Daniel Neman is a food writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Trying Burger King’s new Impossible Whopper requires a certain intellectual disconnect.
You know you’re eating something made from plants, but it tastes distinctly “burgerish.”
You think you’re eating something healthful, but you’re actually consuming 630 calories, only 30 fewer than a regular Whopper (though the low cholesterol and zero trans fats do count on the healthy side).
You think you’re eating cheap fast food, and you are, but the Impossible Whopper still costs a dollar more than a regular Whopper.
The St. Louis area, with 59 Burger King locations, has been chosen as the sole test market for the Impossible Whopper. We’re the middle of Middle America, and if something that is “hamburgery” without being an actual hamburger can sell here, then it can sell anywhere.
Apparently, it is selling well. Tiffany Billops, manager of a Burger King location in the city’s Academy neighborhood, told me that her restaurant has seen a significant increase both in sales and traffic since its introduction on April 1. (Burger King’s announcement of a vegetarian Whopper on April Fools’ Day was greeted by some as a prank.)
Across the Mississippi River, near Granite City, Ill., it may be selling even better.
“Oh my God,” counter clerk Morgan McMurray told me. “Maybe even more than the regular Whopper. I didn’t think they’d sell, but they do.”
Much of the initial burst of activity, of course, can be attributed to the novelty of the thing. People want to try something new, especially when that something is a Whopper that isn’t really a Whopper. But Billops said she has already seen Impossible repeat customers, an encouraging sign for Burger King and for Impossible Foods, its ally in the venture.
Chief executive Pat Brown founded Impossible Foods in 2011 with the goal of helping to wean the world off animal agriculture with plant-based alternatives to “make the global food system truly sustainable.”
The environmentally friendly message no doubt accounts for the Impossible Whopper’s appeal to many people. But how does the burger taste?
To be honest, news about the Impossible Whopper hadn’t stirred a great desire in me to try one. I was no more interested in sampling plants that taste like meat than I was in trying meat that tastes like plants.
But, much in the pioneering spirit of Jesse Lazear, who allowed himself to be bitten by a mosquito carrying yellow fever, and Max von Pettenkofer , who drank broth laced with cholera bacteria, I ordered an Impossible Whopper. Actually, I ordered two. And a regular Whopper as a baseline for comparison.
The Impossible Whopper patty looks reasonably like any other fast-food quarter-pound burger: perfectly round, flat and brown. The red juice that oozes out of thicker Impossible Burgers sold at tonier restaurants is not to be found in Impossible Whoppers; at fast-food restaurants, the meat is well-done even when it is not meat.
I pulled off a chunk of the patty for a taste — it was a bit squishier than a similar chunk from the beef patty — and popped it in my mouth. The taste was flatter than a real beef burger and a bit harsh. Of more concern was the slightly metallic aftertaste.
But when you add all the accoutrements of a Whopper, that’s a different story. Place a patty between a sesame-seed bun with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, onions, mayonnaise and ketchup, and you have something that almost tastes like a Whopper, though still squishier.
“You’ll taste the difference,” said the woman who sold me my first one, and she was right. But other customers were more positive.
“It’s good. Flavorful. It tastes like meat,” said James Lee, a 61-year-old senior maintenance technician.
“You really don’t know. You only know because you know what’s in it. It’s mind over matter. If you don’t tell anybody, they don’t know,” said Judeah Sims, 26, the assistant manager at a nearby apartment building.
Impossible patties are made from soy protein concentrate and potato protein, with fat from coconut and sunflower oils, all bound together with methyl cellulose, a laxative. The meaty flavor (and perhaps the metallic aftertaste) comes from iron-rich heme, a molecule that exists in every living organism. In animals, it is the part of hemoglobin that carries oxygen in the blood.
In this case, heme is created through the miracle of genetic manipulation. The DNA of soy leghemoglobin is inserted into yeast, which is then fermented, and the blood-red heme is extracted from that.
The anti-GMO crowd will be put off by that angle, and vegans won’t like that the vegetable patties are cooked on the same equipment as their beefy brethren. But will the environmental appeal be enough in St. Louis to persuade Burger King that this Whopper belongs in the company’s more than 7,000 locations nationwide? It’s not impossible.