While food scientists have been in pursuit of the perfect lab-made hamburger, most of the results have been poor imitations or prohibitively expensive. Impossible Foods is the latest alternative food company attempting to tickle the tastebuds with its meatless Impossible Burger, which is claimed to look, smell and taste like real meat. The secret ingredient? Heme, a component of the red pigment in blood.

Heme is a compound found abundantly in meat that makes blood red and delivers oxygen to muscles. It is also one of the things that gives meat its uniquely meaty flavor. But heme is also a basic building block of life and can be found in plants as well, such as clover, the roots of soybeans and yeast.

For the Impossible Burger, the company derives its heme from machine-purified yeast that comes out looking and tasting something like blood. The heme is carried by a protein (and listed ingredient) called leghemoglobin. Other ingredients include common meat substitutes that can be found in other veggie burgers, such as textured wheat protein, coconut oil, potato protein, soy protein isolate and gum gels.

When cooked, the meatless patty caramelizes on the outside, while the texture and color inside changes throughout, transforming from a raw product to something claimed to be much like a cooked burger. An Impossible Burger cooked rare is even said to leave "blood" residue on the plate, which probably won't appeal to a lot of vegetarians.

The meatless burger was recently introduced as a regular menu item at New York City eatery Momofuku Nishi for US$12 (with fries), which is considerably cheaper than the $330,000 lab-grown, cultured meat burger unveiled in 2013 by scientists at Maastricht University. But the company is working to lower the cost of the burger below the current price for ground beef.

There are also plans to introduce the Impossible Burger at restaurants in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and eventually sell it in grocery stores. And the company says its research extends to producing plant-based versions of any kind of meat, including fish, pork, chicken and dairy products.

Like many companies seeking to produce lab-grown or plant-based meat, the motivation for Impossible Foods is largely an environmental one. Traditional beef production eats up a lot of resources while producing waste byproducts and greenhouse gasses, while the demand for meat is growing faster than the population.

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