While Impossible Foods developed its plant-based version of the traditional beef hamburger years ago, the company's plant-based sausage was formulated and designed quite differently.
Laura Kliman, senior flavor scientist at Impossible Foods, described the differences between the flagship Impossible Burger product and the newcomer Impossible Sausage at a virtual press conference on Monday. Impossible Sausage officially launched in January, has become widely available to consumers in breakfast offerings at Burger King and Starbucks, and is now available to be sold in any restaurant in the United States.
The precooked plant-based sausage patties have many of the same ingredients as the burgers: soy protein, sunflower oil, coconut oil, soy leghemoglobin — the genetically modified ingredient to make plant-based heme, which Impossible Foods says is the ingredient that makes its products taste more like meat. Impossible Sausage doesn't have potato starch, Kliman said, mostly because of the different texture and behavior of traditional pork sausage.
Ground pork doesn't have the strong flavor of beef, and as a white meat, it requires less heme than the Impossible Burger. What makes sausage recognizable to consumers, she said, really is a combination of the subtle flavor of the meat, the seasonings added to it, the softer texture and the fatty mouthfeel.
"Sausage is typically more springy and bouncy, and beef is typically more firm and tough," Kliman said. "So we're able to replicate those key texture attributes, again, by just adapting our plant-based building blocks to provide the consumer with essentially the experience they expect with sausage."
But while it replicates the experience of pork sausage, Impossible Sausage is also healthier, Kliman said. It has the same amount of protein as its animal-based counterpart, as well as 60% more iron, 45% fewer calories and 60% less total fat.
Impossible Foods CEO and founder Pat Brown said at the press conference the company would never release a plant-based product that isn't a good substitute for the real thing. That's one of the reasons why the first non-chain restaurants to offer Impossible Sausage on their menus are 30 top diners, as named by consumer rating site Yelp, said Rachel Konrad, Impossible Foods' chief communications officer. Diners offer a slice of Americana and a comfortable breakfast, and are a proving ground for plant-based sausage.
Meat lovers are central to Impossible Foods' mission of replacing the need for animal agriculture by 2035, Brown said, so all Impossible's products need to appeal to them. In fact, he said, he has nothing against vegans or vegetarians, but the only consumers his products target are hard-core carnivores.
"That's the only customer we care about because our mission is to replace the most destructive technology in human history — which is the use of animals to produce food — with much better plant-based technology, and you don't do that by making better food for vegetarians," Brown said.
While Impossible Burger has gotten to the point where it is ubiquitous in restaurants and grocery stores, it took some time for it to get there.
The much-hyped burger launched at a single restaurant — New York's Momofuku Nishi — in 2016 and very slowly rolled out to other high-end establishments. QSRs and more casual chains didn't start offering Impossible Burger until 2018. It just came to grocery stores last year.
Considering Impossible Foods just introduced the sausage product in January, this rollout is much faster. Impossible Sausage is now in more than 22,000 restaurants in the United States, Konrad said, and the company is ready to expand that.
Brown said this has everything to do with Impossible Foods' work to continually build its scale. As Impossible Burger has gotten bigger, the company has enhanced its supply chain and developed relationships with some of the biggest co-packers in the country to produce the products consumers want.
"Our mission is to replace the most destructive technology in human history — which is the use of animals to produce food — with much better plant-based technology, and you don't do that by making better food for vegetarians."
CEO and founder, Impossible Foods
"We've been building not only the kind of infrastructure for scale, but really a whole system that is intended to enable us to scale rapidly in response with the demand we've seen," he said.
However, the company is not bringing the product to grocery stores or making it available direct-to-consumer just yet. Brown said they are "actively working" on it, and Impossible Sausage should be sold outside of foodservice "before long."
"It's a multifactorial issue deciding when and how to time these launches, one of them being that we do not want to launch a product until we're confident that our production capacity is ready to deliver for our customers," Brown said. "And so it's not just about, you know, having the opportunity. It's making sure we can scale."
Why sausage and what's next?
Impossible Sausage is only the second product the company has made. Brown said it was important to go toward a plant-based pork substitute after Impossible Burger.
The company looks at animal-based eating from a "worst first" perspective, Konrad said, prioritizing replacing food that has the most destructive impact on consumers and the environment. Burgers were at the starting point because raising beef takes huge amounts of land and can cause a lot of pollution. They also are an integral part of the American diet.
Pork is the most consumed meat worldwide, and Brown said its negative impacts are also well documented. Pigs are, by nature, inefficient, he said. Pork farming takes up a huge physical footprint and causes environmental risks, both from sustainability and health standpoints.
"High rate of antibiotic use in pork operations makes them a perfect breeding ground for multiple antibiotic-resistant organisms, which, I think probably everyone knows, is a huge public health threat," Brown said. "But pork and poultry operations are the sites where the influenza A epidemics and pandemics essentially always start. So it's an incubator for the next big global pandemic."
The nature of Impossible Foods' production — in factories where workers mostly use high-tech equipment to mix and manufacture products instead of slaughterhouses where workers crowd along the line to process meat — also contributes to safety, he said. Many food factories, especially meat processing plants, have been hotspots for coronavirus outbreaks.
Brown said so far, there have been no coronavirus cases in the company's own manufacturing plant in Oakland, California. The company has taken steps to increase worker safety, he said, with strict hygiene and protective gear requirements, social distancing mandates and plexiglass dividers installed. And the factory is currently running 24 hours a day, seven days a week, producing at capacity, Konrad said.
R&D work is also continuing at Impossible, with the company's scientists returning to the lab in limited capacity to work on developing new prototypes. Brown wouldn't say what products might be introduced next. The company's scientists have been working to discover — on a molecular level — what gives meat its flavor, texture and juiciness. They are using some of the principles they have discovered to unlock the secrets of creating different meat alternatives.
Despite the company's "worst first" positioning, the timing of new Impossible products will not just be driven by the environmental impact of what they would replace. Brown said it will also depend on factors including market opportunities. But, he said, they are coming.
"There will be lots of interesting products coming down the pipeline in the next year and beyond," he said.