While it’s still early days, however, Impossible Foods is on track to produce one million pounds of Impossible Burgers a month when its first commercial-scale manufacturing facility in Oakland is firing on all cylinders by March 2018 (enough to supply 1,000 restaurants), chief communications officer Rachel Konrad told FoodNavigator-USA.
And while its short-term focus is on high-end restaurants, its wider ambitions include expanding into grocery retail markets and developing an international business, she added:
“We want to be in retail eventually, as well as in international markets, but US restaurants are the short-term focus.”
Impossible Foods exists to satisfy the world's voracious craving for meat in a way that's sustainable and scalable
Asked what gave the firm the confidence that it can generate the kind of returns that justify such a large investment, Konrad said: “The company exists to provide a better way to satisfy the world's voracious demand for meat, without destroying the environment.
"That's a huge task that requires a lot of R&D and investment. But if we accomplish our goal, we will have a huge positive impact on the environment and be a successful business.”
She added: “The reason Impossible Foods exists is to satisfy the world's voracious craving for meat in a way that's sustainable and scalable for nine billion people by 2050.
"If some other company were already doing this, then Impossible Foods wouldn't exist.”
The Impossible 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."
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’, a molecule that’s “super abundant” in animal muscle and which Impossible Foods’ founder - Stanford biochemist and genomics expert Pat Brown, PhD, MD - 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 such as soy 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. This feeds on sugar from undisclosed ‘plant materials’ and produces leghemoglobin, but the final product “contains no live yeast,” said Konrad.
“Our scientists spent so much time and effort studying a single molecule - heme - because heme is what makes meat taste like meat,” said Dr Brown. “It turns out that finding a sustainable way to make massive amounts of heme from plants is a critical step in solving the world’s greatest environmental threat.”
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.
According to the company, 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 flavors.
GRAS submission to the FDA planned next month
Its initial determination that its leghemoglobin is generally recognized as safe (GRAS) was made in 2014.
However, Impossible Foods has since commissioned additional testing, including a rat feeding study, said the company, which is preparing to submit its GRAS determination to the FDA to provide customers and consumers with a further level of reassurance that its products are safe.
“The 2016 rat study examined whether consumption of soy leghemoglobin in amounts orders of magnitude above normal dietary exposure would produce any adverse effects. There were none. And 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.”
Earlier this month, the US Patent and Trademark Office also issued US Patent No. 9,700,067 covering Impossible Foods’ technology to use leghemoglobin in plant-based meat, added the company, which has 100+ additional patents pending.
We've avoided the word 'vegan'
While Impossible Foods had been prepared for 'Frankenburger' headlines owing to the use of a genetically engineered yeast to produce its key ingredient, consumers have been very relaxed about it, said the company, 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," director of communications Jessica Appelgren told us earlier this year.
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."
*The latest funding round was led by Singapore-based investment company Temasek and supported by Open Philanthropy Project, Bill Gates, Khosla Ventures and Horizon Ventures. Other investors in Impossible Foods include Google Ventures, UBS, and Viking Global Investors.