Through the modern science of genetic engineering, kosher-observant Jews can taste a cheeseburger for the first time.
In 2016, the Oakland, California-based Impossible Foods unveiled its Impossible Burger, a plant-based veggie burger that mimics the juiciness of real meat. And after the Orthodox Union granted Impossible Foods kosher certification in May, the Impossible Burger is rolling out in kosher restaurants — both meat and dairy — across the country. And a handful in Bergen County have jumped on board with assorted toppings, including melted cheese.
“Getting kosher certification is an important milestone,” said Impossible Foods’ CEO and founder, Dr. Patrick O. Brown. “We want the Impossible Burger to be ubiquitous, and that means it must be affordable and accessible to everyone — including people who have food restrictions for religious reasons.”
Impossible Foods’ chief science officer, Dr. David Lipman, knows a few things about kashrut. He began working in his family business, Lipman’s Kosher Market in Rochester, N.Y., when he was 7 years old.
“I’m really excited to be able to announce that the Impossible Burger is now kosher,” Dr. Lipman said. “And because our meat is purely plant-based, for the first time we can all enjoy a delicious — and strictly kosher — cheeseburger.”
The news of the Impossible Burger’s certification has excited many kosher consumers looking for a veggie burger that doesn’t taste like a veggie burger. The Great Kosher Restaurant Foodies group on Facebook has been inundated with posts, pictures, and videos of people trying the burger, both with and without cheese. Elan Kornblum, the group’s administrator and founder of Great Kosher Restaurants magazine, has compared the hype around the burger to what happened when sushi first became popular in the kosher world some 20 years ago. Now sushi is nearly a staple of kosher restaurants.
Impossible Berger’s certification came in May. It was at an auspicious time on the Jewish calendar, just two months before the fast day of Tisha B’Av, which this year fell out on July 22. Jewish law restricts the consumption of meat during the Nine Days preceding Tisha B’Av as a sign of mourning. Many kosher restaurants unveil special Nine Days menus filled with soy-based mock meats.
“Having a burger that looks like meat, tastes like meat, bleeds like meat, and with the ability to have cheese on that, is something I never thought that would have happened in my lifetime,” said Noam Sokolow, owner of Noah’s Ark and Shelly’s Vegetarian Café, both in Teaneck. The two Teaneck restaurants began carrying the Impossible Burger in July.
Shelly’s sold 200 Impossible Burgers during the Nine Days, according to Mr. Sokolow. While demand since has dropped as many people return to their omnivorous ways, Mr. Sokolow expects the veggie burger to remain popular. “It’s been overwhelmingly very popular,” he said. “More so at Shelly’s than Noah’s Ark, because you can put cheese on it.”
Mendy Mark of Teaneck tried the Impossible Burger during the Nine Days, because “who in the kosher world would not want to try a cheeseburger?”
Mr. Mark’s burger came with American cheese, special sauce, lettuce, tomatoes, fried onions, and pickles. While he called it better than any other fake meat he has had, he did not think the burger tasted like the real thing. “The texture of the burger is close to meat, but the flavor is not,” he said. “But with all the stuff they put on it, you can’t necessarily tell.”
Seth Seigel-Laddy of Fair Lawn sought out the Impossible Burger as a healthier alternative to real meat. “It was just like a meat burger,” he said. “But I did expect it to be more juicy.”
So how does the Impossible Burger mimic the juiciness of real meat?
When you bite into a juicy burger or steak, you may have noticed a red liquid left on your plate. It’s not actually blood. The “bleed” or red juice that comes from meat is the result of water mixing with myoglobin, a protein that carries oxygen in muscle tissue as well as a red pigmentation. That’s what makes red meat red.
Impossible Foods relies on heme, a molecule found in all plants and animals and makes meat taste like meat. The company uses fermented yeast to produce a natural protein in plants called soy leghemoglobin, which contains heme identical to that found in animals. This is what makes the Impossible Burger juicy, making it “bleed” like real meat.
Last month, the FDA declared Impossible Foods’ plant-based heme safe to eat. According to the FDA statement, the agency has “no questions at this time regarding Impossible Foods’ conclusion that soy leghemoglobin preparation is [generally regarded as safe] under its intended conditions of use to optimize flavor in ground beef analogue products intended to be cooked.”
While the FDA’s approval led Mr. Seigel-Laddy to try the burger, Meira Tiboldo, a Teaneck resident and a science teacher in the Hackensack public school system, remains concerned about the amount of genetic engineering that went into its development. “We are finally recognizing the potential impact that genetically modifying our food may have on our health, and the health of our children,” she said. “And then we’re willingly messing around with aesthetics to make a veggie burger look more like meat? No thank you.”
The fact that the Impossible Burger looks almost exactly like real meat could pose another, more biblical, problem.
Maras ayin is the halachic concept that a permissible action could be confused for an action that is forbidden under Jewish law. For example, the prohibition on eating poultry and dairy is a rabbinic fence instituted thousands of years ago to prevent the accidental confusion between meat and poultry. That prohibition still is in place today, though we have a multitude of pareve products meant to imitate dairy — products including non-dairy creamer, non-dairy ice cream, and non-dairy cheeses that some kosher meat restaurants use to simulate cheeseburgers.
Dairy restaurants serving the Impossible Burger are using real cheese, which could confuse casual observers because the veggie patty so strongly resembles real meat. According to Rabbi Menachem Genack, the spiritual leader of Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Englewood and the rabbinic administrator of the Orthodox Union’s kashrut division, the Impossible Burger presents a possible maras ayin issue because it’s still relatively new. “There are some things that, after a while, everybody understands,” Rabbi Genack said. “If a person goes to a restaurant and sees a person put creamer in his coffee, there’s a presumption he’s using non-dairy creamer. It’s so common. We’re not up to that, obviously. Maybe there’ll be a day when this burger will be so common people will assume it’s pareve.”
When non-dairy creamer first began to gain popularity, kashrut agencies required restaurants to put it out in a box rather than in a serving dish to let people know it wasn’t actually dairy, Rabbi Efrem Reis of Teaneck, a Conservative rabbi, said. “As time went on and people realized pareve creamers were an accepted condiment, it was permissible to put it in the creamer bowl. I presume the same is the case for the Impossible Burger. At first it needs to be labeled, but as people become more accustomed to it, there won’t be any issue.”
Simple signs may solve the problem until the burger becomes more ubiquitous, according to Rabbi Genack, who added he is “absolutely” interested in trying the burger.
Mr. Sokolow doesn’t see any issue with maras ayin because people know they are going to a kosher restaurant that does not mix meat and dairy. “The Impossible Burger by definition is a veggie burger,” he said.
The burger now is available only on restaurant menus, though the company eventually plans to make it available on grocery store shelves. Rabbi Reis has not yet tried the burger but he looks forward to eventually having a vegetarian option he can grill at home. For now, Rabbi Reis just looks forward to “Being able to eat a burger and then have a scoop of ice cream.”
For a list of kosher restaurants serving the Impossible Burger, go to www.impossiblefoods.com.