Is the Burger Nearing Extinction?

I liked my patties thin and then I liked them thick. There was the Cheddar period, followed by the Roquefort interregnum. Sesame-seed buns gave way to English muffins as ketchup traded places with special sauce or even, God help me, guacamole, which really was overkill.


But no matter its cradle or condiment, the hamburger was with me for the long haul — I was sure of that.


Until now.


A few days ago I tripped across news that McDonald’s was testing a vegetable-based patty, coming soon to a griddle near you. The McPlant burger, they’re calling it — a McOxymoron if ever I’ve heard one. And McDonald’s is late to the game. Burger King has been selling a meatless Impossible Whopper since 2019. Dunkin’ has been serving a Beyond Sausage Breakfast Sandwich for nearly as long.

几天前我浏览到一则新闻,提到麦当劳正在测试一种以植物为原料的人造肉饼,这种新型肉饼即将在你家附近的门店上市。他们管它叫“麦香蔬汉堡”(McPlant burger)——这真是闻所未闻的麦当劳式矛盾修饰法。而且麦当劳已经在这场竞争中落后于对手了。汉堡王(Berger King)从2019年起就在售卖一款无肉版的“不可能皇堡”(Impossible Whopper)。唐恩都乐(Dunkin’s)也差不多从同时起就在售卖一款“超越肉肠早餐三明治”(Beyond Sausage Breakfast Sandwich)。

Meanwhile, Bill Gates has been telling anyone who will sit still long enough to listen about his investment in a “pretty amazing” start-up that uses a protean protein made from an especially hardy fungus for meatless patties, meatless balls and vegan versions of various dairy products. Over the past weeks, he has plugged it on my Times colleague Kara Swisher’s “Sway” podcast and in Rolling Stone.

与此同时,比尔·盖茨(Bill Gates)也在不停告诉任何愿意坐下静听他倾诉的人,他投资了一家“相当惊人”的初创公司。该公司使用一种由高适应性真菌产生的变性蛋白质制作人造肉饼、人造肉丸,以及各种素食版本的乳制品。过去几周内,他已经在我《时代周刊》的同事卡拉·史伟莎(Kara Swisher)名为“影响”(Sway)的播客节目中,和《滚石》(Rolling Stone)杂志的访问中谈及这些。

On “60 Minutes” he ate yogurt made by the start-up, Nature’s Fynd, with Anderson Cooper, who raved, “Oh, this is good.”

而在“60分钟”(60 Minutes)节目中,他与安德森·库珀(Anderson Cooper)一起品尝了由这家名为“自然真选”(Nature’s Fynd)的初创公司制造的酸奶。后者给予这种酸奶热烈的赞美:“哦,这真好吃。”

This is the future: not a meatless one — not anytime soon — but one with less meat. I’m now sure of that. It’s the inevitable consequence of alarm over climate change, to which livestock farming contributes significantly. (Gates’s meatless musings were in the context of his new book, “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster.”)

这就是我们的未来了:倒不会无肉可吃——至少短期内不会——但一定会吃更少的肉类。我对这一点置信无疑。这是警惕气候变化引起的必然连锁反应,而畜牧业正是引起气候变化的罪魁祸首之一。(盖茨的无肉化推进想法正是在他的新书《如何避免气候灾难》[How to Avoid a Climate Disaster]所描述的背景下产生的。)

It’s the moral of the McPlant. It’s also the takeaway from Nature’s Fynd, whose story is not just a parable of innovation and imagination but also a glimpse into the ever more muscular push for alternative protein sources and the fleetly growing market for them.


In the relatively brief span of time since Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat introduced their now-ubiquitous burger alternatives, a meatless gold rush was born. “Private investment, public investment, researchers working in this space, start-up companies, announcements from established meat companies launching alternative protein initiatives: All of these were essentially flat until about four or five years ago,” said Liz Specht, the director of science and technology for the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that promotes meat alternatives. “And then we saw a classic hockey-stick up-swerve.”

从“不可能食品”(Impossible Foods)和“超越肉类公司”(Beyond Meat)推出现在已经无处不在的汉堡肉替代品后,短短时间内,一场人造肉的淘金热已经被掀起。“私募投资,政府投资,该领域内的研究学者们,初创公司们,市面上的肉类公司宣布的替代性蛋白质开发计划:所有这些在四五年前都发展平平,”一家推广肉类替代品的非营利性组织“好食品研究院”(Good Food Institute)的科研总监莉兹·施佩希特(Liz Specht)说道。“紧接着我们就看到了经典的冰球杆形急转上升。”

The swerve is happening along three main tracks, united by their elimination of the killing of livestock — and of livestock’s big carbon footprint — from the culinary equation.


One track, represented by Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, focuses on the refinement of plant-based products that get better and better at providing the pleasures of meat. Agriculture and its strains on Mother Earth remain central.


That’s not so with the track of what Specht calls “cultivated meats,” or meat essentially grown from the stem cells of animals. For now, though, this is an expensive and uncertain proposition.


Nature’s Fynd, which has attracted almost $160 million in funding, belongs to the third track: fermentation-derived proteins made from microorganisms, like fungi, that can be coaxed in a meaty, cheesy, creamy or milky direction. This track is arguably the most exciting — in terms of affordability, versatility, environmental gentleness and untapped possibility. There are microbes out there just waiting to feed us.


The one that Nature’s Fynd turned into its trademark protein, which it calls Fy, came from Yellowstone National Park of all places. Did you know that the park is a geological and ecological outlier, an extreme environment that’s home to herculean organisms whose ability to survive there suggests a potency deployable in any number of ways? Me neither.


