Patrick Brown, MD, Ph.D., who worked for years in a lab at Stanford Univ. as a biochemist, took an 18-month sabbatical in 2009. After contemplating his career path – which resulted in his hatching a preliminary business plan and raising about $9 million from one of the many Silicon Valley venture capital firms – Brown founded Impossible Foods in 2011. Brown’s vision isn’t to create an alternative to animal-based food, it is to replace it. He and many of the company’s employees frequently reference the challenge of feeding a global population projected to top 10 billion by 2050 by using the traditional, livestock-based system of producing protein.
Not completely surprising, Brown is a longtime vegetarian and a committed distance runner. His vision for the company isn’t unlike the approach of a seasoned runner at the starting line of a marathon. Knowing the challenges facing the food industry in the coming years, Brown is systematically and methodically building momentum at Impossible Foods and his steady pace is calculated using the year of 2035 as a goal, and replacing meat with plant-based proteins as the finishing medal.
This past December, officials from Impossible Foods opened the doors wide to provide a transparent tour of its Redwood City, California, headquarters, where it houses its offices, a state-of-the-art food lab (where cameras are prohibited) and a test kitchen, where scientists and researchers from all over the world collaborate on not only the Impossible Burger, but also on developing other plant-based versions of pork, chicken, seafood and dairy products. The headquarters is about 35 miles south of the company’s recently opened production plant in Oakland, where wannabe meat patties are churned out in a matter not unlike the company’s animal-based counterparts, minus the slaughtering of any cattle. During the open house, a cozy room full of media members watched as Brown’s team demonstrated and explained on a tabletop scale, the process and technology behind creating its Impossible Burger. A cooking demonstration followed as did a tasting of the burgers, all while the history of the company, its mission and the vision of its founder was espoused by a laid back, hoodie-clad Brown, eager members of his team, as well as his key executives.
Rebekah Moses is sustainability and agriculture manager at Impossible Foods. Her focus is assessing Impossible’s environmental impact and sustainability strategy and comparing it with the traditional system used by the livestock-based industry. She also works on commercialization at the field level on the company’s new protein feedstocks. With a background in agriculture ecology, Moses’ experience includes conducting research focused on plants, birds, bugs and working with farmers for about seven years before joining Impossible over a year ago. She points out how, while working toward a master’s at UC Davis, she worked at a research ranch owned by the university where organic agriculture was the focus. During her time there she was exposed to the university’s production of grass-fed cattle. That exposure to the raising and grazing side of the beef industry left her with one takeaway: “This is not a system that lends itself to expansion very well at all,” she says. And that’s when she heard about the pursuits of Impossible Foods, and Brown’s search for scalable alternatives in the food system for delivering meat and dairy products. “That was exactly what Pat was thinking six or seven years ago when he founded this company,” Moses says.
During the open-house event, Holz-Schietinger explained the benefits of the product and ultimately demonstrates the formulation process with a few ingredients and a mixing bowl and blends them with a spatula. She prefaces her demo by saying the goal of the creation of an alternative burger was not always solely about the sustainability factor that Moses discussed earlier. “There are also some negative safety concerns including dirty slaughter houses, cholesterol and antibiotics,” she says. “So can we as scientists remove all of those inefficiencies?” Holz-Schietinger asks rhetorically. The scientific goal was to create a food similar to that produced from a cow while eliminating the inefficient part of the process of converting a diet of plants and go directly to the source: the plants.
“Our first product is the Impossible Burger – this is just one of our many products to come; we are really wanting to replace the entire animal industry with delicious, sustainable, nutritional products that we can all eat.”
The burger’s distinguishing, ingredient that gives the burger its bleeding attribute is leghemoglobin, also known as heme. “Heme is what we identified creates the flavors in meat,” Holz-Schietinger says. In its raw form, heme tastes metallic, like blood. “This is like hemoglobin. It is found in soybeans; the molecule of heme is identical to the myoglobin that is in a cow that makes that metallic flavor and the same as the myoglobin that is in your blood. Heme is essential for all forms of life in plants and animals. What we discovered is it creates the flavor, in raw and cooked product,” she adds.
During the cooking process, heme is mixed in and reacts with the ingredients, including amino acids, sugars and vitamins. “It creates the meaty aromas. Those carmelized, roasted, kind of char notes and beefy flavor are created from the heme protein.” She says the three proteins provide the beef texture and mouthfeel and the heme creates the “metallic, bloody meatiness.” Not unlike animal-based meat’s naturally occurring collagen, micro-amounts of carbohydrates are added as a binding agent as part of the formulation, including Konjac Gum (a Japanese ingredient) and Xanthan Gum, produced by fermentation. These attributes allow the “raw” product to be formed for multiple products, from meatballs to burgers to meatloaf.
Read the rest of this report, including a Q&A with Impossible Foods’ executives in the April issue of MEAT+POULTRY.