Two companies are transforming the veggie-burger business with products that come the closest yet to mimicking the look, taste and feel of beef burgers.

While the Impossible Burger is gaining a foothold in restaurants, the Beyond Meat burger is making its way into mainstream supermarkets.

Each tackles the problem of imitating beef in a slightly different way, but both are winning over consumers who have rejected existing veggie burgers as not beefy enough.

Veggie burgers have been big business for years. In any supermarket freezer case these days, customers are likely to find a dozen or more varieties. (A 2014 taste test in the Winston-Salem Journal included 23 different burgers.)

The NPD Group, which tracks market data, recently told Restaurant Hospitality magazine that shipments of plant-based proteins are way up over the last two years — by 32 percent. And the Wall Street Journal has reported that Impossible or Beyond Meat burgers are now served in almost 20,000 restaurants nationwide. Wall Street has called Beyond Meat’s public stock offering the best IPO of the year to date.

Different veggie burgers are made different ways. Most feature soy protein, textured vegetable protein or textured wheat protein — especially if they are attempting to mimic beef — but vegetables and various legumes and grains are used, too.

Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger, though, have taken veggie burgers to a new level. The key to their initial success is producing plant-based burgers that can be served pink and soft in the middle to provide a nearly complete illusion of a medium-rare or medium burger in appearance, texture and taste.

Impossible Foods, based in Redwood City, Calif., has come up with a process of extracting a molecule called heme from soy leghemoglobin, a protein in soy plants. “We took the DNA from soy plants and inserted it into a genetically engineered yeast. And we ferment this yeast — very similar to the way Belgian beer is made. But instead of producing alcohol, our yeast multiply and produce a lot of heme,” the company says on its website.

The Impossible Burger ingredients are water, soy protein concentrate, coconut oil and sunflower oil plus smaller amounts of starch, spices and other ingredients.

Heme, the company says, is what makes its burger taste like meat. “It’s an essential molecule found in every living plant and animal — most abundantly in animals — and something we’ve been eating and craving since the dawn of humanity.”

Beyond Meat — based in El Segundo, Calif., and endorsed by basketball star Chris Paul — is made with water, pea protein isolate, expeller-pressed canola oil and refined coconut oil plus small amounts (less than 2 percent) of starch, spices and other ingredients.

A key to both burgers is the coconut oil, which resembles beef fat.

Both ingredient lists contain a fair amount of ingredients not found in the average consumer’s kitchen. Methylcellulose, a chemical compound derived from cellulose, is used as a binder and contributes fiber. Yeast extract adds a savory or umami flavor. Beyond Meat uses maltodextrin as a thickener. Impossible uses cultured dextrose as a preservative.

In other words, a lot of science went into trying to recreate the natural taste of beef. These are far from natural, whole foods.

To date, Impossible Burgers are only sold wholesale, though the company has announced plans to sell them retail in the future. Impossible made headlines this spring when it announced a deal with Burger King. The fast-food chain has carried other vegetarian burgers for years, but is gradually introducing Impossible Burgers nationwide. They have yet to come to North Carolina Burger Kings, though. In fact, the announcement has led to a widespread shortage of Impossible Burgers.

Beyond Meat, which said June 11 that it is changing the recipe for its burger to make it more “meaty,” is making great strides, probably partly as a result of Impossible being in the news and of the resultant shortage. Beyond Meat went public May 1 at $25 a share, and in less than six weeks its stock soared to $100 a share.

Several local restaurateurs said they were using Impossible Burgers but can’t find them now, so have substituted Beyond Meat burgers instead.

Beyond Meat also has the retail advantage. Now almost every supermarket chain in Winston-Salem carries at least one Beyond Meat product. In addition to a package with two 4-ounce patties, Beyond Meat sells Brat Original and Hot Italian vegetarian sausages and Beefy and Feisty crumbles.

Expect to pay $5 and up for the two 4-ounce patties. A 14-ounce package of sausages can run about $9 and a 10-ounce package of crumbles usually sells for $5 to $6.

A 4-ounce Impossible burger has 240 calories, 14 grams if fat and 19 grams of protein. A 4-ounce Beyond Meat burger has 270 calories, 20 grams of fat and 20 grams of protein. The fat in calories are pretty similar to a 4-ounce (80% lean) beef patty. The protein is somewhat less than beef. On the plus side for the plant-based burgers are less (actually, zero) cholesterol and more carbs and fiber than beef. The Impossible burger in particular also has a lot of added vitamins and nutrients. On the negative side, both have a lot more sodium than beef and in general are highly processed foods. Overall, the burgers don’t qualify as healthier alternatives to beef.

In taste tests, the Beyond Meat burger did a reasonable imitation of beef, and everyone liked the taste, even if they could tell it wasn’t beef. The sausages also scored well. The crumbles did not — they tended to be somewhat hard and dry. That may be because cooking instructions on the patties and sausages stress the importance of not overcooking. The cooked burgers are supposed to be pink or “medium” inside.

Beyond Meat said that the new version of its burger, expected in area stores in July, will brown more like beef and will better recreate the fat "marbling" of real beef.

The Impossible burger tasted even more beef-like that the current Beyond Meat burger, and also mimicked the texture quite well. Note that the Impossible patties are thinner than Beyond Meat patties, so it can be more difficult to serve a medium-rare or medium Impossible burger.

In restaurants, the Impossible or Beyond Meat burgers typically sell for $2 to $3 more than a comparable beef burger, a reflection of the higher food cost.

In Winston-Salem, more than a dozen restaurants carry Impossible or Beyond Meat burgers. Most are selling them as burgers. Some, including Village Juice and Qdoba, are crumbling them up for use in burritos and other dishes.

Mary’s Gourmet Diner is one of the few restaurants that has been able to keep Impossible burgers in stock. Chef and partner Michael Millan said that Mary’s has carried Impossible for about a year and a half. “We’ve used Beyond before, but, to me, Impossible is a superior product,” he said. He called Impossible “spot-on” in its imitation of beef.

“I will tell you something funny,” Milan said. “Both of them have a kind of canned corned-beef taste to me. And when I put the Beyond Burger in a recipe for corned beef hash, it tasted just like the real thing.”

He also said that both react well to seasoning. “A lot of the meat substitutes are pre-seasoned, but these are like starting with real beef. So you can do whatever you want with it.”

Bobo’s Deli and Grill is one of the restaurants that has switched to Beyond Meat temporarily because of the shortage of Impossible burger.

“We loved the customer reaction to it. It’s almost like people were coming here just for it,” said owner Andrew “Bobo” Bobotsiares.

“I think the Impossible tastes more like beef. It even bleeds. They’re both pretty good products, but you do pay a premium for them,” he said. “One thing about Beyond Meat, it has no GMOs.”

Shane Moore, the chef at Foothills Brewpub, serves the Beyond Meat burger. “We started with the Impossible, but then I tried the Beyond burger, and I think the flavor is there,” he said. “It’s kind of earthy — I hate to say beefy — but it has more substance. I think it’s also a better value.”

The faux burger may finally be an idea whose time has come. But it does beg some questions. If someone became a vegetarian because they crave healthy, whole, natural foods, will they shell out for something just as fattening and caloric that was created in a lab?

And does someone who has sworn off meat want a burger that visually looks like meat?

As one chef told me, “My wife is a vegetarian, and this just grosses her out.”

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