The untold truth of Impossible Foods

It might seem like the vegetarian and vegan movements have been gaining traction in recent years, but a Gallup poll from 2018 suggests differently. They found that only about 5 percent of Americans identify as vegetarian and 3 percent as vegan. That means the numbers of vegetarians have remained fairly consistent since 2012, and vegans have gained only a single percentage point.

But at the same time, sales of plant-based foods are on the rise, and that's implying people are open to substituting more vegetarian products without giving up on meat completely. And that means it's the perfect time for Impossible Foods to enter the market.

According to Time, Impossible Foods founder Dr. Patrick Brown has been experimenting with the idea since 2011. There have been a few different versions of the Impossible Burger since then, but given that they went international in 2018 (first heading to Hong Kong) and more and more fast food chains are adding these plant-based burgers to their menu, it's safe to say that they're a big hit. But what's the real story behind these faux beef burgers?

The team that made it happen

Impossible Foods wasn't founded by a chef or a revolutionary foodie, it was founded by a biochemist named Patrick Brown. He was working at Stanford University before he decided to start his company, and according to Nature, he didn't recruit chefs or foodies, either. He assembled a team of scientists of all sorts, who took a different approach to building the perfect veggie burger: They were engineering their burgers starting from the molecular level.

Brown told Time that they started with a question that was a little bit different from the norm. Instead of telling everyone why they needed to become vegetarian, they wanted to make a burger that just tasted better than a beef burger, and let people make their own choices. Brilliant, right?

So, they started with the things that make a burger delicious: texture, flavor, that sizzle when it's cooking on the grill. They wanted to find a way to recreate that with plant-based materials, and decided to do it with some scientific research into what makes beef burgers so good. The Impossible Foods team introduced themselves on Medium, and you'll find a biochemist with specialties in yeast genetics, a nutritionist, a small molecule chemist, a specialist in biological macromolecules… you get the idea. They're scientists rather than chefs, and they're engineering the perfect burger. Or, at least trying to.

The molecule that makes all the difference

Founder Patrick Brown says (via Medium) that they spent around six years studying meat on a molecular level to figure out how it "works," and how it all comes together to create something humans have been craving since we discovered hunting and fire. They found that there's one single molecule that's responsible for making meat taste so gosh darn good, and it's called heme.

And you're full of it right now — in fact, Brown says that in your body, you have the same amount of heme as you'd find in about 300 Impossible Burgers. Heme is a protein in hemoglobin, which is the stuff that carries oxygen through your bloodstream. It also helps in the process of turning calories into energy, and that means there's a lot of it in animal tissues. When those tissues are turned into food, it's heme that gives meat that distinctive flavor you can only describe as "meaty." You know the one.

Heme is present in plants, too, and there are all different kinds. They tested different types of plant-based heme until they found one that was very, very similar to animal-based heme, and settled on a protein extracted from the roots of legumes. Then, it was just finding a way to extract heme from plants, put it into their veggie burger, and presto! A meaty-tasting veggie burger!

The science behind the burger

Let's face it, most veggie burgers are super disappointing. They just don't have that same firm texture that a beef burger does, and they definitely don't have that same meaty taste. So, where does this heme come in and how to we get a veggie version of it?

Wired took a look at the science behind the heme, and it's complicated. Basically, soy roots contain a version of heme that has a similar molecular structure to the heme that's in animal tissue. Soy doesn't have nearly as much of it, though, so the scientific geniuses at Impossible Foods found a way to take the genetic codes from soy-based heme and insert it into a variety of yeast. They then feed the yeast to get it to multiply, and voila: heme on a grand scale, without the environmental impacts of raising fields and fields of either soy or cows.

That's only half the story, though. In order to get the rest of the puzzle pieces, they cooked real beef and exposed it to something called a gas chromatography mass spectrometry system. That isolated each and every molecule and compound present that created the smells of that cooking beef, and gave them the structure of the burger they needed to put the heme into to make sure the Impossible Burger also had that "meaty" aroma.

The debates about its safety aren't over

When it comes to food that comes out of a lab, Time asked Brown about just what kind of hurdles they're facing and whether or not the widespread resistance to engineered food is a problem. Brown pointed out that throughout human history, people have had to discover what's good to eat, what's bad, and that's pretty much what they're doing now — just in a lab. But there have been some major debates about whether or not Impossible Burgers are safe.

