As Meat-Free Burgers Move Mainstream, Impossible Foods Scales Up

The meat-free Impossible Burger tastes remarkably like the real thing.

Up-and-coming culinary startup Impossible Foods has come a long way since we first tasted its vegan hamburger “meat” two years ago. Now served at eight high-end restaurants in three cities, Impossible is preparing to supply over 1,000 restaurants by the end of the year. That number may or may not include at least one well-known burger chain, but mum’s the word on exactly when and where their next announcement might take place.

The ambitious expansion is due to the opening of a full-scale production facility in Oakland, California, which the company says can produce a million pounds of “meat” per month — that’s 4 million quarter-pound burgers.

The expansion is a big deal in the quest to modernize and popularize the veggie burger, a morsel that has its fans, but is still considered by many to be a poor substitute for a greasy, meaty beef burger. In this case, however, Impossible has no intention of pleasing only committed vegetarians. The company says its meat substitute will satisfy and even fool the most die-hard carnivores out there.

The secret ingredient, as we’ve reported before, is the heme molecule which gives the Impossible Burger an unmistakable meaty flavor and the bloody color of a medium-rare patty fresh off the grill.

For those who are begging for the chance to try the new vegan delicacy, my experience is that it doesn’t taste quite like ground beef but is definitely close. It’s close enough that with creative preparation the palate can easily be fooled, and more importantly it’s unquestionably tasty. Whether it’s tasty enough to begin to replace “real meat” on a regular basis for a significant number of burger lovers is exactly what the company is banking on.

A real sustainability mission

Impossible Foods CEO Pat Brown is a microbiologist by training. He set out to create the company with a very specific goal in mind: Turn the world’s meat industry on its head and supply a legitimate substitute for meat that could be produced with a radically lower environmental footprint.

The company says its Impossible Burger uses about 75 percent less water, generates about 87 percent fewer greenhouse gases and requires around 95 percent less land than conventional ground beef from cows. Additionally, it’s entirely free of hormones, antibiotics, cholesterol and artificial flavors. It may not be as healthy as a kale salad, but it’s certainly more healthy than a typical hamburger.

The simple fact that Impossible’s “meat” isn’t meat is a huge plus by any environmental measurement, though it doesn’t mean the production process is without a footprint. The product is made primarily from potatoes and wheat (minus the gluten), bound by Xanthan gum and fattened up with coconut oil, though in theory there are many possible feedstocks available. The full ingredients list is here.

Rebekah Moses, the company’s sustainability and agriculture manager, says coconut oil is a far smaller driver of deforestation when compared to palm oil or soy. That said, there is no widely accepted auditing structure for coconut oil. As Impossible scales, however, the company will be closely involved with efforts to ensure its use of oils and other ingredients are well understood from a sustainability perspective and impacts minimized, Moses said.

A Tesla-style evolution

For now, the Impossible Burger, as interpreted by most chefs, will remain a fairly hard-to find item at a fairly steep price. It made its chain restaurant debut earlier this month at Bareburger’s flagship restaurant near New York University in Manhattan. Impossible indicated the burger may soon roll out at Bareburger locations nationwide, but this fast-casual upstart still represents something of a market niche.

Much like any new technology (Tesla comes to mind) the high cost of development and the scarcity of supply means a high price may stick around for a while. But each new restaurant launch is likely to heighten anticipation and enthusiasm among a public that is typically skeptical of vegan foods. With greater scale, the price will inevitably come down to the point where purchasing “impossible meat” at the grocery store becomes commonplace and perhaps even mainstream among fast-food franchises.

Will manufactured “meat” be a turn-off to consumers? Will “red meat America” be too skeptical to give it a try?

The fact is that most meat is essentially manufactured already. Massive industrial cattle ranches, feeding operations and the highly automated processing of meat is hardly a craft industry today — with the added externalities of poorly treated animals and a tremendous health and environmental cost. Given how processed and flavored inexpensive fast-food beef is, I would bet money that chains like McDonald’s could replace their patties with a vegan substitute without anyone even noticing. The environment and human health would will be much better off if that happens.

Food & Agriculture

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Nick Aster is a new media architect and the founder of TriplePundit.com

TriplePundit.com has grown to become one of the web's leading sources of news and ideas on how business can be used to make the world a better place.

Prior to TriplePundit Nick worked for Mother Jones magazine, successfully re-launching the magazine's online presence. He worked for TreeHugger.com, managing the technical side of the publication for 3 years and has also been an active consultant for individuals and companies entering the world of micro-publishing. He earned his stripes working for Gawker Media and Moreover Technologies in the early days of blogging.

Nick holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio School of Management and graduated with a BA in History from Washington University in St. Louis.

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