Functional foods are boring. Someone tell Silicon Valley.

The plant-based prerogative.
The plant-based prerogative.
Image: Reuters/Beck Diefenbach
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It’s a stunning comment to air so nonchalantly, and all while gesticulating with a drippy hamburger in his right hand.

Actually, it isn’t a real hamburger. It’s more a mishmash of potato protein, coconut fat, and soy. But as far as Patrick Brown is concerned, it’s very, very real.

“I mean, animals have just been the technology we have used up until now to produce meat, which is a food that is defined by its flavor profile, it’s sensory profile, its nutrition, utility, and stuff like that,” Brown says. “What consumers value about meat has nothing to do with how it’s made. They just live with the fact that it’s made from animals. If we’re producing a product that is delivering everything that is of value in meat for consumers, it’s filling that niche.”

The 63-year-old biochemist is the founder and CEO of Impossible Foods, a Silicon Valley company that created the so-called “Impossible burger,” popularly known as the plant-based burger that bleeds. Brown insists on calling it meat.

It seemed odd hearing this from a biochemist, someone who knows better than most what’s happening on the molecular level of life. Sure, we now live in an age where “truth isn’t truth,” but does that have to apply to our food, too?

“It’s what functional role it plays,” Brown adds, still musing over the term “meat.” “It’s the right label for it.”

The theme of “functionality” runs throughout Silicon Valley’s food technology landscape, where startups big and small are working on all manner of technical fixes to a food system that, like all things, has flaws. Don’t have time to eat a proper meal? Drink a bottle of Soylent, which on its website is described as food “reformatted.” Don’t like dairy products? Check out high-tech milk made from yeast. Want to do away with the animal agriculture system? There are a handful of companies working on ways to bring cell-cultured meats to market, none of which will require a cow, pig, or chicken be slaughtered.

But thinking about and defining foods only through the lens of their function has pitfalls. For starters, there are some major nutritional hurdles that inevitably crop up when trying to take all the benefits of one item and mimic them in another.

“If you think about food in this way, you’re not thinking about biology,” says New York University nutrition-studies professor Marion Nestle. “We don’t know what the qualities are in foods that promote health. It’s been impossible, really, to haul out of food the individual nutrients and components that have the same health effects as eating food.”

In other words: It’s pretty damn hard to create artificial foods that have the same nutritional properties as the real foods they mimic, which we’ve biologically evolved to eat. Just look at the supplements industry. Time and again scientific research has debunked the marketing promises of many of these pills.

Brown isn’t exactly pioneering the concept of “functional foods,” either. Fortified margarine is a functional food. And massive food companies such as Danone and Nestlé are already fortifying some of their product lines—including frozen pizzas, in Nestlé’s case —with all manner of nutrients that allegedly promote wellness.

Marion Nestle isn’t saying the Impossible Foods burger is an oversized vitamin supplement, but she is pointing out that, at its core, Brown’s project is about taking certain nutrients out of their typical social context and plopping them into another for the sake of improving—at least from his point of view—some element of the food system. In Brown’s case, he wants to remove animal agriculture from the equation. But, Nestle says, maybe people want meat—actual meat, and not just the functional value of meat. Historically, when humans have the means, they tend to want to eat more meat. As the Chinese and Indian middle classes grow, demand for meat has risen in those countries. The pattern was also evident in Europe in the 1500s, when meat consumption was far more prevalent in societies that had more disposable income.

“Cultures desire meat. But is that cultural or is that biological?” Nestle asks. “Big fish eat little fish. There’s some biology in that. Is biology wrong? I don’t know, that’s the moral and philosophical question.”

Certainly humans can live healthful lives without ever eating meat, especially if they have the means to acquire all the nutrients their bodies need. But it isn’t clear that biology would push us down that route. After all, many researchers believe humans developed incisor teeth because we evolved as meat eaters. It’s not clear that the plant-based burger scions in Silicon Valley will be able to buck that long-time biological trajectory.

Plant-based staying power

“I feel very bored when I hear about any food being reduced down to a functionality,” says Sarah Lohman, a food historian and author. “A great comparison is that sex is just a way to make babies.”

To be sure, Lohman isn’t a luddite. She’s fascinated by and eager to try cell-cultured meats, which are made by isolating animal cells and then growing them into fat and muscle tissues. But the concept of trying to sell a plant product as an exact-replica meat product isn’t appealing. In fact, she says it’s downright strange to her.

“Something about having a plant-based burger, calling it meat, and having all the characteristics of meat somehow grosses me out more than thinking of a hamburger that came out of the side of a cow,” she says, “and that still grosses me out.”

It won’t gross everyone out, of course. But perhaps thinking and talking about food from such an overtly technical point-of-view also hinders the ability to connect with potential eaters. And though the Impossible Foods burger might seem interesting now because of the newness of the technology behind it, could it just as easily grow stale, and quickly, if it never really connects with us culturally?

After all, as Nestle puts it, Silicon Valley’s answer for solving the ills of the food system is mechanical, but the problems with the food require very different solutions. “To me, food is a social problem,” she says. “It’s economics, politics, and religious. The real question is: What is the problem with the American diet? I’d say too many calories and too many choices.”

Patrick Brown has a different answer. From his perspective, the biggest ill of the food system is that it’s raising and killing too many animals, which is driving negative environmental consequences that can be avoided, if only humans could be convinced to turn away from animal agriculture.

It seems doing that might require more than convincing people of a new food’s functions. It might also mean not telling them that a clearly plant-based burger is, in fact, meat, when scientifically it simply isn’t.

Nestle makes a grounding final point to keep in mind as we wait to see what kinds of fresh questions Silicon Valley cook up for us to ponder in the world of food.

“We are so fortunate in our society to have enough money and enough access to make these kinds of decisions,” she says. “This is privilege in action. I can’t think than anything more privileged than dealing with these kinds of questions—which is not to say they aren’t important. But we have to put it in a global context.”