Impossible Foods, with its Impossible Burger, is at the forefront of modern plant-based meat replacements.
We’ve come a long way—or at least, a little bit of a way—from the Boca burgers of the recent past. New plant-based meat replacements are more elaborate than ever before: some have dozens of ingredients, and some rely on new techniques to make veggie burgers taste more like meat. Impossible Foods uses a new ingredient it calls “soy leghemoglobin,” which provides an iron-y, bloody sort of flavor, texture, and appearance to its Impossible Burgers.
The approval process for Impossible Burgers centers on soy leghemoglobin, and it’s been a weird one. Soy leghemoglobin is produced naturally in little root nodules on the soy plant; it works with bacteria to convert nitrogen in the soil to a form the plant can use. There’s a specific gene the soy plant uses to create that leghemoglobin, and the Impossible Foods people have taken that gene and spliced it into yeast, where it produces a red liquid with a meaty flavor.
You might be wondering how it’s possible that the FDA only just now approved soy leghemoglobin, when Impossible Burgers have been a wildly popular sensation, available on menus at Bareburger and Burger King (provided they still have some in stock). There are even big plans to expand production. That’s thanks to an FDA rule known as GRAS, which stands for “generally recognized as safe.”
People don’t normally eat the root nodules of soy plants, but there’s nothing in any research that indicates they’re unsafe. Same with the yeast: the yeast Impossible Foods uses is a very common type of yeast, widely used in food. So the FDA basically said, look, unless there are some reports that there’s anything unexpected happening with the Impossible Burger, go ahead, make it.
And Impossible Foods did, but only to restaurants. To sell direct to consumers, the FDA proceeded with its full testing. There are two reasons for this. The first is that the FDA wanted to be sure that soy leghemoglobin is fully safe before selling it in its raw form, in grocery stores. Consumers don’t have the same regulations that restaurants do, and it’s possible that someone might eat some raw plantburger. But Impossible Foods has also been eager for FDA approval, because it’s attracted criticism from anti-GMO organizations like Friends of the Earth. FDA approval may not make Friends of the Earth supporters of Impossible Foods, but it at least answers some of that organization’s concerns.
According to New Food Economy, the approval will become official on September 4th. And, presumably, you’ll be able to buy the bleeding-plant burgers in a grocery store near you shortly after that.