In the world of plant-based proteins, the Impossible Burger is one of the brightest stars.
The burgers, which look like meat — and even "bleed" — have a secret ingredient: heme. This molecule is found in all living things, but has very high concentrations in meat. It is part of what gives meat its distinctive taste. Scientists at Impossible Foods have developed a plant-based heme to add to their burgers, made from soy leghemoglobin. In order to get enough of the ingredient, extracted from the roots of soy plants, the company uses a genetically modified soy.
Impossible Foods Chief Science Officer David Lipman, who joined the company in May 2017, talked with Food Dive about using a GMO plant to produce the key ingredient for their burgers — and how consumers are reacting to it.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
FOOD DIVE: Can you give me some background on how Impossible Foods got to use a GMO ingredient?
DAVID LIPMAN: The goal of Impossible Foods is to totally eliminate the need for animals in our food system, because we know that the use of animals in our food system is possibly one of the most destructive things in the environment.
So that started [with founder] Pat Brown seven years ago. We'd be looking at what would be the most effective way to do this. ... In retrospect it seems obvious, but I think it was pretty brilliant insight, which is knowing the only way we can do this is if we can make plant-based foods ... so desirable that people choose them instead of animals. By doing this, we can use the market itself to make a difference.
Then the other insight was that given the amazing tools for biomedical research and biotechnology, what about instead of just using them to study disease, we used them to make ... plant-based meats as delicious as animals.
That's really what started off the whole Impossible Foods journey. To do that, we really had to understand ... the whole discovery process. It was really quite exciting.
Basically, they really wanted to find out what was the basis of the craveability of animals? Why do we love them so much? What makes them so delicious?
If you take some raw hamburger ... from a cow and you smell it and taste it, it doesn't have much taste to it. A little bit of a metallic, bloody-on-your-tongue element. When you cook it, all of a sudden you're smelling great smells and you taste these delicious tastes.
What causes that? It turns out that a key factor in making that special flavor, especially beef, is the heme that's in the muscles of beef. Heme is a molecule that's in every living thing. It's in everything we eat, virtually. It's essential for life. Even though it's in all living things, animals — especially in animal muscles and especially beef — have very high quantities in heme.
... So, the red in the muscles, just like the red in blood, is from hemoglobin, a protein that's carrying heme. The red in our muscles is for myoglobin, another heme globin protein. Animal muscles, especially cows, have very high levels, and the heme in those cells helps generate the really delicious beefy flavors that we crave.
The goal then would be, OK, so how can we get sufficient amounts of heme in a plant-based meat so that we get that same delicious result?
Soybean plants have ... these little nodules, that at the right time in the growth of the soy plant, if you pull that sort of plant off and cut into one of those little nodules, you would see that it looks red. It has very high amounts of light hemoglobin, which is a plant-based heme protein, closely related to the myoglobin in muscle. It has that same heme, atom-for-atom identical. So that was the original idea. We'll get it from these soy plants.
Then when we started looking at it more carefully, and what was involved, pulling all these soy plants up from the roots is not really a very sustainable approach. At that point we realized that we needed to go a route which ... mankind has been using for thousands of years, which is to use fermentation to transform very low-cost things — like molasses and other sugar sources — into very high valued things like wine, beer, yeast of various kinds, various enzymes that are used. This was thought to be the most cost-effective, most environmentally sound approach. And over the last few years, that's what we've developed, using industrial fermentation.
"We realized that we needed to go a route which ... mankind has been using for thousands of years, which is to use fermentation to transform very low-cost things — like molasses and other sugar sources — into very high valued things."
Chief science officer, Impossible Foods
[For cheese,] rather than having to get that rennet protein from squeezing the inside of the intestines of young cows, basically the food industry found that they could grow that rennet protein up by fermentation, and do something that was more cost-effective and more humane, more sustainable and so forth. That's why almost all the cheese in this country is made using fermentation-produced rennet.
We're using that same basic approach to produce high quantities of light hemoglobin for the heme, and use that for [plant-based meat] burgers. It has the same color. It's red. When you cook that along with simple acids and sugars — the kind of things in a meat cell — it produces a very delicious, meaty and beefy flavor.
So that's how we thought about it. We were not looking to go GMO, necessarily. We were really looking for what would be the most environmentally sound and sustainable way.
What kind of reaction has there been from consumers to the fact that it is GMO?
LIPMAN: Well, we are very upfront about it. In fact, we had it put out on our website, and we've always, whenever interviewed or in any news article, [been] very clear about the fact that we produce the heme this way.
Look, we're in almost 3,000 restaurants now. Out of all the kinds of inbound consumer traffic ... we get through our customer service folks, half of 1% asks anything about GMOs, even though we're very clear about it.
