By now, you may well have sampled an Impossible Burger. (We certainly have — and liked it.) If you haven’t, you’re probably at least curious about the plant-based burger which claims to taste, cook, look, and even bleed like real beef.
The Redwood City-based startup released their 2018 Impact Report this week, touting three of their achievements over the past year: their growing reach (and growing customer demand), their ace-in-the-hole ingredient, heme, and their sustainability mission. With their progress, they hope to continue on their quest to replace beef burgers with their plant-based patties. Here’s how:
- Larger availability, smaller price point
Last year Impossible patties were available in only 40 restaurants. Now, you can find them in 3,000 restaurants in the U.S., Hong Kong and Macao. To keep up with rapidly increasing demand, Impossible Foods had to hire a second shift of employees to work in their large-scale commercial plant in Oakland, California, which produces about 500,000 pounds of plant-based meat each month.
In addition to widening their availability, Impossible has also been dropping its price point. Initially they were available only at Momofuku Nishi, David Chang’s hip NYC restaurant, for $18 (albeit with fries). Now you can pick on up at one of 140 White Castle locations for only $1.99.
Impossible Foods has chosen to market their meatless patties in restaurants because of chefs’ trendsetting power with one highly influential demographic: millennials. Millennials are driving the explosive growth of the plant-based meat market and are leading the charge on flexitarianism. Impossible Foods knows this, and is taking advantage; about three-quarters of its customers also eat meat.
“We want meat eaters globally to happily prefer our plant-based vegan products because they think it’s just better,” David Lee, COO and CFO of Impossible Foods, told crowds at TechfestNW earlier this year. It’s a smart move on Impossible Foods’ part to take any self-righteous guilting out of the equation. In fact, they seem to be moving towards a branding strategy where they don’t differentiate themselves from meat at all. Their website’s slogan is: “We make delicious meat from plants”.
Not to be nitpicky, but technically, they don’t — they make vegetarian burgers out of plants, which happen to mimic the things we love about meat (umami flavor, juicy fattiness, etc.). The secret to their burger’s taste-alike success? Well, that would be…
2. The buzzy molecule behind the “bleeding” burger
A big part of Impossible’s branding is their patties’ uncanny ability to “bleed” just like beef. This is thanks to heme, a molecule found in red meat — and also plants, which is where Impossible creates and harvests it. When we sampled the Impossible burger, we could taste the animal almost-metallic funkiness (yes, that’s a good thing) that comes from heme. Heme not only gives the patties a distinctly beef-like flavor — it’s also one of the most important aspects of their marketing strategy. The reason that a burger made from plants can be dubbed as “meat” is because it has some of the same chemical flavors, down to the molecule.
A few months ago the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) flagged heme as a potential allergen after Impossible sent in their burger for a voluntary food safety test. Recently, however, the FDA gave heme the green light, declaring it safe. The FDA holdup wasn’t much of a roadblock; Impossible could (and did) sell their burgers widely. More of an issue, at least to some, is the fact that the patties aren’t GMO-free. In fact, heme is made through genetically engineering. But the GMO aspect doesn’t seem to cool excitement over this molecule, which is one of Impossible’s biggest selling points — one which allows them to position their products as a “burger,” not a “veggie burger.”
3. Mission Earth
Plants have a smaller environmental footprint than animals — they just do. And beef is one of the worst culprits of all. In the impact report, Impossible Foods’ CEO and founder Pat Brown said that his company was on track to “eliminate the need for animals as a food production technology by 2035.” He told Time that by doing so, we can save Earth and “keep it habitable” so we won’t be forced to relocate to Mars.
Obviously, this is super ambitious — and optimistic. Even if we could eliminate the need for animals as food (that is, come up with enough plant-based protein to sustain the world) many people would be hard-pressed to give up meat — no matter how realistic the veggie burger.
There’s no question demand for (and acceptance of) plant-based protein is on the rise. The market is increasing at a CAGR of 5.9% and is projected to reach $14.22 billion by 2022. Almost 40% of people are trying to incorporate more plant-based proteins into their diets.
Which sounds super encouraging, until you realize that 2018 is also the year we’re projected to eat more meat than ever before. So while Impossible’s sales might be growing, is it moving any closer to its goal of replacing beef? Or is it just becoming a supplementary option for our protein-crazed selves?
Right now we’re at a critical juncture for the future of meat alternatives; they’re clearly gaining popularity and reach, but are they actually making a dent in meat production? As of yet, not so much. But with continued technical innovation, and new manufacturing methods, they might become so good that they might reach Impossible’s self-professed goal to be so good that carnivores choose their burgers over the real thing.
With heme now FDA-approved, and its continuing march towards affordable ubiquity, Impossible seems to show no sign of slowing down its growth, both to new marketplaces and new heights of media attention. Apparently, the company also has patents on the flavor chemistry used to create pork, chicken, and fish flavors, and plan to make plant-based alternatives to all three in the future.
If it can fix a few training issues, and avoid the roadblocks that Beyond Meat has experienced with meeting growing demand, maybe they can take some of the wind out of beef’s sales — and then conquer the rest of the animal kingdom. Of course, as long as lab-grown meat doesn’t knock them out of the water first.