One of the curiosities of being a person who doesn’t eat meat is that you spend a fair amount of time trying to find tasty non-meat foods — that taste like meat. From faux riblets to mock chicken tenders and everything in between, menu items created with meat-stuffs in mind pop up every day. Some options are better than others.
We’ve figured out how to prepare jackfruit so the texture and taste can hardly be distinguished from pulled pork. We can cook watermelon so it looks alarmingly close to a hot-out-the-smoker roast. But now there’s a new meat alternative on the block called heme and, well, it’s unlike anything herbivores (or the people feeding us) have tried before.
What is heme?
When you hear the word “heme,” another word likely springs to mind: hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is a red, oxygen-carrying protein found in red blood cells; it gives the red blood cells their color. In fact, if you chase the etymology of that word, you’ll find that hemo comes from a form of the Greek haimato, which literally means “blood.”
Not surprisingly, “heme” is a molecule found in hemoglobin. It occurs in high concentrations in meats, thereby giving them their distinctive color, taste and even aroma. Basically, the more heme a meat has, the meatier it tastes. And, by meatier, you might say bloodier. But that’s not exactly vegan.
What does it have to do with vegetarian and vegan cuisine?
As it turns out, heme can also be found in the roots of nitrogen-fixing plants, including legumes. Because these plants can’t pull nitrogen from the air on their own, they utilize a symbiotic bacterium called rhizobia. These bacteria live in root nodules which contain leghemoglobin, a red, oxygen-carrying protein similar chemically and structurally to hemoglobin.
So, who put 2 + 2 together?
In the early 2010s, a biochemistry professor at Stanford named of Patrick Brown set about trying to figure out a way to make a more meat-like meat alternative. He had a hunch that if he could gather enough leghemoglobin from plant sources, he could replicate particular qualities of meat in a non-meat product. He was right. After extensive research and testing, the Impossible Burger was born: a “veggie” burger so realistic that it even appears to ooze blood on the plate.
“I had a very strong suspicion early on that heme would be the magic ingredient for flavor,” Brown told NPR in 2016. By using the heme-containing protein from the roots of soy plants and inserting it into a genetically engineered yeast, Brown’s Impossible Foods company creates a bounty of heme.
They then use this heme to create burgers and other foods that mimic the appearance, texture and even taste of meat while being made entirely from plants.
Does heme have other benefits?
As you might imagine, heme helps create a healthier food product — the Impossible Burger, for example, boasts more protein and fewer calories than a lean-meat burger. Also, being plant-based means it doesn’t have cholesterol.
There are also environmental considerations. “[Meat farming] has terribly destructive environmental consequences and many scientists and doctors believe it’s intrinsically unhealthy to eat meat,” Brown told CNET. Making heme in yeast has a much lower environmental footprint than meat farming, or even harvesting plants for heme.
According to Impossible Foods, the Impossible Burger requires only a quarter of the water and one-twentieth of the land needed to produce a beef burger — and it produces only one-eighth of the greenhouse gas emissions.
Are there drawbacks?
While there don’t seem to be any negative studies pertaining to plant-based heme in particular, food products made using it should be analyzed individually when it comes to nutritional values. Per the “Nutrition Diva” Monica Reinagel, the Impossible Burger is higher in saturated fat than traditional burgers due to the use of coconut oil in its production.
Where can you find heme meat alternatives?
Currently, Impossible Foods seems to be the leader in heme-based food products, and they have chosen to focus on the restaurant industry. National and regional chains and solo restaurants around the country serve the Impossible Burger. To find their products, consult their location map online.