While it may be a technological feat to develop a non-meat, plant-based product that tastes, smells, and sizzles like meat — and is primarily targeted toward meat lovers — the question is Why? Why is a non-meat option needed for, or attractive to, those who like to eat meat?
The answer, according to Impossible Foods President Dennis Woodside, is two-fold:
Historically, meat has been the foundation of mealtimes for humans. But research by organizations such as the American Heart Association (AHA) has shown that reducing red meat consumption can lower cholesterol and reduce the chance of heart disease and cancer. But even the AHA allows for the consumption of some meat ... it just advocates for lean meat and less meat overall.
Similarly, Impossible Foods understands both the importance of meat in our meals and the need for healthier diets, but it takes a different approach to reducing meat consumption. As stated on its website: “Some of our most magical moments together happen around meat: Weekend barbecues. Midnight fast-food runs. Taco Tuesdays. Hot dogs at the ballpark. Those moments are special, and we never want them to end. But using animals to make meat is a prehistoric and destructive technology. ... So we’re doing something about it: we’re making meat using plants, so that we never have to use animals again. That way, we can eat all the meat we want, for as long as we want.”
“People have evolved to crave a meat-like taste,” Woodside said. “And we can manufacture that.” But Impossible’s manufacturing of “meat using plants” brings a new technology to the field that enables it to replicate meat in a way that others haven’t. That is, its use of soy leghemoglobin or “heme.”
WHAT IS HEME? Heme (soy leghemoglobin) is an essential, iron-containing molecule found in every living plant and animal; it also is what makes meat taste like meat. And it is for just that reason that heme is the not-so-secret (though proprietary) ingredient of Impossible Foods’ plant-based “meats.”
As Impossible Foods Founder Pat Brown states in a company video, “The amazing thing about heme, besides doing all that sort of stuff that enables life to exist on earth, is that it’s also what makes meat delicious.” In fact, the Impossible team was the first to discover that heme is what makes meat taste like meat. Abundant in animal muscle tissue, heme is the bloody flavor in raw meat, and it is what activates the flavor, aroma, and sizzle as it is cooked. As such, Brown said, “The craving for meat is really a craving for heme and the iron and protein that it represents in the diet.”
Although heme is a universal molecule, the scalability of its natural use is limited. So Impossible developed a method of extracting the DNA from the root nodules of soy plants, inserting it into genetically engineered yeast, and fermenting the yeast. The resulting technology enables production of a “meaty” product at a more scalable and sustainable rate than could be achieved through the use of natural heme alone.
It is the product’s meatiness that is the very foundation of Impossible Foods mission: “to manufacture meat made from plants for people who love to eat meat,” for which, according to a 2019 NPD Group report, there is an extensive market: 95% of consumers who bought plant-based burgers had also purchased ground beef within the year.
It is precisely because of this percentage that, Woodside said, “We’re trying to replicate the entire experience: the sizzle, the smoke.... It looks like a burger, acts like a burger, tastes like a burger. Most vegetable-based products can’t do that; they don’t have heme,” he said, adding, “I don’t think there’s any other way to replicate meat or burgers like that — no one thus far has been able to do that.”
Although only five percent of the population is vegan, more and more people are becoming “flexitarians,” that is, adding meat-alternative products in place of meat for at least some of their meals — with more and more of them choosing Impossible Foods. According to Impossible’s research, “The number one reason they try it the first time is because a friend tried it and loved the taste,” Woodside said. The second time is because they love the taste and they are seeing the impact of meat on the environment or are not comfortable with the treatment of animals.
Impossible has put its sustainability to the test. Working with a third-party research group, it carried out a lifecycle assessment. The assessment showed the environmental impacts of an Impossible Burger to be significantly lower than that of ground beef with 87% less water use, 96% less land use, 89% fewer GHG emissions, and 92% less dead zone-creating nutrient pollution than ground beef from cows. But while a primary mission of Impossible is reducing the use of animals for food, social responsibility alone does not sell a product. “If we don’t compete on taste, we don’t have a business,” Woodside said. “So, we try to be as close to meat as possible.”
THE IMPOSSIBLE WHOPPER. Coming that close seems to be working for the company. Not only did its Oakland plant go to round-the-clock production earlier this year to remedy an Impossible Burger shortage caused by a surge in demand, but demand continues to be so extensive that Impossible has contracted with global food processor, OSI Group, to co-manufacturer the burgers. Demand has been so strong, in fact, that Burger King rolled out the Impossible Whopper nationally in early August, and White Castle nationally debuted the Impossible Slider in mid-September.
