Chief Science Officer on the Key to Impossible Foods’ ‘Meaty’ Taste: Heme

Photo Credit: Nati Harnik/AP/Shutterstock
May 24, 2019

By Spencer Feingold

Impossible Foods, one of the leading brands for meat substitutes, said the "meaty" taste in its plant-based products stems from a single ingredient: heme.

"We found that heme itself was critical when cooked along with other components to make that flavor," David Lipman, the company's chief science officer, told Cheddar in an interview Friday.

Impossible Foods isolates heme — an essential molecule found in all living plants and animals — from proteins in the roots of soy. The proteins, called soy leghemoglobin, is then inserted into genetically engineered yeast that is then fermented to mass produce heme.

"It is everything we eat. It is in all living things," Lipman said of the molecule. "It is necessary for life."

Since heme is highly abundant in animal tissue, the plant-based proteins mimics the bloody and juicy flavor of meat, leaving meat-eaters satisfied after eating the company's trademarked Impossible Burger. The company even patented their production process of heme.

"It really was a new thing for the patent office to wrap their mind around it, but they eventually did," Lipman said, adding the Impossible Foods had to provide a slew of chemical and analytical data to support their process.

The company also had to conduct extensive studies and provide proof to the Food and Drug Administration that the product was safe for human consumption.

"Our first consideration is health and safety but also right up there is taste. Our product has to be delicious," Lipman said. "All of our ingredients in our products are commonly eaten foods with very, very safe record. The only new, novel thing is the heme protein."

In recent years, the popularity of meat alternative products has exploded with faux burgers becoming commonplace and consumers becoming increasingly eager for healthier and more environmentally friendly meat substitutes. Earlier this month, Beyond Meat, another meat alternative company, experienced the most successful public offering of 2019.

Impossible Foods also announced in May that it had raised another $300 million in funding, bringing its total to over $750 million.

"We're hoping that by raising this $300 million that we can continue to really expand as quickly as we have seen demand explode," David Lee, Impossible Foods' chief financial officer, told Cheddar earlier this month. The funding was led by Temasek and Horizon Ventures, along with an impressive roster of celebrity investors including Jay-Z, Kal Penn, Serena Williams, and Bill Gates.