Silicon Valley is rallying around a startup that wants to disrupt the meat aisle.
Impossible Foods sells burgers made from plants that sizzle on the grill and “bleed” juices like real beef. The company aims to make meat derived from animals the exception, not the rule.
On August 1, the startup announced it had raised a $US75 million investment from Singapore-based venture fund Temasek, Bill Gates, Khosla Ventures, and others. The new round brings the company’s total funding to over $US250 million and will likely serve its plans for expansion.
Impossible Foods unveiled a new facility last spring that will increase its production capacity by 250 times, allowing the company to supply burgers to more than 1,000 restaurants in the future and introduce its flagship retail product within the next few years. Vegetarians and curious meat-lovers can find the Impossible Burger at 43 restaurant locations nationwide.
In 2016, Business Insider toured the lab and test kitchen at Impossible Foods’ headquarters in Redwood City, California, to see how plant-based meat comes together. Take a look below.
In a Redwood City, California, office building with blacked-out windows, scientists, foodies, and Silicon Valley veterans work on making the perfect veggie burger.
But don't call it a 'veggie burger' within earshot of founder Pat Brown and his team. In 2011, they set out on a mission to make a plant-based burger unmistakably meaty.
The company targets the most ardent meat-lovers with a burger that sizzles, smells, and even bleeds on the griddle. It hopes to someday replace animal products on store shelves.
The world's population could reach nine billion people by 2050. The bad news for carnivores: There aren't enough resources on the planet to support sustainable animal agriculture at that scale. Raising chickens, pigs, and cattle already takes up 30% of the Earth's surface.
A number of companies are tackling the challenge with meat and dairy alternatives. Impossible Foods has garnered buzz with its Michelin-starred restaurant partners and notable investors.
After years of research, Brown and his team learned there isn't just one molecule that creates the smell of beef, or generates the familiar beef taste that's nutty, caramelised, and slightly metallic when you sink your teeth into it.
A tasty burger is an amalgamation of ingredients that, when separated at their molecular level, give off aromas ranging from pineapple to cabbage to dirty socks.
A secret ingredient ties it all together: heme. The molecule carries oxygen through the bloodstream in animals and through mechanisms that produce energy in plants.
Heme gives blood its colour, turns meat pink, and lends the traditional burger its slightly metallic flavour and delicious aroma when it's exposed to sugars and amino acids.
You won't find heme in specialty food stores. Impossible Foods looked into collecting it from the heme-rich nodules on soybean roots, but discovered it would require ripping up millions of plants to collect enough heme for production.
Instead, Impossible Foods decided to whip up heme in the lab. Scientists took the genetic code in soybeans that makes heme and injected it into yeast.
The yeast becomes a temporary heme factory. A whirling vat of frothy white liquid turns the colour of strawberry milkshake as the molecule ramps up production.
The mixture gets filtered through these tubes to remove the yeast and water and concentrate the heme. The process takes about a week from start to finish.
Textured wheat protein, a popular animal-product substitute, provides the foundation of the Impossible Burger. It's processed in a pressure cooker to imitate the feel of animal muscle, though it looks like tuna salad.
A large baked potato provide as much protein as a serving of cheddar cheese. Its inclusion in the Impossible Burger also adds some chewiness.
Coconut oil, fat, salt, sugar, additives found in processed foods, and other ingredients find their way into the mix.
I've tried three Impossible Burgers over the last year, and each one tasted better than the last. My first burger had a rubbery, mushroom-like texture that gave it away as fake meat.
Still, the patty seared on the grill just like real beef. The outside crisped and darkened, while the inside leaked familiar, fatty juices. It easily beat any veggie burger I've tried.
When I tried it again in July at Gott's Roadside in San Francisco, the burger might have fooled me as real beef. I mopped up the fallen grease and devoured every last bite.
The company has received backing from Bill Gates and Google Ventures, and in 2015, Google reportedly made a failed attempt to acquire Impossible Foods for over $200 million.
The Impossible Burger is available at 43 high-end restaurants and burger chains nationwide, including 13 Umami Burger locations in Los Angeles and San Francisco, nine Hopdoddy Burger Bar locations in Texas, and five Bareburger locations in New York City.
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