When biochemist Pat Brown created Impossible Foods in Silicon Valley, he paired science and plants to make a synthetic meat that would tempt the most devoted carnivore. The long-time vegan wanted to create a ‘beef’ patty made from plants that tastes, looks and bleeds just like a real hamburger. The Impossible Burger seems to have been a resounding success, with plaudits from food critics and investment drawn from the likes of Bill Gates and Google. It raised a further US$114 million earlier this year and has taken the product to Hong Kong, but now the venture appears to be hitting some choppier waters.
The Impossible Burger requires 95% less land and 74% less water to produce compared to traditional beef patties. It is made from wheat, potato protein, coconut oil and a “magic ingredient” – soy leghemoglobin (SLH) that makes it “bleed”. SLH also delivers the alluring meaty taste, replicating the heme abundant in animal muscle. While the reduced environmental impact should make the vegan burger a favourite for environmentalists and animal activists, the innovative nature of SLH is instead causing problems for Impossible Foods. What exactly is the Impossible Burger?
SLH is manufactured in a lab using genetically modified yeast so it’s certainly not organic, and it’s probably not “natural”. Nevertheless, the Impossible Burger has been enthusiastically adopted by gourmet chains across the US, including many who market themselves as ‘organic’, ‘natural’ or ‘100% free of artificial ingredients’.
Bareburger is an organic burger chain that markets its “natural” offering, supports the GMO-Free NY food labelling campaign. It was Impossible’s first multi-restaurant partner and promoted the new menu item with hashtags like #organic and #nongmo. For its part, Impossible argues that it’s “never stated or implied that the product is organic”, and it has been upfront about its ingredients and process – if you care to look in the FAQs on the website!
Other chains such as Hopdoddy, that promotes its “fresh, all-natural ingredients” added the Impossible Burger, while Chicago chain M Burger actually labels the patty “100% free of hormones, antibiotics, and artificial ingredients”.
Given the novel nature of SLH, Impossible Foods asked the FDA to review the burger’s safety in 2015, as the protein has never been in the human food supply chain. While Impossible was not obligated to do this, it was rewarded for its endeavours with a letter from the FDA saying, the company’s data “does not establish the safety of SLH for consumption”. It was enough to alarm Friends of the Earth, ETC Group and other anti-GMO organisations. Impossible has since provided more data to the FDA – including somewhat ironically, testing on animals – but is yet to receive an official pronouncement on safety.
The furore surrounding Impossible’s plant-based patty highlight the challenge facing some of the more innovative solutions to replacing meat. They are often produced using GM technology, are novel, highly complex and processed foods and so anything but organic or “natural”. So, despite the seemingly noble goals of reducing environmental impact and saving animals, Impossible Burger is under attack from the activists that might have been expected to champion them. Instead it is being characterised as another cynical money-spinning start-up that is cashing in on the confusion about what it offers.