And of that, about ... a quarter of 1%, may have somewhat of a negative sentiment about it, and the others are positive or neutral. When we've done surveys for marketing purposes to understand what are the things that are really driving consumer choice and what are the things that they're concerned about, what we found, consistent with others [is] that flavor, sustainability, cost, nutritional, all those things are way up there. GMO issues are far down the list.
How about competitors? Has anyone played up that they have a non-GMO product? Or do they see you're using GMO ingredients and consider it a pass that they can use them also?
LIPMAN: There are certain products of all kinds out there that advertise that they're non-GMO, and there's plenty of others that don't. ... We were not looking to do GMO. We were trying to find the best science to make the best product, and then use the best science to make the best product. In the end, that's where we went.
I think that we're GMO [but] the consumer doesn't really see the obvious advantage to them [using] GMO. [For example] the important aspect for the environment in places like India [is that it] could dramatically reduce some of the chemical usage by using GMO technology. For the consumer, that's not so obvious. But if we're talking about something like papayas from Hawaii, where they had a choice, they could basically not be able to grow papayas in Hawaii or they could go GMO — that made a huge difference.
"We were not looking to do GMO. We were trying to find the best science to make the best product, and then use the best science to make the best product. In the end, that's where we went."
Chief science officer, Impossible Foods
At this point we have decades of experience in genetic engineering. Twenty-five years of experience or more with various GMO kinds of products in foods. The safety record is clear, and empirically we see it. Scientists argue on the basis of the scientific principle that it should be safe if we take various approaches.
The other change [over time] is we're seeing more and more products coming out that the consumer can see the advantages to them of this product. So that's why I think for us there's been more of a focus on how excited people are about the taste of the product.
Do you think that because of what the product is, people are more willing to accept that there are GMOs?
LIPMAN: Again, I don't think it's in most of their minds. I think we want to understand better and better what's in the consumer's mind when they say they want to try our product. I think people are interested because they hear other people saying, "My God, this really tastes like meat. It's delicious."
I think that's the thing that drives them the most. I think obviously ... people are more and more interested in nutrition. Even in only the short period of time that we've been in business ... there seems to be a growth in the interest of environmental sustainability. All of those things are reasons to go to the burger.
With GMO ingredients coming more into the forefront now, do you predict that people will start looking at things a little differently? Do you think that the conversation is going to shift more toward sustainability or just keep going where it is going? Or people are just going to forget about it?
Well, they certainly totally forgot about fermented cheese, right? There's other proteins that are used in the food system that are produced by fermentation, like the heme, that people just don't even think about.
The direction that we see with some of the new projects — like the Arctic Apple and others — are products that the consumer can decide for themselves: Is this valuable to me? Do I see this as an advantage?
Is this worth it, forgetting whether it's GMO or not? There's a lot of other apples out there. They have to first see the positive reason for having it. If they learn more about it, the fact that the GMO is there — and we think companies need to be up front about it like we are — then I think they will feel comfortable.
It's been 25 years now. When 50 years go by, people will have accepted this. Obviously, over time, they will understand that there's advantages.
I would put this, the use of GMO here, in a bigger context, which is the use of the most advanced and best possible science to be able to create healthy, sustainable food for everyone. We're seeing more companies getting into the space of producing really good quality from proteins from plants that are being used in a variety of types of food.
"I think that [there is], you know, recognition ... of the real threat that animal-based agriculture has, and, I think, an increasing optimism that we can use science to get the nutrition and the deliciousness from plant-based foods."
Chief science officer, Impossible Foods
A few years out, when we were trying to see what products could be out there [that] we could use for our foods, there weren't that many companies in this space that were producing really high quality, functional proteins from plants. Now there's more. I think that [there is], you know, recognition ... of the real threat that animal-based agriculture has, and, I think, an increasing optimism that we can use science to get the nutrition and the deliciousness from plant-based foods. So this business is a growing area.
Where do you see the GMO movement headed in the next five or 10 years? Do you see more products that are using them? Fewer consumers caring about them? Do you see more products like yours that are proud to use them?
We're most focused on our mission, which is to eliminate the need for animals in the food system, and on a variety of scientific approaches to being able to produce the best and most delicious plant-based foods. I don't know about GMO per se. If you can step way back, you can look at things like climate change. I'm sure you're going to see that we're going to have to use all of the technology and all of the creativities that we have to produce our replacements for animals in the food system because the damage is becoming [great]. People understand there are climate changes out there.
More and more people themselves are realizing that this is affecting weather. It's affecting the ability to grow our food. It's affecting where we have sufficient amounts of water for agriculture, and so forth. I think there's gonna have to be a range of advanced approaches to meet the [food] needs of the growing population, and to do it in a way where we're not giving up on the deliciousness. The wealthier our country is, right now, the more animal-based meats and animal foods that they're consuming, and that's scary.