Taste testing fake meat from Silicon Valley

I am not a vegetarian but I’ve always been somewhat intrigued by vegetables made to taste like meat. There are vegetarian Chinese restaurants in Hong Kong, where tofu steps in for chicken or fish. Then there are the vegetarian hamburgers, probably the most famous of which are made by Yves or Gardenburger.

A couple of years ago I read an article in the New York Times about a start-up from San Francisco that was setting out to replace meat — like, really replace it. To make a hamburger that is so similar in texture and flavor that one couldn’t tell it apart from actual beef, with the goal of satisfying the cravings of carnivores without the negative environmental impact.

There are actually two companies duking it out in this space: Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. The “Beyond Burger” started at a few Whole Foods locations and select restaurants in San Francisco and New York City, and is now available in nine states, while the “Impossible Burger” is still a relatively tough find (you can get it at Momofuku Nishi in New York City). The companies have some big league investors, too, including Bill Gates, who has invested in both.

The New York Times published a follow-up article last year on Beyond Meat, when it was announced that conglomerate Tyson Foods was investing in the start-up:

“Beyond Meat this year began selling the Beyond Burger, a plant-protein burger sold fresh that sizzles and oozes fats while cooking on a griddle.

Whole Foods Market apparently finds it close enough to the real thing that the supermarket chain has been selling Beyond Burger next to the meat case in its stores.

“The quality of the Beyond Burger is amazing,” said Monica McGurk, a former Coca-Cola executive who joined Tyson in spring as senior vice president in charge of strategy and new ventures. “We think it’s a game-changing product that gives us exposure to this fast-growing part of the food business.”

Terms of the deal were not disclosed. The financing round includes other investors like the Humane Society of the United States, which also previously invested in Beyond Meat.”

— New York Times – October 10, 2016

I took a mental note of these companies last year, so was quite pleased to discover that the Beyond Burger is now available in Hong Kong. You can pick it up at Citysuper and cook them at home, or you can swing by Green Common which began serving two burgers using the Beyond Meat patty on April 7.

So how does it compare to an actual, juicy hamburger? Well, here is what it looks like:

I was a bit disappointed the burger came in a cardboard box, a la a Big Mac, which knocked the burger down a few notches on the photogenic scale (that won’t be going on Instagram). Green Common has two options: the Beyond Burger, which is the basic “meat” patty with a vegan bun, tomato and lettuce; I opted for the Beyond Burger Plus which also included avocado and Daiya vegan cheese, which was superb.

Picking it up was the first moment I became truly aware this wasn’t meat — it was simply too light. A big juicy burger usually has some heft, and this didn’t. After taking a bite, I found it pretty good, but would be tough to mistake for meat. The burger patty resembled ground beef, but was slightly drier and lacking the fats and flavor found in a high-quality burger patty. It had a smokiness to it I enjoyed though, and the avocado, cheese, and vegan bun resulted in a delicious combination (I asked for no tomato because, well, ewww). And perhaps that’s the point: making vegetables taste exactly like meat is going to be a tough ask, but if it gets close enough and is absolutely delicious, then the game has been won. While I wouldn’t mistake the Beyond Burger for an actual beef burger, I also wouldn’t hesitate to order it again.

So what exactly is in this faux burger patty?

“Beyond Meat has been researching the idea of building protein products out of plants for more than seven years. It eventually settled on a formula that uses pea protein with some canola and coconut oil to create a slightly fatty, cholesterol-free patty that’s even the right shade of red, thanks to the addition of beet juice. It actually changes color as it cooks too.”

— Engadget – October 17, 2016

Food startups have become an exciting niche in Silicon Valley as entrepreneurs look to lessen our reliance on animal farming. They correctly figured out that if true meat-lovers are to abandon their steaks and burgers, the alternative is going to have to be just as good, if not better. Beyond Meat isn’t quite there yet, but I get the feeling we aren’t too far away.

Cam Macmurchy

Hi! My name is Cam MacMurchy. I was born and raised in Canada and worked as a journalist before moving to China in 2004.

Today I work in Hong Kong as the Vice President of Corporate Communications of a listed company. I write about marketing, communications, and journalism, as well as technology and productivity, and anything else on my mind! I also occasionally contribute to 9to5Mac, one of the top Apple websites in the world, and run Executive Productivity. Contact me anytime.