The massive impact of meat production on forests, water, biodiversity and climate change is not breaking news. In 2011, former Stanford biochemistry professor and paediatrician Dr Patrick O Brown, founded Impossible Foods with a mission to completely remove animals from the human food chain by 2035. He believes the only way to achieve this is to create food that looks, feels, and tastes exactly like meat. Brown and over 350 people, comprised of 109 scientists set out to produce meat and dairy products from plants, which have a much lower carbon footprint than producing meat and dairy from animals.
First, they analysed meat at a molecular level, to learn why meat smells, handles, cooks, and tastes the way it does. They then went on to recreate this, but using only plants. The result is the Impossible Burger, first launched in 2016. In January this year, they launched The Impossible Burger 2.0 with no gluten, animal hormones, or antibiotics. A kosher and halal certification makes this product appealing to a wide global audience. More importantly, the Impossible Burger uses only a small fraction of the land, water, and energy compared to traditional beef burgers from cows.
The scientists at Impossible Foods discovered the “meaty” flavour of beef comes from the heme (an iron-rich protein molecule) in animal muscle. To replicate it they used heme from soy leghemoglobin, found in soy roots. This ensures this plant burger will satisfy meat lovers without using any animal product.
While attending the 2015 United Nations climate change conference in Paris, Brown spent the day with the world’s leading environmentalists discussing the massive impact of meat production on forests, water, biodiversity and climate change. That evening he was shocked to see them eat steak for dinner. It became clear to him how difficult it would be to change people’s diets and the only way he could make a difference was by creating food that looks, feels and tastes exactly like meat.
Today, Impossible Foods’ first-large scale manufacturing site in Oakland, California, US, can produce about two million pounds of plant-based meat per month. Additional commercial-scale production facilities are now being planned. The Impossible Burger is now available at over 5,000 locations in the US, including White Castle hamburger chain. On 1 April, 2019, Burger King tested the Impossible Whopper in 59 Burger King restaurants in St Louis, Missouri, US. After just four weeks, the chain announced it will “quickly test in additional markets with the intention of nationwide distribution by end of year.”
Outside the US, Impossible Foods is available in over 100 restaurants in Asia, having launched in Hong Kong and Macau last year. In March, it expanded to Singapore, offering the Impossible Burger initially at eight of the city’s top restaurants including Park Bench Deli, Three Buns Quayside, Potato Head Singapore, Privé Orchard, Empress, Marina Bay Sands’ Bread Street Kitchen by Gordon Ramsey, CUT by Wolfgang Puck and Adrift by David Myers. The strategy was to work with well-known chefs, as it did in 2016 when the Impossible Burger was first served at David Chang’s Momofuku Nishi in New York.
Ambitious plans for Asia
According to research firm Markets and Markets, the value of the global meat substitutes market was around $4.6bn last year, predicted to reach $6.4bn by 2023. Asia is the fastest growing part of that market and it is crucial for Impossible Foods’ ambitious mission, accounting as it does for 40% of the meat consumption in the world – and the demand for meat is growing faster than anywhere else. At last year’s Food for the Future Summit in Singapore, Nick Halla, chief strategy officer of Impossible Foods revealed in a panel that Asian markets account for about 44% of the company’s future growth plans.
Starting at SGD$23 for the Impossible Chedda at Potato Head Folk in Singapore, it doesn’t come cheap, but Brown explained to Singapore media that it is priced in the range of premium ground beef and prices are expected to go down, as the business scales. By comparison, White Castle in the US sells the Impossible Slider for only US$2. Singapore’s price point is higher as they are launching with world-famous chefs.
Dr George Jacobs, a vegan activist and the president of the Centre for a Responsible Future, the non-profit that oversees the Vegetarian Society, Singapore is thrilled with the arrival of Impossible Foods. “Many new foods have come to Singapore recently. In addition to Impossible, we now also have Beyond Meat, Quorn, Omnipork, and JUST Egg, with others set to launch soon. Additionally, Singapore has long had ‘mock meat’, such as the products associated with Chinese vegetarian cuisine,” he says. “We are excited that there are now so many alternatives for meat eaters to enjoy food that is similar to the meat they love while helping their health, the environment and farmed animals. With all the publicity and government support for these novel products, they could make a difference to how people eat, especially once greater demand allows greater economies of scale, resulting in lower prices.”
While some think Impossible Foods have an impossible dream, Jacobs thinks otherwise. “I admire Impossible’s dream. With epidemics in meat-related diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and many more, and with the accelerating climate change catastrophe, people are desperate for technological solutions,” he says. “Impossible and similar companies offer great-tasting solutions. Their products are like a blank slate that Asian chefs, and people cooking at home, can paint with herbs and spices to match the cuisine of their own culture.
“I’ve tried Impossible and its fellow novel protein dishes, and they are so much like meat it’s scary. As someone who hasn’t eaten meat since 1980, I’m not keen on eating Impossible, but vegans are not the target audience for Impossible; meat eaters are. All the meat eaters I’ve talked to are impressed by Impossible and its alternatives. The media is loaded with information about the dangers of meat so people want to change, and these new foods make it so easy to do so.”
Chefs are big fans too. Willin Low, the Singapore chef who started Mod-Sin (modern Singaporean) cuisine with Wild Rocket and Relish, his burger-focused restaurant, says: “I think it will definitely be a hit with vegetarians and vegans or people looking for an alternative for health reasons.”
The next step would appear to be for Impossible Burgers to reach retail stores for consumers to buy and cook at home,
as well as expansion into additional markets. Nothing seems impossible for this food innovation.