Inside an office at Impossible Foods’ Silicon Valley R&D center, a researcher holds up what looks like a bowl of blood and a spoon. “This is heme,” she says. It was made with a protein found in the roots of soybean plants, but it has the same slightly metallic taste and the aroma of blood. And it’s the innovation that has given the Impossible Burger its meteoric rise.
The plant-based burger–reverse-engineered to replicate the flavors and texture of beef–is now sold in more than 5,000 restaurants. The vast majority of its customers are meat eaters, not vegetarians. Next year, the company has just announced, its version of ground beef will be available in retail stores.
Celeste Holz-Schietinger, the company’s director of research and one of its first employees, demonstrates how a burger is made, pouring pressure-cooked wheat into a bowl, followed by potato protein that helps give the burger a similar chewiness as beef. Next, she mixes in the heme–fermented by yeast, to avoid the environmental impact of digging up mass quantities of soybean roots–and a white glob made partially from a Japanese yam, and coconut oil with the flavor removed. In a hot pan, the patty transforms like meat, turning from red to a grayish-brown.
The science behind the ingredients has taken years to develop, but the actual process of manufacturing the product is straightforward. “The ingredients are simpler than a cupcake,” says founder and CEO Pat Brown, who is wearing a T-shirt that says “Happy cows come from mad scientists.” That’s by design–Impossible wanted to be able to easily scale up with a process that could use existing manufacturing facilities. The company’s first factory is in a repurposed bakery in Oakland, California.
In 2009, Brown took a sabbatical from his job as a biochemistry professor at Stanford University and decided to shift to work on the problem of climate change. At first, he tried to raise awareness about the huge carbon footprint of meat and dairy, along with problems like the overuse of antibiotics on factory farms. But he realized that approach wouldn’t work. “I realized that the problem isn’t the foods that people love, it’s the way we’re making them,” he says. “Actually, there’s no scientific, technical reason why we ought not be able to make products that outperform what we get from animals.”
When the company launched seven years ago, they didn’t initially know what the first product would be. “We just said basically, okay, we have to figure out how to make the best meat in the world and we don’t know how to do that,” he says. “In order to be able to do that, we need to understand how meat works biochemically and in molecular terms, which is just not known.”
The current product is now realistic enough that some consumers mistake it for beef. But at the headquarters, the company is continuing to perfect it. In one lab, materials scientists study the texture of beef and variations on Impossible’s product. A spiky metal tool tests the chewiness, while another attachment tests squishiness. In another room, a mass spectrometer lists the compounds found in each sample, while researchers lean forward to a nose-shaped attachment to the machine and describe the aroma of each compound–grassy, for example, or sweet. In a molecular biology room, researchers are testing various yeasts to see which can produce heme most efficiently; they’ve tested around 1,000 so far.
The company first launched the burger with chefs two years ago, starting with David Chang, who is known for being so pro-meat that when a vegetarian complained about a non-vegetarian broth at Momufuku, he pulled all other vegetarian options from the menu and added pork to other dishes. The chef Michael Simon, who wrote the book Carnivore and has pig tattoos, started serving the Impossible burger at Midwestern burger joints. At Umami Burger, the Impossible burger now accounts for a third of the chain’s sales, even though it’s priced higher than beef. The product is now served as a slider at Whitecastle, at taco restaurants, and in dumplings in Hong Kong. It has roughly the same protein content as a piece of beef–20 grams in a three-ounce serving–and similar levels of iron.
“We knew when we launched that the biggest obstacle to building our brand is the very entrenched notion that plant-based burgers are unable to deliver the magic and the experience that meat lovers crave,” says Brown. “So we felt that launching with chefs whose reputation and livelihood depends on giving their consumers a great experience–and particularly with chefs who are considered particularly well-regarded for the meat that they serve–the fact that they want to put this on their menu and serve it as meat and put their reputation on the line in the process is like a priceless endorsement that this is not like any plant-based product that you’ve ever seen before.”
As the company’s manufacturing facility has scaled up enough to also begin supplying grocery stores, Brown is impatient for consumers to have the same experience cooking the patties. “When you cook meat, the meat transforms from something that’s relatively sort of mild bloody tasting to a completely different, much more intense flavor profile,” he says. “And during the process, a whole bunch of stuff happens. That texture changes, color changes, and, probably most importantly, you get this explosion of aroma that’s due to chemistry that happens during cooking.” That’s something that doesn’t happen the same way when you cook, say, broccoli or an old-school veggie burger. But it does happen with an Impossible Burger.
The goal is to convert meat lovers, not feed vegetarians, in order to help shrink beef’s outsize environmental footprint. Impossible wants to give customers the same experience as they would have with meat. “We know that meat lovers do not love the fact that their meat comes from an animal, essentially zero meat lovers, and we’ve done tons of research on this,” Brown says. “It’s just something that they’re willing to live with.” If the plant-based burger tastes exactly like meat, he argues, there’s no reason that they shouldn’t make the change.
The company isn’t considering making “cultured” or “clean” meat from animal cells, as other startups are exploring; in analyses of environmental impact, Brown believes that using plants as ingredients is still the best option. But the company’s basic platform, using the key ingredient of heme, can be adapted to any other type of meat, and, eventually, they say they’ll be able to mimic the texture of whole cuts of meat, like a steak.
“It is the mission of the company to completely replace animals and [the animal] food system by 2035, and we’re absolutely committed and serious about that,” says Brown. The biggest challenge, he says, will be scaling up. “Right now, our capacity corresponds to about a 10th of a percent of U.S. ground beef production.” To begin to replace more beef burgers–let alone other foods–it will need to grow radically as it tries to reinvent a major part of the food system.
“I won’t say it’s a guessing game, but this has never been done before,” he says. “What we’re doing, in many ways, there’s no map for it. So there’s all sorts of unknowns in every aspect of what we’re doing.”
Brown is convinced that the company’s goal of rapid, large-scale change is necessary. “If you ask anyone about the threat posed by both greenhouse gases and climate change, and the insane rate at which we are destroying wildlife habitat, irreplaceable ecosystems, biodiversity, and so forth, I think if we keep doing this for another 10 years, we’re basically just crapping on future generations. It’s going to be a complete disaster.”