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Meet Impossible Foods' lab-grown veggie burger. It bleeds

As the food-tech startup announces an expansion into West Coast restaurants, we get to taste test the Impossible Burger and learn about its secret sauce.

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Slap an Impossible Foods' burger on a grill, and it pops, sizzles and smokes like a typical hamburger. But there's nothing typical about it. Instead of cow meat, it's made of plant products. Oh, and it was wholly engineered in a Silicon Valley lab.

"We look for each of those elements that make meat, meat," said Celeste Holz-Schietinger, a principal scientist for Impossible Foods, during a tour of the company's Redwood City, California, lab last week. "That little bit of fat leak-out. Those meaty, those roasty, those caramelized notes."

Count Impossible Foods among a handful of tech startups hoping to convince you to eat meat and dairy substitutes. While Impossible Foods is focused on burgers, rival Beyond Meat sells everything from plant protein "beef crumbles" to chicken strips, and Hampton Creek offers up vegan mayonnaise called Just Mayo. The market for faux meat is expected to exceed $5 billion by 2020, according to global research firm MarketsandMarkets. On top of tofu, tempeh and other soy-based products, lab-grown food is estimated to take a big bite of this market.

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An Impossible Burger is made entirely of plant proteins but looks, tastes and smells a lot like beef.

Dara Kerr/CNET

Until now, the only place you could taste an Impossible Burger was at the upscale restaurant Momofuku Nishi in New York City (price: $12, for a burger with a side of fries). But the company said Wednesday it's also expanding to three swanky California restaurants -- Jardiniere ($16) and Cockscomb ($19) in San Francisco and Crossroads Kitchen ($14) in Los Angeles. Rather than marketing to vegans and vegetarians, Impossible Foods is making a play for foodies and meat eaters.

"Our ultimate goal is to make it accessible to people who love meat and love burgers," said Impossible Foods CEO Pat Brown, a former Stanford biochemistry professor who founded the company in 2011. "The really hard thing to do is deliver the deliciousness that people love so much."

Impossible Burgers are made from a handful of ingredients, including wheat protein, potato protein and coconut oil. Many of these products have been used in veggie burgers before, so the Impossible Burger's real secret sauce is a substance called leghemoglobin, or "heme" for short. It's this heme that makes the burgers bleed.

Heme, the secret sauce

Outside Impossible Foods' pristine, white lab, I watched as Holz-Schietinger gave a demonstration of how the company makes its burgers. "First step is to take the heme protein to the wheat protein and mix it in," she said, combining the two ingredients in a glass bowl and then giving them a light stir.

Next she added potato protein and coconut oil. The blended mixture took on a pinkish hue and began to resemble raw ground beef more than a concoction of plant proteins.

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In its raw state, the Impossible Burger looks like ground beef -- that's because of a protein called heme, which gives the mixture a pinkish color.

Dara Kerr/CNET

Holz-Schietinger described what each ingredient added to the burger. Wheat protein "makes up the muscle tissue that gives meat the chew," she said. Coconut oil "has the same melting property as tallow in an animal." Other ingredients, like konjac and xanthan gum, hold the mixture together.

But heme, "this is what's really new and novel," Holz-Schietinger said. Heme is what makes animal blood red, and it's found in all living things on Earth, including plants.

"Heme is identical inside a plant and in the muscle tissue of an animal," she said. "It is the taste of blood."

Impossible Foods is the first food company to add heme to its vegan products in an effort to replicate the taste, color and aroma of animal meat. It's a key ingredient in fooling people into thinking the veggie burgers are made of beef. When Impossible Burgers cook in a pan, they secrete a pinkish juice that resembles blood and they also give off a charred meat smell. On top of that, I found the taste and texture surprisingly like a hamburger -- barnyardy, savory and fatty.

I have to say, I liked it.

Why make a veggie burger that tastes like beef?

When Brown founded Impossible Foods, he'd given a lot of thought to the environmental impact of mass food production -- specifically meat. Cattle farming is resource-intensive, using up vast amounts of water and land.

Livestock factory farming uses 30 percent of the Earth's land surface, for example, and contributes to more than 18 percent of global greenhouse gases, according to the United Nations. Almost 1,800 gallons of fresh water for drinking, feed irrigation and processing go into one pound of beef, according to National Geographic.

"Everybody wants to do the right thing when it comes to the environment -- but if it doesn't taste good, you're not fooling anyone," said Tal Ronnen, the chef for Crossroads Kitchen. "That's what makes Impossible Foods such a game-changer for conscious eating."

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Inside Impossible Foods' lab, scientists are constantly tinkering with flavor profiles and then testing the burgers for taste, texture and aroma.

Dara Kerr/CNET

Brown said lab-grown burgers use fewer natural resources and generate less greenhouse gas than beef. Additionally, the Impossible Burger isn't infused with antibiotics or hormones, unlike much factory-farmed cattle. One faux burger uses a quarter of the water, five percent of the land and emits thirteen percent of the greenhouse gases compared to a conventional beef burger, according to Brown.

Mass meat production is "by far the greatest threat to the global environment right now," Brown said. "We've thought a lot about how we can maximize our impact."

Will people buy it?

As Impossible Foods expands to more restaurants, it's thinking beyond the burger. The company has created prototypes of other meat and dairy products and plans to launch new foods in the coming years. Brown won't give specifics yet.

Lab-grown food has caught the attention of many big-name tech investors, including Google co-founder Sergey Brin, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel. Impossible Foods has received $183 million in disclosed funding from investors like Gates, Google Ventures and Khosla Ventures. Beyond Meat has also received funding from Gates.

"Overall, we're seeing increased investor excitement surrounding next-gen food startups," said Zoe Leavitt, tech industry analyst at research firm CB Insights. "Investors and entrepreneurs are working to meet consumer demand for healthier foods, greater transparency in food sourcing and stronger environmental accountability in food production."

Many of these faux food startups are also beginning to sell their products in mainstream stores. Plant-based milk company Ripple Foods sells through Target stores across the country, and Beyond Meat is in select Whole Foods grocery stores. On Monday, industrial meat corporation Tyson Foods said it bought a 5 percent stake in Beyond Meat.

"These products are no longer automatically shunted toward health food markets," Leavitt said.

Impossible Burgers aren't cheap, especially since they're being exclusively sold in upscale restaurants right now. While the lowest-cost Impossible Burger is served at Momofuku Nishi for $12, a beef burger with fries at the popular Shake Shack chain costs around $9. Brown said he believes Impossible Foods' prices will go down in time and within one year will be on par with organic grass-fed beef. The company plans to launch in more restaurants later this year.

Plant-based burgers are roughly the same as cow's meat when it comes to fat, calories and nutrition -- not exactly healthy. The Impossible Burger is modeled after 80 percent lean and 20 percent fat ground beef. Because its burger is engineered in a lab, scientists can tinker with some of the ratios. Holz-Schietinger said they've boosted the protein, iron and B vitamins in their burgers but the central goal is to replicate beef.

"We're not making a veggie burger," Holz-Schietinger said. "We're making meat. It's just from plants."

Let the taste tests begin.