I have good news for mock meat makers who want to challenge the Impossible Burger: You’ll soon have access to Impossible’s magic ingredient — that’s heme, the molecule that makes its plant-based burgers bleed, sizzle, and taste so similar to the real thing.
Last month, Leonard Lerer, CEO of Back of the Yards Algae Sciences (BYAS), a Chicago-based start-up, invited me to a taste test of a beta-version of his heme, which is derived from spirulina, a blue green algae. The test gave me a chance to compare two popular plant-based burgers —Beyond and Morningstar — with burgers sprayed with low-concentrations of BYAS’s heme.
On a quick inspection, the heme-sprayed versions didn’t look significantly different, or smell different, but after a few bites, I had a clear favorite. It’s hard to pinpoint the source of my preference. Maybe the heme-flavor overshadowed the nutty aftertaste of Beyond? Perhaps it was an increase in umami? Whatever it was, the heme-sprayed burgers were a clear upgrade. In fact, I was so impressed with the heme’s flavoring that I tested the burger on the biggest mock-meat skeptic I know: my 11-year-old son.
As expected, Max shot a frown and yuck look after trying the standard Beyond. But after being persuaded to take one bite of the heme-sprayed version, Max had a shocking response. No frown. In fact, he said, “It’s pretty good.” My wife also tested the samples. While none of us thought the heme elevated Beyond to match the flavor of a real burger, we all agreed: Algal heme makes a big difference.
“There’s a lot of ways to give mock meats a meaty flavor, but there’s nothing quite like heme,” said Lerer, the lead developer of the heme. To date, plant-based heme has been virtually synonymous with Impossible, but BYAS aims to change that. “Impossible is a food company — and as far as I know, they don’t sell their heme. We’re an ingredient company, and want to give plant-based meat makers an option for a heme.”
Lerer describes what he believes is “heme 2.0” because it’s “healthier for people and for the planet.” According to Lerer, BYAS’s heme extraction process is all natural, uses less energy, and eliminates waste. And because BYAS’s heme is derived not from soy, but spirulina, a noted superfood, it brings an array of added health benefits to plant-based meat makers. “I don’t think there’s ever been a burger — plant-based or dead cow — that stimulates gut bacteria.” Lerer also notes that BYAS’s process is all natural and GMO-free, unlike Impossible’s, which he believes will appeal to plant-based burger makers aiming for a cleaner label.
Founded in 2018 by Lerer, who like Impossible founder Patrick Brown is a former physician, BYAS has just six full-time employees in its Chicago lab. The company recently partnered with LiquaDry, a Utah-based specialist in converting natural products into powders, to develop an industrial scale production facility for its algal-derived ingredients. The debut of a product with BYAS’s algal heme will be next month when Brytlife Foods, a vegan food maker, introduces a burger, dubbed the “Biome Burger,” in four specialty grocers in New York City, including the Park Slope Food Coop and Orchard Grocer.
The Backstory of Algal Heme: An “Accidental” Discovery and a Food Waste Solution
Lerer said the idea for the algal heme can be traced to a “serendipitous” discovery that occurred while doing research three years ago for one of BYAS’s core businesses: meeting the food industry’s exploding demand for natural colorant. While working on a process to make the color purple, Lerer isolated spirulina’s leghemoglobin protein. “It was intriguing,” he recalled. “But I didn’t taste it. I didn’t smell it, as I was focused on colorant.”
As BYAS and its food colorant business grew, Lerer & BYAS team started trying to find solutions to another problem: waste. The colorant extraction produces a huge amount of high value algal protein. “Most dye makers just trash it,” Lerer said. “We pride ourselves on zero waste.”A big reason for Lerer’s emphasis on waste reduction is because BYAS is based in The Plant, a former meat packing facility on Chicago’s South Side, which is one of the world’s only food business incubators that functions as a “closed loop ecosystem,” where the waste of one business is used as an input for another. For example, carbon dioxide from a brewery on The Plant’s ground floor is piped into the BYAS’s lab where it feeds the growth of spirulina.
In an effort to upcycle colorant waste, BYAS first aimed to use the leftover algal protein to create a meat analogue for burgers that offer an alternative to soy. But after almost two years of R&D, Lerer stopped the project. “We tried everything and made a lot of progress,” he said, “but it still tasted like crap.”
It was after this failed attempt at algal meat that Lerer had the breakthrough idea — instead of using algae as the burger’s meat, he could explore its potential as a flavoring source. He revisited the heme that he encountered. “And voila, with a little tweaking there it was.”
Lerer said the approach that BYAS is using to develop heme is radically simpler than Impossible’s method. Impossible generates its star ingredient by inserting the DNA of soybean heme into yeast, and then fermenting that yeast at industrial scale. But while the process is much more environmentally-friendly than harvesting heme directly from soy plants, it still requires fermentation, which is energy-intensive and costly.
BYAS’s process doesn’t require genetic engineering or fermentation. The heme is extracted from algae that will be grown outside in tanks in Abraham, Utah, feeding on water and sunlight. While Lerer didn’t reveal his process, he said, it’s a simple, all-natural process and because it’s natural algal heme, it’s already Generally Recognized as Safe.
The “Biome Burger”
The earliest adopter of algal heme, Brytlife Food’s founder Lita Dwight, said that her new product, dubbed the “Biome Burger” isn’t just intended to match the meaty taste properties of Impossible, it’s also, as the name suggests, developed to highlight the health benefits of algal ingredients. Dwight hopes that by incorporating BYAS’s heme, and other spirulina extracts, she will be able to differentiate her product in a crowded marketplace.
She was initially drawn to algae because of its high protein density, but noted that studies have shown that spirulina stimulates the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut, which helps with everything from digestion to nutrient absorption. While it’s not unusual to hear about antioxidants and probiotics in the food industry — it still is in the burger world. Plant-based burger makers have made upgrades to their burger’s health profiles, but have largely focused on increasing protein, reducing saturated fat, and sodium.
“This is likely the first burger with probiotic benefits,” Dwight said. “And I really think that more healthy is the future of the market.”
But Lerer said he hopes the “Biome Burger” will not only raise the bar for the nutritional content of plant-based burgers, but also the environmental sustainability of mock meats. “Our goal is to reduce dependence on industrial soy and pea,” he said. “There’s so much waste in getting soy protein levels so high.” He notes that the “meat” of the Brytlife burger will be a blend of oats and mycelium, ingredients that require less intensive farming than soy, but are less frequently used because they’re bland.
Lerer’s research has found that algal heme provides such a powerful flavor-enhancing meaty quality that food makers could shift to plant protein sources that are less environmentally-damaging, such as oats and mushrooms.
While I ordinarily would been deeply skeptical about an oats-based burger — flashbacks to the veggie burgers of the 1990s — after seeing my son happily chewing a heme-enhanced Beyond burger for the first time, it suddenly seemed plausible.
Whatever happens with the Biome Burger, here’s one prediction. At such a hyper-innovative, health-obsessed time in the plant-based world, it’s almost inevitable that key player in the space (hello, Beyond), will introduce an algal heme-enhanced burger in the coming year.