It might bleed, it might sizzle, but how does it taste? In short, like a burger. The secret? Heme. The mission? To wean the world off meat, making the global food system truly sustainable – and delicious.
If you haven’t heard of Impossible Foods yet, then let us give you a taste. Launched in 2011, the food technology startup aims to completely replace animal meat with delicious plant-derived products by the year 2035. Their first product, the Impossible Burger, claims to use 95 per cent less land, 87 per cent less greenhouse gas emissions and 75 per cent less water than ground beef from a cow. To date, Impossible Foods has raised nearly a staggering USD 400 million in Venture Funding from the likes of Bill Gates, Google Ventures, Temasek and Horizons Ventures, making it a startup we knew we just had to talk to. So, we sat down at the Hive Sheung Wan with Nick Halla, SVP International of Impossible Foods and the company’s very first employee, to learn more about their recent launch here in Hong Kong and their plans to make the impossible, possible.
The year was 2009. An esteemed professor at Stanford University was just embarking on an 18-month sabbatical that would prove to be life-changing, not just for Dr. Patrick Brown himself, but possibly for our very planet, as Nick recounts. “Pat began by looking at the impact of the animal agricultural system. He quickly realised that the biggest threat by far to the global environment is the reliance we have on animals for food production.” To put it into context, the use of animals as a food production technology is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transportation system. Galvanised by these facts, Dr Patrick Brown began his mission to completely eliminate the need for animal agriculture with Impossible Foods in 2011.
From the offset, Brown knew that in order for Impossible Foods to feed the world effectively, they would need to come up with a better and more delicious way to produce meat, fish, and dairy foods, and all directly from plants. “Our goal from day one was to make meat for meat lovers,” states Nick. “If we can’t do that, then nothing matters, because we have to deliver foods that consumers prefer in order to convert the meat-eating world to a much more efficient and sustainable system.”
It wasn’t until 2016 that they launched their first product – the Impossible Burger. “We started with raw ground meat for a bunch of reasons. One, it’s iconic in culture. Whether it’s a meatball or a dumpling, or a taco or a burrito, you’re using ground meat, so it’s a very diverse product and the most popular single kind of meat in the US. Secondly, it’s a technical challenge, because you have that fattiness and richness, as well as that really diverse flavour profile that you get with red meat. Thirdly, it’s a huge industry worldwide with a big environmental impact behind it, so immediately it was a good strategic target for us,” explains Nick.
In order to create a product that would actually turn even the most hardcore of meat-lovers away from animals, they had to first understand what actually makes meat the way it is. What makes your favourite steak sizzle and smell the way it does? Why is it that a burger transforms from soft and formable to firm as you cook it? “We spent the first two years really focusing on research, and during that time our scientists learnt that there’s this one protein found in meat, whether it’s chicken, pork or beef, that drives all the flavour generation, and that protein is called heme.” And so the Impossible Foods scientists set about genetically engineering and fermenting yeast in order to produce a heme protein naturally found in plants called soy leghemoglobin. The heme found in Impossible Burgers is identical to the heme that we’ve been consuming for hundreds of thousands of years in meat but using far fewer resources. Thanks to the heme, the Impossible Burger really does sizzle, smell, bleed and taste like red meat.
On top of making the burger delicious, Impossible Foods knew that they had to also make it scalable and affordable if they wanted to be successful. “In order to really make it scalable, we had to work with a lot of ingredients already present in the food industry. So, the main ingredients in our burger are wheat protein, that’s what gives you the structure and chew, potato protein, which is what takes the meat from soft and malleable to firm as you cook it, coconut oil for juiciness, and finally the heme protein, which as mentioned earlier is responsible for driving all that flavour and richness.”
Currently, Impossible Burgers can be found in over 1800 restaurants all across the United States and, more recently, in Hong Kong. “When we went to market, we sought out the meat chefs of America. Debuting with Chef David Chang at Momofuku Nishi in Manhattan, and then with Chris Cosentino, Traci Des Jardins, and Michael Symon. After that, we went to the burger chains. Starting with Umami Burger, The Counter, BareBurger, and White Castle, the first ever fast food burger chain in the US. You can get the Impossible Slider there for $1.99, which is about as low a cost as you can get.”
“We’ve been working on an international strategy for about two years now, and Asia popped up very quickly. It’s where approximately 44% of the world’s meat is consumed today, and that number is quickly growing. Hong Kong, specifically, is one of the heaviest meat consumption cities per capita anywhere in the world. On top of that, it’s also a great intersection of Western culture, Eastern culture, Western cuisine, Eastern cuisine, and there’s a lot of amazing chefs here. So, as a city with more restaurants and meat consumers per square foot than anywhere else in the world, it just made for a really great starting place for us,” explains Nick.
In order to build culinary credibility, Impossible Foods first launched with two of Hong Kong’s finest chefs, Asia’s Best Female Chef (2017) Chef May Chow of Little Bao and Happy Paradise fame, and Beef & Liberty’s Chef Uwe Opocensky. Since its debut in Hong Kong just this April, the Impossible Burger has found its way onto menus at a number of other esteemed establishments such as the Grand Hyatt, the InterContinental Grand Stanford, and Hotel Icon, with early reviewers hailing the burger as the most convincing plant-based imitation of meat currently on the market with a huge potential for society.
If Impossible Foods is successful in transforming meat-eaters into meatless-eaters, it will have solved arguably the world’s biggest environmental problem. In blind taste tests conducted regularly across the US, Nick tells us that most, if not all, participants have been unable to tell the difference between the meat burger and the Impossible Burger. “Almost half the meat-eating participants tell us that they actually prefer the Impossible Burger over the meat they get today. So, we are essentially catching up to the cow. Our goal is to bypass the cow because we’re not limited by what a cow’s body can do.”