The Patent Behind an “Impossible” Food

Image courtesy Mike Licht,

Last week at lunch, my colleague ordered an “Impossible Burger.” It took about two bites to understand why they called it “Impossible,” because this burger looked, tasted and went down like meat.

It was, however, not meat.
My colleague slid the dish over to me for a meat-eater’s opinion. I took a bite, chewed, swallowed, and if I didn’t know, I’d say it was a juicy hamburger.

We had two questions:
1.What’s it made of?
2. Is it patented?

Addressing question one, we asked the waitperson to bring us the packaging. The ingredients on the box were water, textured wheat protein, coconut oil, potato protein, flavors and something called heme.

“Heme,” my colleague repeated. “What the hell is heme?”

We looked it up on Impossible Foods’ web site.
“Heme is an iron-containing molecule that occurs naturally in every single plant and animal. It’s an essential molecular building block of life. Heme gives your blood its ability to carry oxygen. It’s found in all living organisms, and it’s been consumed every day—heck, every second—for hundreds of thousands of years.
Heme is super abundant in animal muscle, and that’s what makes a burger so flavorful…The heme molecule in plant-based heme is atom-for-atom identical to the heme molecule found in meat. It’s what makes the Impossible Burger so rich and decadent.”

Well, heck!
Having digested Impossible Foods Incorporated’s sales sheet, we consulted Wikipedia.

There we found heme (or “haem”) defined as:
“… a coordination complex “consisting of an iron ion coordinated to a porphyrin acting as a tetradentate ligand, and to one or two axial ligands…. Hemes are most commonly recognized as components of hemoglobin, the red pigment in blood, but are also found in a number of other biologically important hemoproteins such as myoglobin, cytochromes, catalases, heme peroxidase, and endothelial nitric oxide synthase…”

Lacking a chemist, we continued our research, and learned that the heme in the Impossible Burger is a laboratory replication of the heme found in soybeans. It is not actual vegetable content, but a replica of it, created in a lab, through genetic modification. It was approved by the FDA on July 24 of this year, less than 4 weeks before we ordered it off the menu of our local restaurant.

Turning again to Wikipedia we learned how this Hemenstein is made, beneath the header “Artificial synthesis for food:”
“Some producers of imitation foods (vegetarian in composition) use an accelerated heme synthesis process involving soy root leghemoglobin and yeast, adding the resulting heme to items such as veggie burger patties to give them the taste associated with meat.”

So it was with considerable trepidation that we finished our hemeburgers and started researching Question 2:
Is this stuff patented?

We found Impossible Foods’ 2011 patent application, titled “Methods and compositions for consumables.”

It claims:
63. A meat substitute product, comprising:
a) a muscle replica;
b) a fat tissue replica; and
c) a connective tissue replica;
wherein said muscle replica, fat tissue replica, and/or connective tissue replica are assembled in a manner that approximates the physical organization of meat.

(The first 62 claims were canceled.)

We also found about eight other patent applications assigned to Impossible Foods that are centered around this hemeburger.

So the answer to question # 2 is “patent pending.”

But the answer to question 1, “What’s it made of,” still eludes us, because the answer can only be found on a molecular level. You need a microscope and a chemistry degree to answer that one. But you can order it in patty form at the local restaurant.

In Europe, we know that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are much more strictly regulated than they are in the United States. As to whether the Impossible Burger is considered safe to eat by European authorities, just last July the EU ruled that gene-edited crops, by which the Impossible Burger is defined, are subject to the same strictures as GMOs are.

So does Europe think the Impossible Burger is safe to eat? Probably not, because it looks like you can’t get it there. We consulted Impossible’s “Availability” page, where somebody named Gabrielle asked,
“Where is the Impossible Burger currently available?”
Impossible Food’s answer was:
“The Impossible Burger is sizzling in thousands of restaurants in the United States and Hong Kong, and we’re entering more restaurants every day. We will launch our plant-based meat worldwide in the years to come. Stay tuned!”

Consulting their retail locations map, we found that as of this writing, The Impossible Burger is available only in the United States.

Whether this or any other GMO food is safe to eat is a topic for debate, but the patenting of GMOs is unquestionably growing, because: money. Impossible Foods’ startup funding had reached $250 million last year, counting Bill Gates among its venture funders.

Leave a Comment