Features & Columns

Making the Impossible Possible

A Redwood City company merges high tech and food in a juicy, meatless burger

Pure Bread | Soup's On

The Impossible Burger—a veggie patty developed in Redwood City—has garnered praise for it's approximation of real ground beef.

While at the Paris Climate Accord in December 2015, Patrick Brown noticed something peculiar about the mass of environmentally conscious politicians and ardent activists attending the momentous summit. Despite spending days advocating for more stringent regulations around greenhouse gas emissions, he observed that many of these conservationists would end their day not with a salad, but instead with a juicy steak.

While there's nothing inherently wrong with prime rib, it's a bit of a daring choice for environmental advocates: Livestock alone generate 7.1 gigatons of greenhouse gases each year, about the same amount as the entire global transportation sector, and are also the biggest driving factor of biodiversity loss in the world according to a 2013 report by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. (Animal populations also declined at an astonishing 58 percent between 1970 and 2012 alone.) And Brown says that's no secret, either.

"It's very hard for people to make changes in practices that are a huge source of pleasure in their lives and that are very ingrained in their patterns," Brown explains. "We could have every person as educated about this problem as the environmentalists in Paris who, just like them, would all go out and have a steak anyway."

So if environmentalists at the most important climate summit on Earth can't give up steak for the benefit of the planet, where does that leave the rest of us?

A few years prior in 2011, Brown quit what he describes as his "dream job" at Stanford University to answer that very question. A lifelong educator, the professor emeritus of biochemistry and co-founder of the open-access Public Library of Science knew that a solution didn't lie in trying to convert the masses to veganism. Instead, it stemmed from giving people what they want: more meat.

"The most important scientific problem today is identifying what makes meat delicious, and so our job is to serve meat lovers," he says. "The only way to solve this problem is to make food that not only has a lower environmental impact, but also does a better job of giving consumers what they want: delicious, nutritious, convenient and affordable food."

Enter the Impossible Burger, a plant-based patty that looks, feels, and tastes just like beef. (It even "bleeds" when it's raw.) Brown, the founder and CEO of Redwood City-based Impossible Foods, is leading a food revolution that seeks to satiate the carnivore in all of us—without ever killing or harming a sentient being—and hopes to solve critical issues like food security, global warming, deforestation and animal welfare along the way.

Where better to start than with an all-American staple like the hamburger? As one of the country's most popular foods, ground beef is consumed by Americans at an astonishing rate of 5 billion pounds per year. About half of that is sold in restaurants. So while the concept of the burger is classically American, Impossible Foods is a true Silicon Valley invention. Defining innovation, it's changing both the definition and limitations of meat as we know it to create a product that uses 75 percent less water, 97 percent less land, and 87 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions per patty. What could be more disruptive than that?

Celeste Holz-Schietinger, director of research at Impossible Foods, says that making the impossible possible begins with the science. First and foremost a research and design company, Impossible Foods spent its first five years pouring its time, money and resources into creating a scientific platform that would understand what key biological components made meat taste like meat and how the aromas, textures and flavors could be reproduced by plants.

"People love to eat meat because it's craveable, there's a delicious flavor, and people love the sensory experience: You see it cook, hear the sizzle, and of course smell and taste it," she says. "What we're doing is breaking that down to the sensory experiences, going down to a molecular level and identifying what aspects of meat drive that."

The secret sauce that makes the Impossible Burger a reality is an essential molecular building block called heme (pronounced heem). Heavily abundant in animal tissue in the form of hemoglobin, heme is responsible for giving meat its satisfying, craveable taste. Scientists at Impossible Foods discovered that the same meaty flavor could be achieved by supplementing heme from the roots of legumes, specifically soybeans. Fermented in large quantities with yeast, legume-derived heme is a blood-red liquid that tastes metallic when raw and meaty when cooked. When combined with a few other simple, naturally derived ingredients like wheat, potato protein, konjac, xanthan gum and coconut oil, a burger is born—one whose flavor, texture and aroma truly does mimic its animal-based counterpart.

"The molecule-to-molecule breakdown of heme in a cow or the Impossible Burger is identical," Holz-Schietinger explains. "Heme binds to iron, which is actually what gives it its red color and metallic flavor, and upon cooking gives the Impossible Burger a roasted, caramelized flavor."

Patrick Brown, the man behind the Impossible Burger, says getting meat eaters on board with a meatless alternative will go a long way toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Taste test aside, investors who are seeing meat production as an increasingly global problem are buying into the Impossible Burger's unique, scientifically backed formula: The company has secured $450 million in funding from big name investors like Khosla Ventures, Temasek and even Bill Gates—$300 million of which was raised in the last 18 months alone—and their product is being served in over 2,500 restaurants, onboard Air New Zealand, and most recently in White Castle restaurants across the Midwest and on the East Coast.

The Impossible Burger hasn't been brought to grocery store shelves yet—but that's for a pretty smart reason, explains David Lee, Impossible's chief operating and financial officer. The Impossible Burger's unique appeal to millennials, arguably the world's most influential trendsetters, is what's ultimately causing the plant-based burgers to fly off the griddle, he argues. Because who better to experience the new Impossible Burger for than captive audiences on the 'gram?

"The grocery store is generally not an Instagrammable moment," Lee says, adding that the consumer movement is key in the Impossible Burger's success strategy. "Eating together in restaurants is social and viral by nature: If a great burger arrives that's new and provocatively named, it's something you can share with your friends."

Ron Levi, owner and head chef of The Funny Farm in San Jose, found out about the Impossible Burger through a more traditional form of advertisement, specifically a poster hanging inside Wahlburgers in downtown Palo Alto. He'd heard about the product before, but wasn't convinced until he took the first bite. A chef and restaurateur for 35 years, Levi explains that he's never come across a veggie patty that actually satiated the customer's desire for a burger. Since adding the Impossible Burger to his restaurant's menu a few months back, he's been amazed by the demand, which he estimates constitutes 10 percent of all burger sales, something even he admits is a lot for a plant-based patty.

"Having been in the industry forever, I've come across a lot of veggie patties, and I never really liked any of them," he says. "When I tried it, everything I had heard was true, and I'm a burger fanatic. I eat Impossible Burgers every now and then in lieu of a regular burger because they taste great."

The latest phase of the meatless meat revolution is in the form of a state-of-the-art production facility that Impossible Foods opened in Oakland last fall. The goal: churning out one million pounds of plant-based meat a month to distribute across the nation to hungry vegans, vegetarians and especially adventurous carnivores. Brown sees a very bright future for the Impossible Burger, and he hopes that consumers and agriculture farmers—needed to help make the impossible a reality—will share his vision of being the best meat in the world, ultimately helping the brand expand its offerings to include Impossible cheese, milk, fish and poultry.

"Being ahead of the curve with a next-gen technology—one that's better for consumers, food security and the environment—is an awesome opportunity," he says. "If it's going to happen anyway, you want to be leading it, not its victim."