You can get the meatless Impossible Burger at high-end restaurants, in a Whopper at Burger King, or delivered by GrubHub. Plant-based meat in general — and the Impossible Burger in particular — is one of the fastest-growing product segments of 2019, and investor dollars, food reviewers, and restaurant chains are flocking to meatless meat offerings.
But until now, getting the Impossible Burger in a grocery store has been, well, impossible. That might be about to change, thanks to the Food and Drug Administration’s announcement Wednesday that it had approved a key ingredient in Impossible Burgers, paving the way for its appearance on supermarket shelves. (The ingredient approval was only a barrier to selling the burgers raw, so restaurants were unaffected.)
The move will allow Impossible Foods to be sold in stores, where its competitor Beyond Meat is already available. The big difference between Impossible Foods and its competitors in the plant-based meat space is that Impossible products contain heme, the compound in animal meat that gives it its “bloody” look and iron-rich flavor.
Heme occurs naturally in beef and is released in the cooking process. Impossible Foods sources its from soy leghemoglobin, which is found naturally in soybean roots and which Impossible Foods gets from yeast.
The FDA already says heme is “generally recognized as safe” — otherwise, stores couldn’t sell conventional meat, which has heme in it. But Impossible Foods has been working with the FDA to get soy leghemoglobin approved as an additive, too, separately from the approval for heme.
On Wednesday, that approval arrived. It represents the fall of a key hurdle — perhaps one of the last remaining hurdles — to Impossible Burgers arriving in grocery stores. The FDA’s new rules will go into effect September 4, barring last-minute objections. Impossible Burgers might hit grocery stores shortly after that.
The rise of meatless meat — and why it’s a big deal
Consumers love meat products — only a small percentage of Americans are willing to go vegetarian, and that percentage hasn’t changed in nearly 30 years. But animal agriculture creates all kinds of problems: for human health, via antibiotic resistance and the rapid spread of diseases; for the environment, via greenhouse gas emissions and resource-intensive land use; and for animals. Ninety-nine percent of animals killed for meat in the US are raised on factory farms under horrific conditions; that’s true even for most meat advertised as “natural,” “organic,” or “humane.”
The makers of plant-based meat are hoping they have the solution. They want to create products that taste just like the beef, pork, and chicken products we’ve all come to love, match or beat those products for nutrition and health, and produce them more sustainably — in a way that’s kinder to animals and the environment.
With animal agriculture among the biggest contributors to global warming and with more than 50 billion animals killed for food every year in the US, consumers have embraced the concept. Plant-based burger sales have been growing fast, and the valuations of plant-based meat companies have soared in the past six months. Meat producers are getting in on the trend. (Skeptics characterize it as more of a fad.)
But none of the excitement around meat alternatives, so far, has decreased demand for meat, which is likely to remain high for many years to come. Meatless meat still represents only a tiny sector of the food industry compared to conventional meat — and Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are struggling to increase their production fast enough to meet the rising demands. In the next six months, it’ll become clearer whether demand for the products holds up, and whether the young companies at the forefront of the movement have the capacity to meet that demand.
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