Both fast-food restaurants initially introduced the patties through regional tests last spring: Burger King tested the Whopper in St. Louis, Mo., then expanded to Impossible’s home city of San Francisco and other sites; White Castle’s test sliders were introduced in New York, New Jersey, and Chicago. Impossible also has been working with Little Ceasar’s Pizza to test sausage and with Qdoba on bowls and tacos, and it provides its burger to numerous mid- and upscale restaurants. The company had been distributing only to foodservice, but with the recent FDA GRAS approval of heme as a color additive (see FDA Approved, page 18) Impossible is now sanctioned to begin retail sales as well. The partnership with OSI will be particularly important for that, as it doubles the Oakland production, with a four-fold increase planned by year end, Woodside said.
Like that of many plant-based meat companies, Impossible was founded with the goal of replacing traditional meat products — which may be the very reason that a number of major meat manufacturers are joining the movement, partnering with plant-based companies or developing their own. “They recognize that there is a demand,” Woodside said. “The market will follow the consumer, so the meat industry will have to adapt and be innovative.”
95% of consumers who bought plant-based burgers had also purchased ground beef within the year.
IMPOSSIBLE PRODUCTION. Whether produced in Oakland or at OSI, Impossible products follow a proprietary process and ingredient combination. For the Impossible Burger, these include water, soy protein concentrate, coconut oil, sunflower oil, and natural flavors, along with 2% or less of other ingredients, including the soy leghemoglobin, and vitamins.
It starts with liquid ingredients run through clean-in-place (CIP) equipment, which it has been replacing with new, more efficient equipment. The new equipment enables adjustable time, flow, temperature, and cleaning-chemical levels, along with CIP output recapture, which is filtered, and the clean water reused. Company projections show that it will save more water than is discarded at a ratio of 3:2, and will recover cleaning chemicals over discarded cleaning chemicals at a rate of 3:1.
The liquids and fermented heme are then added to the solid ingredients in a mixer, which, because of the heme, results in a mixture that looks and smells like raw ground beef. The mixture is then formed into bricks, patties or sliders to Impossible or customer specifications. The plant was running Burger King Impossible Whoppers during our visit, which look (and, I found, taste) just like traditional Whoppers. Running on the two lines of the Oakland plant, the formed product is conveyed directly into a tunnel freezer. For both food safety and quality, the room is maintained at 38°F, but it can feel even colder because of the frosted freezer.
Once the patties are frozen, they go through a final visual quality check before packaging to inspect for any foreign material, out-of-spec product, etc.
To ensure food safety within the plant, all employees are trained in GMPs and HACCP, and all have gone through food defense training; all QA managers are PCQI and HACCP certified; and all managers are HACCP certified.
In comparison with beef burgers, said Plant Manager Aaron Risenmay, “We have much more control over what’s coming in. We have highly controlled ingredient tests and are very confident of our processes.”
In general, plant-based meats have fewer food safety concerns than traditional meats. But one of the greatest is that of consumer handling once the products are out of the purview of Impossible, said Food Safety and Quality Director Fuqi Liu. Like cooking standards for ground beef, Impossible recommends that its burgers be cooked to 160°F, but they also can be served rare more safely than ground beef, Liu said.
Despite having fewer challenges than traditional meats, food safety and quality are especially critical in a new product, Risenmay said. “Anytime you’re launching a new product, you don’t want any perceived risk. So our number one priority is not the greatest output or production, it is never having a quality or safety concern.” As such, he said, “I am given carte blanche for any food safety needs.”
A TECHNOLOGY APPROACH. While it has long been known that heme is present and a source of protein in all living things, Woodside said, “What was not understood was how you can scale up production of heme. It was Pat (Brown) and his team that developed that. No one else does that.” And no one else is likely to do it in the near future, as Impossible has intellectual property protection on the application of heme in a food product.
Even with the increased scalability of manufactured heme, this remains one of the company’s greatest challenges. Senior Vice President of Product & Operations Sheetal Shah works closely with R&D and innovation — to which Impossible has an “unwavering commitment.” A key question addressed is: “How do we take these products and scale them in different ways to address volume and food safety and food quality as we scale up?” Shah said. “We talk about it; we obsess about it; we continue to raise the bar technologically.”
Many of Impossible’s executives come from a technology background, Thus, Woodside said, “We take a technology company approach to food.” This is evident in its 2019 introduction of Impossible Burger “2.0” which improved on the burger’s taste and handling, has 30% less sodium and 40% less saturated fat than the original recipe, and has as much protein as 80/20 ground beef. Because Impossible focuses on continuous improvement, Woodside added, “3.0 is in the works.”