Bloomberg reported that the FDA has spent years going over the materials supplied by Impossible Foods, and in 2018 they reaffirmed their findings that the cooked burger is GRAS, or Generally Recognized as Safe. But that wasn't even the end of it. Since heme lends a red color to the burger, they were now required to formally register it as a color additive, adding just one more layer to the approval process. And that's all a big deal, as it has to be approved before raw burgers can hit grocery store shelves.

But, is it safe? Impossible Foods, the FDA, and an expert panel have produced a 1,000-page petition exploring everything from potential allergens to the safety of individual proteins and everyone's agreed that yes, it's safe. Still, registering heme as a color additive may open the product up to more questions, more tests, and more opposition. 

What was the goal behind the project?

When Time interviewed Patrick Brown about the project, they asked him if he was building a business or trying to save the world, and the answer? "Well, it's both."

The first driving force behind the company was to change just how many animals we need to raise solely to put into the food chain. The impact the meat and dairy industries have on the environment is bordering on catastrophic, responsible for a huge amount of greenhouse gases, taking up an unthinkable amount of land, and causing the extinction of wildlife by pushing them out of their native habitats. The goal of Impossible Foods was to help change that, and along the way, they figured out that if they can get the company to take off, they can do much, much more.

"If Impossible Foods is successful, we solve the world's biggest environmental problem, solve food security problems, and even reduce conflicts, most of which start over land and water… when we've achieved sufficient scale, we should be able to produce meats that are not only more delicious but more affordable. This will have a huge impact, particularly in places where protein, malnutrition, and iron deficiencies are common."

It might seem like those are unbelievably lofty goals, but Impossible Foods has gotten the backing of financiers like Bill Gates, the Open Philanthropy Project, Google Ventures, and investment firms in Shanghai and Hong Kong (via Food Business News).

How sustainable is it, really?

So, Impossible Foods has the goal of creating ultra-sustainable, environmentally friendly meat alternatives. How are they doing?

They hired Quantis — a firm that studies corporations and organizations to determine their environmental sustainability — to take a look at their environmental impact compared to beef production. First, we'll share this metric: beef accounts for about 3 percent of our caloric intake, but it's responsible for about half of all agricultural greenhouse gases and nearly half of the world's land use. That's pretty insane.

In comparison, they found that per kilogram of ready-to-ship Impossible Burger, this new meat alternative used 87 percent less water, 96 percent less land, produced 89 percent less greenhouse gases, and resulted in 92 percent less water pollutants.

And there's a lot of little things hidden in there. There are no manure emissions, there's a major reduction in energy usage (which mainly comes from slaughterhouses when you're talking about the meat industry), and you're not only looking at getting rid of the environmental impacts of the cattle themselves, but from growing the crops you need to feed them with. So yes — it's super sustainable, and that's good news.

The good news, nutritionally speaking

The Impossible Burger might be good for the planet, but is it good for you? According to Healthline, there's actually a lot of good stuff in that faux-beef burger.

The basic ingredients include soy protein, sunflower oil, yeast extract, potato protein, and a whole bunch of vitamins and nutrients. And strangely, when you look at the nutritional information charts, Impossible Burgers look pretty similar to a 90 percent lean beef burger. Both patties contain 240 calories, around the same amount of fat (14 grams for the Impossible Burger, 13 for the beef burger), and have roughly the same percentage of nutrients like zinc and niacin.

Impossible Burgers are lower in protein but higher in fiber, and they're also higher in vital nutrients like vitamin B12, thiamine, and iron. Those are all important for a few reasons, particularly the iron. It's not just regular iron, it's heme iron — and heme iron is more readily absorbed by the body. Plus, for those vegetarians and vegans that opt to add the Impossible Burger into their diet, they're getting an extra dose of vitamins that are missing from many vegetarian diets. Still, it's important to note that many of those extra nutrients are added to the impossible, whereas they're naturally occuring in beef — just in lower quantities.

The bad news, nutritionally speaking

Healthline says there's still the potential for down sides to the Impossible Burger, and part of those possible negatives simply comes from the fact that it — and plant-based heme in particular — hasn't really been studied in-depth, and long-term effects of it are still unknown.