But Mark Kozubal, a Montana scientist and outdoorsman, was up to speed and, more than a decade ago, was investigating the park’s hot springs and other waters for an “extremophile” that might be a useful biofuel. He came across an unclassified fungus that instead had culinary potential.

但来自蒙大拿州的科学家和探险家马克·科祖巴尔(Mark Kozubal)却对这些了如指掌。他从十多年前开始就在调查公园内的温泉和其他水体,寻找一种可能成为生物燃料的“极端微生物”。结果倒是找到了一些当时尚未被分类的、具有食用潜力的真菌。

It has since been named Fusarium strain flavolapis. (Flavo lapis is Latin for yellow stone.) Nature’s Fynd got commercial rights to it from the federal government through a benefits-sharing agreement; the company supports continued research for the park. Kozubal is now the chief science officer for the company.

从那时起这种真菌就被命名为黄石镰刀菌株(Fusarium strain flavolapis)——Flavo lapis是“黄石”的拉丁文。自然真选通过一项利益共享协议从联邦政府那里获得了它的商业使用权。这家公司将出资支持对黄石公园的持续性研究。科祖巴尔现在是该公司的首席科学家。

When the fungus is grown via a fermentation process patented by Nature’s Fynd, it produces rectangular slabs of Fy that look sort of like thick, gargantuan lasagna noodles. Fy can then be pulverized and watered down for soft or liquid foods, or it can be sculpted into nuggets, patties, balls and more.


“It’s got the texture that we want and the protein content that we want, but it’s a blank canvas that we can then give to food scientists and chefs to build into the products,” Kozubal told me. And it’s produced on racks of stacked trays — in a warehouse in the Chicago meatpacking district, as it happens — using much less space and water than traditional agriculture demands.


Last month, Nature’s Fynd unveiled a direct-order breakfast combo of faux-sausage patties and a mock cream cheese for $14.99 and quickly sold out. It’s restocking and expects to have those products plus others — maybe the yogurt, maybe meatballs — on store shelves later this year. If all goes well, it will expand from there. A burger can’t be too far off.


“There’s tremendous potential here,” Specht told me, referring to fermentation-derived proteins. She added that while they’ve been around awhile — a British company, Quorn, has been making them for decades — they seem to be taking off only now. For example, the companies Meati Foods, Mycorena and Prime Roots are all developing or selling products along these lines.

“这里潜力巨大。”施佩希特提到发酵衍生类蛋白质的时候这样告诉我。她还补充道,尽管它们实际上已经问世有一段时间了——一家英国公司库恩(Quorn)已经生产这类产品好几十年了——但这个领域的起飞才刚刚开始。举例来说,Meati Foods、Mycorena和Prime Roots都在研发或售卖这个领域的产品。

But given the long love affair that many humans, including this one, have had with animal meat, is there really a chance that these substitutes can make all that much headway in the near future? Thomas Jonas, the chief executive of Nature’s Fynd, said that a conspicuous change in America’s beverage-scape suggests so.

但是考虑到许多人类(也包括我自己)对于来自动物肉类的长期热爱,这些替代品究竟是否能有机会在短期内取得长足进展呢?自然真选的首席执行官托马斯·乔纳斯(Thomas Jonas)说美国饮料市场占比的一个显著变化证明这是可能的。

“Ten or 15 years ago, if you were looking at soy milk or almond milk, you were looking at something that was considered to be for health stores and tree-huggers and hippies, right?” he said. Now, both take up considerable space in every supermarket I visit, and there’s nary a coffee shop without one or the other. Nobody, Jonas argued, would have predicted that.


Also, he said, there’s a discernible awakening of people’s consciousness of the degradation of the environment, our contribution to that and the impact of individual behavior on communal health.


The coronavirus may have accelerated that. When Nature’s Fynd did online surveys of American consumers before the pandemic and asked if they’d want to try foods like the ones it was making, about 50 percent said yes, Jonas told me. A few months into the pandemic, that number rose to 66 percent.


But receptiveness to fermentation-derived proteins is one thing. Routine consumption of them is another — and will hinge primarily on how they taste. I asked Jonas for samples. He sent me the Nature’s Fynd versions of cream cheese, cocktail meatballs, sausage patties and chocolate mousse.


All but the cream cheese impressed me, not so much because they were ringers for the real thing but because they had ample flavor and appeal on their own. Eating them, I felt I was doing good without sacrificing all that much.


That’s an attractive calculus that’s steering some Subway customers to the Beyond Meatball Marinara sandwich and some White Castle visitors to an Impossible Slider. It will point the way toward a new Ben & Jerry’s nondairy frozen dessert called Colin Kaepernick’s Change the Whirled and toward a growing array of vegan seafood alternatives.

这样的考虑正在吸引一些赛百味(Subway)的顾客去吃“超越肉丸红酱三明治”,也让一些白城堡(White Castle)快餐店的常客选择了在这里售卖的“不可能三明治”(Impossible Slider)。它也指引班杰利(Ben & Jerry’s)甜品店推出一款以科林·卡佩尼克(Colin Kaepernick)命名的“改变旋风冰淇淋”(Change the Whirled)非乳制冷冻甜品,以及越来越多的素食海鲜替代产品的面世。

And it will tug me further and further from my darling hamburger. I don’t imagine that our juicy, saucy romance will ever end entirely. But a bit of the thrill is gone.


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