The burger – which debuted in July 2016 at Momofuku Nishi in New York and has since been introduced at a small number of restaurants in San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles – is the brainchild of Stanford biochemist and genomics expert Pat Brown, PhD, MD, who has described industrialized meat production as "the most destructive technology on Earth."
While VC funds and CPG companies are currently funneling cash into a range of more 'mindful' meat businesses, from proponents of regenerative agriculture such as EPIC Provisions to 'clean' (aka cultured) meat brands such as Memphis Meats and plant-based brands such as Beyond Meat, Dr Brown has attracted a jaw-dropping $182m from investors* that have historically targeted the tech industry.
And based on the response to the burgers to date, the Redwood-City, CA-based business is "very confident" that the big spending is justified, communications director Jessica Appelgren told FoodNavigator-USA.
"Now that our product is on the market, and selling out everywhere it's available, we've got a lot of confidence that this works in a range of settings, from Michelin-starred places to chain restaurants."
So are grocery stores next?
Right now, the market opportunity in foodservice is so significant that grocery is probably not on the agenda for a year or two, said Appelgren: "We're not even scratching the surface when it comes to opportunities in restaurants."
Heme: 'The molecule that makes meat meat'
At Impossible Foods, the key components of meat have been identified, characterized and sourced from plants such as soy, wheat and potatoes, and processed using high-moisture extrusion and other techniques in order to meet precise functional, taste and textural criteria.
However, the secret sauce is ‘heme’, which Dr Brown calls “the molecule that makes meat meat.” This, he sources from leghemoglobin, a protein found in nodules attached to the roots of nitrogen-fixing plants that is similar to myoglobin and hemoglobin (which make blood look red).
While you could technically extract leghemoglobin from root nodules, it’s not commercially viable to do that at scale, so Impossible Foods is producing it via a genetically engineered yeast – the DNA of which has been retooled to produce leghemoglobin, explained Appelgren.
But while the company had been prepared for 'Frankenburger' headlines, consumers have been very relaxed about it, she said, noting that Impossible Foods has been transparent about the ingredients used in its burgers on its website.
"We anticipated a lot of questions about this but to be honest, we haven't had that many."
Impossible Burger ingredients 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 recipe will continue to evolve, says the company, which says that the above recipe is the second iteration - and differs slightly from the recipe used in the burger first unveiled last summer.
Further down the line, several other plant-based 'meats' could be commercialized, adds Impossible Foods, which has been developing prototypes of chicken, pork, and fish, although the current focus is on ground beef.
We've avoided the word 'vegan'
As for the longer term vision for the business, Dr Brown – who is also a co-founder of plant-based dairy brand Kite Hill – has been very vocal about the fact that he is targeting the mass market, not just vegans and vegetarians, and that Impossible Foods has a competitive edge because it has the technology to produce something superior to the meat-analogs currently on the market, said Appelgren.
"We've always been very clear that we're targeting meat eaters. We won't accomplish our mission [to make the global food system more sustainable] if we only get vegans to eat our burgers, so we've actually avoided the word 'vegan,' no disrespect to vegans."
*Impossible Foods has financial backing from Khosla Ventures, Bill Gates, Google Ventures, Horizons Ventures, UBS, Viking Global Investors and others.
The Impossible Burger debuts today at three restaurants in the San Francisco Bay area: KronnerBurger ( 4063 Piedmont Ave, Oakland, Calif.); Public House at AT&T Park ( 24 Willie Mays Plaza, San Francisco, Calif.); Vina Enoteca (700 Welch Rd, Palo Alto, Calif.)