Impossible Foods makes UK debut… without its flagship ‘heme’ ingredient

By Elaine Watson contact

- Last updated on GMT

(Plant-based) Impossible chicken and chips at Hungry Horse, a chain of pubs owned by Greene King. Image credit: Impossible Foods
(Plant-based) Impossible chicken and chips at Hungry Horse, a chain of pubs owned by Greene King. Image credit: Impossible Foods

Related tags: Impossible Foods, plant-based meat, plant-based chicken, heme, soy leghemoglobin

California-based Impossible Foods is making its European debut in the UK this week with the launch of plant-based chicken nuggets and sausage patties, formulated without its flagship soy leghemoglobin ingredient, which is not yet approved in the UK or the EU.

Impossible Foods - which has recently launched its signature Impossible Burger in Australia, New Zealand, and the United Arab Emirates – will introduce plant-based chicken nuggets and sausage patties in around 300 UK restaurants and foodservice outlets this month, expanding to “thousands​” of locations by the end of the year.

A UK retail launch will follow later this year, added the firm, which said its soy-based chicken nuggets – which debuted in the US late last year – “quickly became one of the company’s top-selling products” ​and have also received encouraging reviews in consumer testing in the UK, where chicken is the most commonly consumed meat per capita.

A spokesperson told us: "We have a small cross-functional team in the UK that’s leading the charge on the ground, and we have many team members supporting our expansion efforts from HQ.... If things go as well as we think they will, we'll look to local manufacturing options as well."

Impossible's move across the Atlantic comes just over three years after rival Beyond Meat entered the UK market with its plant-based burgers, which are now sold at all the major food retailers including Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Waitrose, and every McDonald’s outlet in the UK and Ireland, although the firm is operating at very low margins in order to stay competitive in international markets​ while it builds infrastructure outside the US.

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UK restaurant partners include Hungry Horse, Chicken Cottage (pictured), Halo Burger, Le Bab, MEATliquor, and Patty&Bun. Image credit: Impossible Foods

Soy leghemoglobin... a work in regulatory progress in the UK and the EU

The first wave of Impossible products hitting UK shelves do not contain its signature ‘heme’ ingredient, which is GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) in the US (the firm received a GRAS no questions’ letter from the FDA in 2018​ and a color additive approval in 2019​) but does not yet have regulatory approval in the UK or the EU.

Soy leghemoglobin – which imparts a meaty flavor and color to Impossible Foods’ beef and pork - is not used in its alt chicken, but is part of the US recipe for sausage patties, which have been reformulated for the UK market while the company waits to hear from regulators.

An iron-rich protein found in nodules attached to the roots of nitrogen-fixing plants such as soy, leghemoglobin is structurally similar to myoglobin and hemoglobin, the major oxygen-binding proteins in animal muscle and blood, and is what "makes meat taste uniquely like meat​​,"​​​​ according to Impossible Foods, which produces it at scale via a genetically engineered strain of yeast.

The company has filed applications with the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA); and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), and is waiting to hear back.  

FSA: 'GM foods intended for sale in the UK are subject to a premarket authorization which requires thorough safety assessments'

The FSA's ​head of genetically modified organisms and genome editing policy, Sabrina Roberts, told us that, ​“GM foods intended for sale in the UK are subject to a premarket authorization which requires thorough safety assessments,"​ a process that is "entirely separate to the EFSA application process​," adding: "We cannot comment on any individual application."

An EFSA spokesman, meanwhile, explained that the process for approval in the EU (where Impossible Foods is also planning market entry) could take some time.

Impossible Foods' soy leghemoglobin is being assessed in the EU according to legislation on GMOs (EC 1829/2003​), he said, adding that EFSA "has six months to do a GMO assessment​ [after spending two years validating the firm's dossier] but the clock can be stopped at any moment if further data or clarifications are needed from the applicant."

He added: "It will also be assessed as a food additive​ [in the EU]. The risk assessment process for this has not yet started. The deadline is nine months but the clock can also be stopped at any time if more data or clarifications are required."

