You might call it the Manhattan Project of food. It’s been the subject of breathless whispers, rumors and speculation throughout Silicon Valley and beyond. They’ve attracted tons of press and generated major waves on social media, including a now legendary viral video. And this summer, Impossible Foods is finally getting ready to take center stage. That’s because this most mysterious and uber-funded startup will launch the product it has obsessively worked on for over 3 years, and could change how we look at meat forever.
It all started in 2011, when renowned Stanford biochemist Patrick Brown desired to turn his scientific expertise toward solving a major world problem. It didn’t take long to zero in on the perfect candidate: beef — more specifically, hamburgers. His chosen challenge? Make burgers using plants instead of cows.
Why an animal-free burger? The burger is arguably America’s most iconic food, and in recent times has also become one of the most controversial. In turns out, beef is one of the most resource-intensive, habitat-destroying, pollution-generating, contaminant-laden products on the planet. To create the 1 billion burgers eaten by Americans each year, countless tracts of land have been converted into corn and soybean fields to feed millions of cattle, who in turn generate staggering levels of greenhouse gases, require ridiculous amounts of water, and whose waste often contaminates the food supply with E. coli and other serious germs. It’s not a pretty picture — and as the global demand for beef and other meat is expected to skyrocket in the near future, making beef more sustainable has become an international matter of urgency.
So Brown and his new company, Impossible Foods, set out to do, well, the impossible — perfectly recreate beef using purely plant ingredients. Clearly this was no easy task; vegans and vegetarians have tried for years to replicate beef with plant-based patties, and the results have usually been less than impressive.
That’s because ground beef is a multi-layered matrix whose various muscles, tissues and proteins give beef complex flavors, textures and smells that can’t be made using plants.
Or so we thought.
Deep in their Bay Area headquarters, Impossible Foods worked industriously to measure, analyze and extract components of plants they believed could replicate those found inside beef. It was a super-ambitious job, and they aimed for total perfection: every aspect of beef, from its lush reddish-pink hues to the intoxicating sizzle and aromas it emanates on the grill to the perfect char and juiciness of a medium-rare burger; everything had to be reverse-engineered using plants.
They labored on this groundbreaking process for years, rarely telling the outside world about their work. Then, in 2014, they offered the public a tantalizing first glimpse at their prototype plant-only burger, aptly christened The Impossible Burger, and it looked… pretty darn good.
Next, they invited the Wall Street Journal for a rare tour of their Redwood,CA research facility, which revealed the inner workings of their Willy Wonka-esque lab as white-coated workers weighed and analyzed burger samples or tossed bales of leafy vegetables into giant metal vats. But the marquee moment came when Dr. Brown revealed their holiest discovery: making plants bleed. That is, they’d isolated a molecule (known as“heme”) that gives red meat its characteristic taste and color, and discovered it could also be found in certain plants’ roots systems. This supreme revelation along with amazing images of plants leaking red pools of blood proceeded to blow the internet’s mind, and the video became a viral sensation.
And they weren’t done making headlines. In the summer of 2015 it was reported that none other than Google had attempted a buy-out of Impossible Foods with an offer in the neighborhood of $200 to $300 million, but were ultimately rebuffed, reportedly because that sum just didn’t impress the startup.
Impossible shocked everyone again when, last fall, they raised an incredible $108 million in a single investment round from a circle of heavy-hitters including Bill Gates, La Ka-Shing and Khosla Ventures. The news seemed to surprise even startup-seasoned Silicon Valley and sent the tech media abuzz with speculation. It was now obvious Impossible Foods wasn’t working on any old veggie burger; this company was serious about innovating meat, and their product just might be the first plant-based burger with a real shot at usurping cows.
And now, beginning this summer, the world will finally get a chance to find out. This spring, they announced the Impossible Burger would be launching in a select group of restaurants in several cities starting in July. The news came amid a dazzling marketing campaign where they unveiled the finished Impossible Burger — a product of several years of intense research and development — to a bevy of some of the most influential people in the food world, and the results have been astonishing.
Justin Sterling of Food and Wine Magazine, who tasted the Impossible Burger at a special cooking demo, proclaimed the burger was “a revolutionary new product” that is “far more complex and sophisticated than any existing non-animal patty”, while Bon Appetit’s Christine Chaey enthused that the burger “was everything I’d expect one to be: dense, chewy, salty, and satisfyingly fatty” and that did “a shockingly good job of convincing my brain (it was) in fact, meat.” Meanwhile, world-famous chef and renowned carnivore David Chang had this to offer on Instagram:
“Today I tasted the future and it was vegan: this burger was juicy/bloody and had real texture like beef. But more delicious and way better for the planet. I can’t really comprehend its impact quite yet…but I think it might change the whole game”
So how did Impossible do the impossible and turn plants into meat? That, it appears, might have to remain a guarded secret, but you may be surprised to learn the burger is made of some highly un-carnivorous ingredients like potato protein, grains, coconut oil, and even honeydew melon, as well as that special “heme”. Best of all, the burgers require only a fraction of the land, water and energy that conventional beef burgers use, and is naturally free of the common germs and contaminants found inside the latter.
With these luminous endorsements and a growing populace of meat-eaters eager to adopt more sustainable options, the potential for Impossible’s product launch are huge.
And the advent of a plant-based burger could have a major cultural significance as well. For the first time in human history, we’ve succeeded in making a complex meat product every bit as good as the conventional kind without relying on animals to grow it. In the same way the automobile liberated us from the inefficiency and restraints of driving horses and ushered in a new era of global transportation, animal-free meat could similarly grant us untold freedom to make meat products better than they’ve ever been before: in taste, nutritional quality, safety, and economic productivity. The innovation of meat might represent our greatest leap forward to a more sustainable food system, while enhancing our enjoyment of meat in ways we never previously imagined.
Today’s conventional meat industry is a massive, trillion-dollar business that stretches around the globe. But because of its shocking recklessness towards the environment, human health, and many other issues, it is also incredibly ripe for disruption. If Impossible Food’s plant-only burger tastes and performs nearly anywhere as good as claimed, this startup is well-positioned to launch a brand new meat revolution, and if that’s the case, consider the Impossible Burger the opening shot.
Note: Rival startup Beyond Meat recently launched their own “bleeding” plant burger in Whole Foods stores last month. There have not been many definitive reviews yet, so it remains to be seen if it can fully compete with Impossible’s innovation.