all comes down to good agriculture and bad agriculture,” says Rankin. “But you’ve got these guys coming up with ridiculous comments like, ‘our product uses 90 per cent less water than beef’ or whatever. I mean, how the fuck did you come up with that? How do you compare a cow in a field in England, say, with a cow in a field in Australia, which is irrigated extensively, because it’s a fucking desert? It’s not the same thing.
“And how about the 16 factories that made your burger, and the coconut oil and rice flour and pea protein that you’ve flown in from all over the world? These comparisons represent the next level of bullshit that we’ve got to
Despite his frustration, it’s clear there’s a hunger for the Symplicity approach. Rankin and Wogan are adamant that the right route is to rely on small growers, operations they can visit and sample. Shortly after we met, Symplicity announced that it had gone ‘clean label’, a food-industry term for products made wholly without artificial ingredients. This makes Symplicity the only brand in the market that is totally free of chemicals.
For now, they’re focusing on supplying restaurants because that means they don’t have to worry about compromising themselves with all the excess packaging that comes into play when you go into retail.
But Rankin has ambitions beyond satisfying middle-class lunchers. He’s thinking about schools and offices, even homes. Because that’s where the real habit-changing potential lies. “Chain restaurants, too!” he says. “People discount them. But they’re the most progressive restaurants in the country. They’re the ones thinking about calories right now, because they’re forced to. They’re looking at the labels to see what’s in this stuff. Maybe PR-wise we’d be better off doing some sexy marketing campaign.
But in terms of growth, or education, this is a huge, untapped opportunity. And it’s clear it’s better for everyone.”