Going veggie has never looked or tasted so meaty
With a much smaller environmental footprint than meat, plant-based diets are much better placed to feed a growing population sustainably. But most people really enjoy their meat. Now you may be able to have the best of both worlds.
Impossible Foods is making meat directly from plants. And its target market is not vegetarians, but meat eaters.
The company’s flagship product, 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.
The molecule was initially extracted from root nodules of soybeans, but this proved to be unviable on a commercial scale. Impossible Foods has instead genetically engineered yeast to produce heme, and now makes the molecule in vats.
Impossible Foods is no fly-by-night snake-oil company. The US Patent and Trademark Office has already issued US Patent No 9,700,067 covering Impossible Foods’ technology to use leghemoglobin in plant-based meat, and the 200-person start-up has more than 100 additional patents pending.
The privately held company was founded in 2011 by Patrick O Brown, MD, PhD, formerly a biochemistry professor and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at Stanford University. Investors including Temasek, Open Philanthropy Project, Khosla Ventures, Bill Gates, Google Ventures, Horizon Ventures, UBS and Viking Global Investors have already put US$180 million into the company and another US$75 million has just been pledged after the company announced significant milestones in intellectual property and food safety.
The Impossible Burger
The Impossible Burger is claimed to be the world’s only burger that looks, handles, smells, cooks and tastes like ground beef from cows but is made entirely from plants, with a much smaller environmental footprint than meat from animals.
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 flavours.
The product’s full ingredient list is: water, textured wheat protein, coconut oil, potato protein, natural flavours and 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) and vitamin B12.
In 2014, a panel of leading food safety experts gave the opinion that the Impossible Burger’s key ingredient, soy leghemoglobin, is “generally recognised 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 orders of magnitude above normal dietary exposure would produce any adverse effects. There were none. 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.
Making 454,000 kg of plant-sourced meat per month
Impossible Foods has launched its first large-scale production facility in Oakland, California, which when fully operational will be able to produce 454,000 kg of meat per month from plants.
The goal is to make enough Impossible Burgers to serve 4 million people per month within a year.
The Impossible Burger debuted in July 2016 in New York City at Momofuku Nishi, the restaurant of chef David Chang. In addition, it is available at acclaimed restaurants Jardinière and Cockscomb in San Francisco, as well as Crossroads Kitchen in Los Angeles. It is available in New York at the Michelin-starred restaurant PUBLIC and its sister bar, The Daily, and at meat-centric bistro Saxon + Parole.
Bareburger serves the Impossible Burger exclusively at its outlet near New York University’s campus, but as the facility ramps up, more outlets in the 43-unit Bareburger chain will be adding the Impossible Burger to their menus.
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