Once completed, EFSA issues its scientific opinions to the European Commission, he said. "The European Commission and EU Member States will then take the decision as to whether to approve the soy leghemoglobin and the terms and conditions of use." 

'We’ve been successful across every market where we requested regulatory approval'

An Impossible Foods spokesperson told us: "We’ve been successful across every market where we requested regulatory approval... We're confident. It's a matter of time, and we respect the regulatory process.​"

As to whether the UK sausage patty will taste as 'meaty' without heme, the spokesperson said: "Our sausage products generally contain less heme because they’re based on pork sausage, which is a fairly neutral protein. Like pork sausage, the patties are also seasoned with a rich profile of herbs and spices. And because our UK patties come pre-cooked and ready to eat, heme isn’t as necessary to create the transformation that meat undergoes as it transitions from raw to cooked."

As to whether Impossible Foods would consider launching an Impossible Burger without heme, the spokesperson added, "Our product portfolio in the US has been a winning strategy for us – that's why we're the fastest growing brand in retail and we're leading the category in growth. All of the products in our portfolio are key to that, including those with heme and those based on our other innovations, and that's going to be our approach in other markets as well."

Impossible Foods heme
The first wave of products hitting UK shelves do not contain Impossible Foods’ signature ‘heme’ ingredient, soy leghemoglobin, which imparts a meaty color and flavor to its burgers. Image credit: Impossible Foods

Peter McGuinness:  '​I think it will become a very, very powerful brand'

Unlike Beyond Meat, which as a public company has been experiencing growing pains for all to see​, Impossible Foods is still private and does not generally share figures, although new CEO Peter McGuinness recently told us​ ​that US retail sales were up 85% year on year in Q4 2021 (it’s not clear how much of this growth was from expanded distribution vs velocity gains).

While some meat alternative brands are attempting to differentiate themselves through cleaner labels, or improved nutritionals, which are both important; at this early stage in the market's evolution, the brands that will win over meat eaters are the ones that deliver the best experience, he said.

“I think Impossible is going to drive the growth of the category because it makes the best products. There's a climate component to it and a displacing ​​[animal] meat component, but the products have to stand on their own merits."​​

Impossible Foods has also built a compelling brand, he said: “Impossible also happens to be a very cool name that you can do a lot of fun stuff with, and I think it will become a very, very powerful brand.”

Peter_McGuinness_landscape
Impossible Foods CEO Peter McGuinness: 'I think Impossible is going to drive the growth of the category because it makes the best products...'

'A full range of meats and dairy products for every cultural region in the world'

Founded by Stanford biochemist Dr Pat Brown in 2011, Impossible Foods​​ entered the US foodservice market in 2016, struck a high-profile deal with Burger King, and made an aggressive push into retail in 2020. It products are now sold in stores and foodservice locations across the US, Canada, Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, the United Arab Emirates, and now the UK.   

The firm – which has a stated goal to “produce a full range of meats and dairy products for every cultural region in the world” ​​– ​​is best-known for its processed beef, pork, and chicken substitutes (Impossible Burger, Impossible Chicken Nuggets, Impossible Pork, Impossible Sausage, Impossible Meatballs). 

However, it is also working on steak, seafood, and eggs, and ​has teased​​ a plant-based milk product claimed to be “better than anything that comes from a cow."

To learn more about Impossible Foods’ UK launch click HERE​.  

Impossible_SausagePatty

Impossible Chicken Nuggets Made from Plants​ feature 13g protein per 100g serving and 25% less salt than regular chicken nuggets, claims the firm, which says they require 55% less water, 24% less land, and 24% fewer GHG emissions to produce than their animal-based counterparts.

Impossible Sausage Patties Made From Plants​ – which contain 5.6g protein, 2.5g fiber, and 1.1mg iron per patty - are produced using 88% less water, 77% less land, and 47% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than animal pork sausages. 

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