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Impossible heights: meat-free meat turns hyper-realistic

A new ‘bleeding’ meatless burger is taking the US market by storm - and it won’t be long before it’s commonplace in restaurants and supermarkets here in the UK.

Two weeks ago, fast-food giant Burger King hit the headlines with the announcement that customers would soon be able to find the ‘Impossible Whopper’ – a meatless version of the company’s most well-known burger – in stores across the US. The nationwide rollout follows a hugely successful trial period in 7 key US markets which highlighted the need for affordable vegetarian and vegan fast food. 

Despite a lack of name recognition in the UK, Silicon Valley startup Impossible Foods Inc has been making waves in the US market, employing cutting edge-technologies to create commercially viable meat alternatives. Veggie burgers are by no means a new invention with the first examples dating back to the early seventies, but Impossiblehave succeeded in developing a new generation of ‘bleeding’ meatless products which are gaining presence on the market. 

Setting the Impossible Burger apart from current offerings is the fact that it succeeds in mimicking the principal qualities of its meat based siblings. The key ingredient is an iron-rich molecule called ‘heme’, which occurs naturally in both plants and animals and most importantly provides traditional burgers with their distinctive blood red colour. Impossiblehave devised a way to incorporate this molecule in the soy protein ‘leghemoglobin’ meaning their burgers retain the appearance, cooking aroma, and taste of beef, yet are suitable for both vegetarians and vegans. 

You’d be forgiven for thinking that this description was lifted straight out of an episode of Black Mirror, but the Impossible Burger is rapidly making its way to plates across the States. The company’s website claims that their product is stocked by more than 10,000 restaurants across the country, a number which grows each week. The partnership with Burger King however represents a hugely important development, both for the Impossibleand for meat alternatives more generally. Fast-food has long been an area where vegetarian and vegan offerings fall short of what many people have come to expect, particularly in an age when an increasing number of people are opting to remove meat from their diet. 

Whilst it is possible to purchase a cheeseburger (albeit of questionable origin) for 99p, meatless offerings are far more difficult to come by. Although there is no shortage of vegetarian and vegan fast-food options in the UK, in particular in cities like London and Bristol, these are often prohibitively expensive and cater more for Instagram food critics than the mass market. The fact that Burger King are openly making an effort to target a largely neglected customer base can undoubtedly be seen as an acknowledgement of the change in eating habits and a clear move towards encouraging the general public to reduce meat consumption. Whether this is a genuine attempt to diversify their offerings and make a positive impact on the environment, or merely a profit grabbing move remains open for debate, and many will view the latter as more plausible.  

Regardless of how cynically you choose to view Burger King’s strategy though, the partnership will surely result in a change of focus as far as the fast-food market is concerned. Companies across the US are already scrambling to secure similar deals, triggering something of a plant-based arms race; Impossible’sprincipal competitor Beyond Meathave in recent weeks signed an exclusive contract with sandwich chain Subway, and an official statement provided by McDonalds hinted that the company will follow suit with a range of meatless products. 

There’s no doubt that such moves will be welcomed with open arms by increasingly eco-conscious consumers. A paper published last year in the journal Sciencehighlighted the devastating impacts of farming, noting that beef production can generate as much as 105kg of greenhouse gases for every 100g of meat. The research was led by Joseph Poore at the University of Oxford who further stated that ‘A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth’. A bold claim, but a recent study conducted by Barclays shows a clear rise in public interest in meat alternatives, revealing that US retail sales of plant-based foods have grown 13% in the past year. A significant chunk of this interest undoubtedly stems from existing vegetarian and vegan consumers seeking to experiment with new offerings. At the same time, a plant-based burger which retains the principal qualities of its beef counterparts is ideal for consumers who are seeking to reduce their environmental footprint without compromising on taste. 

It seems clear then that Impossiblehave produced a winning product which caters to a market in which vegetarians and vegans tend to fall to the wayside. The question is therefore whether they are capable of keeping up with the huge surge in interest; already this is proving questionable and the company have been plagued by supply chain issues. VP of communications, Jessica Appelgren, said publicly that “We are working our hardest to increase production and are making real strides”. Whether they can meet the demands of the fast food industry remains to be seen.  

The future of vegetarian and vegan fast food seems to be looking up, and the next 10 years will hopefully see the market continue to evolve as meatless offerings are refined and improved. Providing supply issues can be resolved and Impossibleand its competitors can scale effectively, it won’t be long before we see them gain a notable presence here in Europe. And given the environmental benefits a move away from meat can have, this can’t come soon enough…

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