New Vegan Impossible Burger Looks to Rival Beef

Danielle Dent-Breen's picture
Vegan Impossible Burger

Last week, Silicon Valley-based Start-up, Impossible Foods closed a $75 million dollar funding investment, after having achieved key milestones, including patenting the technology needed to use leghemoglobin in plant-based meat alternatives.

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The new plant protein

Impossible Foods has released their flagship product, called the Impossible Burger, to a handful of chefs in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Texas. It is now available in more than 40 restaurants, and gaining rave reviews from the early testers. Production is limited at this time, but the company has plans to launch a production facility in Oakland, California later this fall which will allow them to make 1.4 million pounds of plant-based “meat” a month, up from their current 8,000 pound per month. If all goes according to plan, the company plans to expand their market to sell across the United States “including at some point in grocery stores, and overseas as we ramp up our production capacity,” Impossible Foods said.

What makes the Impossible Burger so unique?

Impossible Foods makes meat directly from plants — with a much smaller environmental footprint than meat from animals. The company uses modern science and technology to create wholesome food, restore natural ecosystems and feed a growing population sustainably.

The Impossible Burger is the brainchild of former Stanford biochemist Patrick Brown,, M.D., Ph.D. and his research team. Brown is known for co-founding the open-access journal the Public Library of Science (PLOS) and for inventing the DNA microarray, a chip that can measure what genes are active within a genome.

The Impossible Burger is made through a simple combination of plant-based ingredients. A key ingredient is “soy leghemoglobin.” Soy leghemoglobin is a protein that carries “heme,” an iron-containing molecule that occurs naturally in every animal and plant.

Heme is an essential molecular building block of life, one of nature’s most ubiquitous molecules. It is most familiar as the molecule that carries oxygen in your blood. Heme is super abundant in animal muscle. It’s the abundance of heme that gives meat its unique taste and aroma. The greater the concentration of heme, the more “meaty” the meat tastes, according to Impossible Foods. But heme is also found in legumes, including peas, lentils, peanuts, and soybeans.

To satisfy the global demand for meat at a fraction of the environmental impact, Impossible Foods discovered a scalable, affordable way to make heme without animals. The company has spent over five years perfecting the method for using fermentation to produce a heme protein from the roots of soybean plants, called soy leghemoglobin. Impossible Foods decided to develop the heme through fermentation as a more environmentally-friendly production method, minimizing the environmental impact and footprint from traditional direct harvesting of soybeans.

The heme in the Impossible Burger is identical to the heme humans have been consuming for hundreds of thousands of years in meat — and while it delivers all the craveable depth of beef, it uses far fewer resources. The Impossible Burger uses about 75% less water, generates about 87% fewer greenhouse gases and requires around 95% less land than conventional ground beef from cows. It's produced without hormones, antibiotics, cholesterol or artificial flavors than conventional ground beef from cows. It’s produced without hormones, antibiotics, cholesterol, or artificial flavors. And most importantly, the Impossible Burger is sourced 100% from plants, so it is cruelty-free. That’s really good news for the cows.

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100% Vegan Protein, medium rare?
The impossible burger contains only a few ingredients, including wheat protein for chewiness, coconut oil for fatty flavor, and potatoes to help the burger cook and brown like traditional meat, along with heme, sourced entirely from plants. A spokesperson from Impossible Foods confirmed to me personally that the burger is entirely 100% vegan, including the "natural flavors" listed in the ingredients list below.*

Full Ingredient List:
Water, Textured Wheat Protein, Coconut Oil, Potato Protein, Natural Flavors, 2% or less of: Leghemoglobin (soy), Yeast Extract, Salt, Soy Protein Isolate, Konjac Gum, Xanthan Gum, Thiamin (Vitamin B1), Zinc, Niacin, Vitamin B6, Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Vitamin B12.

The Impossible Burger looks, smells, and tastes like a burger made from ground beef. It even changes color from blood-red to brown, and even releases “blood” as it cooks, just like beef. In addition to providing color the heme in the Impossible Burger is a great source of iron.

In June, the US Patent and Trademark Office issued US Patent No. 9,700,067 covering Impossible Foods’ technology to use leghemoglobin in plant-based meat. The 200-person startup has more than 100 additional patents pending.
“Our scientists spent so much time and effort studying a single molecule — heme — because heme is what makes meat taste like meat,” said Brown. “It turns out that finding a sustainable way to make massive amounts of heme from plants is a critical step in solving the world’s greatest environmental threat.”

Is it safe?

In 2014, a panel of leading food safety experts gave the opinion that the Impossible Burger’s key ingredient, soy leghemoglobin, is “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS). GRAS means a food is safe to be consumed under US regulations.

Additional testing — including a stringent rat feeding study — provided even more objective, scientific data that the product is safe. That 2016 study examined whether consumption of soy leghemoglobin in amounts multiple times above normal dietary exposure would produce any adverse effects. There were none. And a comprehensive search of allergen databases found that soy leghemoglobin has a very low risk of allergenicity, and it’s shown no adverse effects in exhaustive testing.

The future of the food industry?

It’s no secret that the world population is growing at an alarming rate. As the economies and middle classes grow in countries with the highest population, such as China and India, the demand and desire for meat grows as well. Raising livestock is incredibly inefficient, using massive amounts of energy and land to produce meat. As the population continues to grow, supply will not be able to keep up with demand without incredible environmental impact. Many investors, including Bill Gates, who has heavily invested in Impossible Foods, believe that plant-based meat substitutes are going to at least partly cover that growing gap.

“In twenty years, we want to be producing more than half of the world’s supply of all of the foods we’re getting from animals,” Brown says. “We need to grow on that scale because the [environmental] problem we’re addressing is so urgent.”

All in all, Impossible Foods has raised more than $182 million in seed funding, and last year, the company declined a purchase offer from Google for $200 million to $300 million.

*This story was updated to reflect the fact that the ingredients list was personally verified to be 100% vegan, including the "natural flavors" listed in the ingredients list.

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