Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
April 14, 2021

Vice President of Impossible Foods discusses the importance of heme in plant-based meats

By SHIVNI PATEL | March 12, 2021

impossible-foods

COURTESY OF RACHEL FRASER

Heme is a nutrient found in animal tissue and a crucial flavoring ingredient in plant-based meats. 

Rachel Fraser, vice president of downstream process development at Impossible Foods, gave a talk titled “There Will Be Blood: Heme as a Flavor Ingredient for Plant-Based Meatfor the Department of Cell Biology on March 4. The talk was hosted by Shigeki Watanabe, associate professor of cell biology at the School of Medicine. 

Impossible Foods was founded in 2011 by Dr. Pat Brown, a professor emeritus of biochemistry at Stanford University. Brown’s idea to form the company began in 2009 when he took a sabbatical hoping to identify a new research focus.

He kept returning to the idea of plant-based diets and global climate change, noticing the shockingly destructive impact that animal farming has on the environment. Fraser elaborated on some of these devastating consequences during her talk.

“Animal farming consumes more water than any other industry on the planet and is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire Southern Hemisphere,” she said. “About half of the Earth’s land area is used to support animal agriculture. It’s this land imprint that is causing a dramatic decline in species diversity.”

Despite the clear implications for climate change, the topic of animal farming was not on the radar in 2009.

“When [Brown] would go to global climate summits, they would serve steak for dinner,” Fraser noted.

Such environmental concerns about animal meat consumption are a driving factor behind the contemporary switch to plant-based meats. Growing media coverage on climate change and the role played by the food industry continues to foster awareness behind these issues. Despite this, Fraser noted the need for more improvement.

“There’s this food that you love and you associate with that could be a staple within your diet. The truth is, consumption of meat and dairy is predicted to increase by 70% by the year 2050,” she said. 

Impossible Foods hopes to alter this course by making meat products that do not have the same impact on the environment by generating cheap and scalable plant-based alternatives to traditional meats.

The research platform at Impossible Foods is based on a molecular understanding of meat, fish and dairy products. Scientists at the company consider all of the things that make up the sensory experience or eating meat, from unique textural properties to flavor chemistry. When the company was first started, very little was known about the chemistry of meat. 

“Meat is a very complicated flavor. I spent a lot of time reading journals on meat science, and there was a lot of information out there, but there was no consensus on what drives meaty flavor,” Fraser said.

Through experimentation, scientists at Impossible Foods were able to make great strides in cracking the code of meaty flavor, highlighting the importance of the molecule: heme. 

Heme is a molecule pervasive in nature, naturally occurring in the hemoglobin protein inside an animal’s blood and the myoglobin protein present in animal muscle. Since the molecule is responsible for both the flavor and color of animal-derived meat, it is instrumental to the flavor profile of Impossible Foods products. 

“Because of heme, our product has high-flavor intensity, brown caramelized flavor and these really nice bloody metallic notes that people expect if you are going to have a medium-rare or rare product,” Fraser said.

In addition to the flavor provided by heme, the company’s scientists experimented with various natural oils and plant proteins to closely imitate the texture of meat. When developing the Impossible Burger, one important consideration for Fraser and the other scientists at Impossible Foods was the need to emulate the versatility of animal-derived meat.

“Animal-derived meat is raw, pliable, and when you cook it, it becomes this new, versatile food that you could add into a variety of dishes,” Fraser said.

The company’s experimentation with various textured proteins has enabled them to develop products capable of mimicking animal-derived meat’s versatility.

“We do a lot of work looking at what kind of textured proteins we need, what kind of physical properties we need,” Fraser said. “For us, with beef prototypes it’s really important that we have proteins that form gels at specific temperatures so that they are soft and pliable when refrigerated, and when they heat up, they are firm.”

Finding ways to streamline the manufacturing process, as well as other strategies to enhance the scalability of its products, has recently become a significant focus of Impossible Foods. Since the debut of its first product in 2016, the company has attained an ever-growing consumer base and widespread popularity for its plant-based products.

A Gallup poll conducted last year found that at least 40% of Americans have tried a plant-based meat product, and the majority of respondents stated that they are ready to consume these products again. The company has attained a consumer base that continues to grow rapidly even amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We had this ultimate high in 2019 when we signed Burger King,” Fraser said. “Last March when the pandemic hit, a lot of restaurants shut down, and we did a massive pivot over to retail. During that time we have launched in chains like Safeway, Costco and Trader Joe’s.”

Though Impossible Foods has already obtained a great degree of success in creating a product highly capable of mimicking the texture and flavor profile of meat, Fraser stated that the company’s greatest success has been on the environmental front.

“The great thing is that because we are skipping the cow, the Impossible Burger manufacturing process is far better for the planet than burgers from cows. If we don’t have this environmental impact, then we’re not doing the right thing,” Fraser said. “This is the part that we’re most excited about.”

According to Fraser, the company’s manufacturing process utilizes 96% less land, 87% less water and 89% fewer emissions than animal agriculture.

Although traditional animal-derived meat receives many criticisms for its unhealthy nutritional profile and detrimental environmental impact, many consumers have various issues with plant-derived substitutes.

In an interview with The News-Letter, sophomore Abhi Piplani described the shortcomings of plant-based meat choices. 

“Plant-based meat choices are a great alternative for vegetarians, but they fall short in terms of texture and flavor for those who really enjoy chicken and steak,” Piplani said.

Junior Melanie Alfonzo expressed her concerns about plant-based meat from a different angle, noting issues with accessibility to the products.

“The biggest challenges are the fact that they are not available or there may be fewer options in many places, making it difficult for people to try a plant-based diet. Also, they are more expensive than normal meat,” Alfonzo said. “Sustainability is all about equity, yet there is a large group of the population who cannot afford to live on this diet.”

However, if these concerns are addressed, Alfonzo is optimistic about plant-based meats.

“If they are more widely available and have greater information sent out to the general public, more meat-eaters would be open to trying,” she said. “I also have a lot of faith in this field to come up with more similar alternatives to other animal-based products as well.”

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