There's also been concerns over potential allergic reactions. The Impossible Burger is gluten-free, but allergies to soy is still one of the eight most common food allergies found in both children and adults.

Experts also say that there are healthier alternatives when it comes to veggie burgers, and point out that the Impossible Burger is high in sodium and contains added preservatives, fillers, and flavorings that are all designed to help mimic the taste and texture of real beef. Should you be concerned? The FDA says no, but if you or anyone in your family has a sensitivity to soy, you should absolutely avoid this one.

What about all the horror stories we've heard about soy?

Check out the ingredient list of the Impossible Burger and you'll find that the second ingredient (after water) is soy protein concentrate. Aside from the potential for allergens (which is pretty much a dealbreaker if you have them), there's been a ton of debate over just how healthy or unhealthy soy can be. So what's the current science say?

Men's Health looked into the issue, and the experts they talked to suggested that many of the claims that soy does all sorts of horrible things like disrupting hormones have been vastly blown out of proportion by the media. According to Healthline, studies have linked soy to lower cholesterol, improved fertility, and a reduction in the symptoms of menopause.

When it comes to the rumored bad stuff — negatively impacting thyroid function, hormone levels, and raising the risk of certain types of cancers — they stress that studies have been inconclusive, and there's no real, concrete links to any of these negative side effects.

Is it really that good?

So, here's the elephant in the room: does the Impossible Burger live up to the hype, and does it really taste like beef? Apparently, that depends.

CNET reporter and decade-long vegetarian Joan E. Solsman said the plant-based meat was so much like real meat that it grossed her out to the point where she just couldn't bring herself to eat more than a few bites, saying, "That's also a compliment. I think."

Digital Trends called the recently redesigned Impossible Burger "the most impressive thing on display at CES 2019", and that's a huge compliment, too. They said the company had finally gotten everything right, from the taste and texture to the smell — all the key ingredients.

New York's Grub Street was slightly less thrilled… but only slightly. They said that not only did the burger look like the real thing, but it didn't have any of that crumbly texture so many veggie burgers have. They stressed, though, that while most meat-eaters would still definitely be able to tell the difference between the two in a blind taste test, they would still highly recommend giving one a try.

Versions 1.0 vs. 2.0

The version that's been rolled out in 2019 is actually the second official recipe: the Impossible Burger 2.0. New York's Grub Street tasted both the 2.0 and the original Impossible Burger, and said there was a definite, all-around improvement and the new version was definitely more meaty — in spite of the fact that it didn't seem to "bleed" as much as the first version. So, what's the actual difference?

It's all down to that heme, says Popular Science. In order to be used, heme has to be bound to a protein. The original Impossible Burger used wheat protein, but there were a few problems. The biggest? Texture and gluten.

The original Impossible Burger couldn't be shaped into serving sizes like meatballs without crumbling. Meat doesn't crumble, so that put a bit of a hitch in any plans to use Impossible meat for anything super creative in the kitchen. The wheat-based protein also meant that it wasn't gluten free, and both of those problems were solved when they overhauled the recipe to use soy protein.

So, will there be a Version 3.0? Brown says it's highly likely, and one of the big changes they're hoping to bring to the table is making it even more affordable.

Where you can try one

Now, the really important stuff: where can you get one?

White Castle was among the first to announce they were taking their Impossible Burger sliders nationwide. That big reveal came in September 2018 (via CNBC), after an initial trial run in 140 locations. CEO Lisa Ingram said, in part, "Sales easily exceeded our expectations."

And in April 2019, two big fast food chains announced they were going to be adding Impossible burgers to their menu, too. The Impossible Whopper was going to slowly be added to Burger King's Whopper family location by location, and by the end of the calendar year they were planning on having them available at every BK nationwide (via Vox).

Whoppers aren't your thing? Qdoba announced they were going to be rolling out Impossible meat proteins slowly. After a successful test run in Michigan, it was going to go farther: Denver, Los Angeles, and Brooklyn were going to be the next markets to get it. Don't worry if you don't live there — Qdoba promised (via QSR Magazine) that all other stores would get them soon after. And don't worry, Impossible Foods isn't going to stop there. A quick glance at their Facebook page shows that there's a ton of restaurants getting on board with the movement and creating their own signature Impossible Burgers. Is it a fad, or are they here to stay? Only time will tell.