Even if you’ve never eaten an Impossible Burger, you’ve probably heard of them. But you may not know the science and story behind those meatless products.
Pat Brown is a University of Chicago alum, the founder and CEO of Impossible Foods, and a scientist at Stanford University. He says the meat industry is the “greatest threat humanity has ever faced,” and that “cracking the code” of plant-based food products could be our only hope for the future.
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(Episode published July 1, 2021)
- Impossible Foods CEO on processed food, selling heme to other brands, and reaching price parity—Food Navigator USA
- How Impossible Foods is getting Gen Z interested in plant-based meat—Food Dive
- Impossible Foods Secures Child Nutrition Label for Impossible™ Burger, Launches Insights Report on Kids + Climate Change—Business Wire
- Impossible Foods: Scaling Up for a Sustainable Future—Booth School of Business
Pat Brown: Our mission is to completely replace the use of animals as a food technology by 2035.
Paul Rand: This is Pat Brown. He’s a University of Chicago alumnus, and the founder and CEO of Impossible Foods, a company that develops plant-based substitutes for meat products.
Pat Brown: It’s one of my favorite things to do, is to find a powerful enemy, and take them on.
Paul Rand: Even if you haven’t had an Impossible Burger, you’ve probably heard them.
Tape: With meat prices rising in this country and concerns over shortages, some people are looking for alternatives. Impossible Foods makes plant-based meat substitutes. The Impossible Burger sold in restaurants like Burger King.
Tape: This Whopper has no beef.
Tape: That’s impossible.
Tape: Impossible Foods just announced it’s launching its products at Walmart stores. It’s a huge step for the company into the US grocery space.
Paul Rand: But Pat Brown isn’t just a business leader, he’s a scientist, and professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry at Stanford University. And he does not mince words about the impact he hopes to have on the meat industry.
Pat Brown: Our goal is to make those industries go away, just to be clear. The most destructive technology in human history. We want to make it go away.
Paul Rand: Why are those industries so destructive?
Pat Brown: It is overwhelmingly responsible for the two greatest environmental threats that our planet has faced. Number one, relentless progression of catastrophic climate change, our poor catastrophic climate change. And number two, a complete collapse of global biodiversity.
Paul Rand: From the University of Chicago Podcast Network, this is Big Brains. A show about the pioneering research and pivotal breakthroughs that are reshaping our world. On this episode, replacing the meat industry to help save our planet. I’m your host, Paul Rand.
Pat Brown: When I was in the PhD Program in Biochemistry, my advisor was a guy named Nick Cozzarelli. I chose that lab, because they were working on, what I consider to be the absolute most interesting scientific problem I could imagine, which was basically to understand the mechanism of an enzyme that takes certain DNA molecules, and kind of twists them up.
Paul Rand: It was a sabbatical from the Department of Biochemistry at Stanford University that got Pat thinking about what greater impact he wanted to have.
Pat Brown: But I’d want more freedom, and I basically just decided, okay. What’s the most important thing I can do to make the world better?
Paul Rand: So, is that literally the question you’re asking yourself? You sit down and say, I’m going to find this?
Pat Brown: Yes, it’s a big question, and it was obviously the most important thing I can do given my skillset, which is finite. But what I realized that, actually, the most important problem that I could work on, the greatest threat that humanity has ever faced, is the catastrophic impact of our use of animals as a food technology.
Paul Rand: It’s not surprising to hear that the meat industry is terrible for the planet. Most of us have been told that at one point or another. But calling it the greatest threat humanity has ever faced is quite a statement.
Pat Brown: So a lot of people, when they think about what’s the contribution of our culture to climate change, they’re thinking about, okay, well, let’s kind of tally up all the car emissions. Okay.
Tape: According to the UN, livestock production contributes almost 15% of the world’s greenhouse gases.
Pat Brown: Which is more than the entire transportation system. Every form of transportation combined. Cars, buses, trucks. The land used every year to support livestock comprises about 45% of the entire surface of the earth.
Paul Rand: Okay. Wow.
Pat Brown: It’s crops to feed livestock, permanent pastures, range lands, and grazing lands that are continually used for livestock. Now, what’s the opportunity cost of that? If I could snap my fingers and make that industry disappear in this instance, the recovery of biomass on that land would effectively, over the next 30 years or so, pull out equals 22 yards of fossil fuel emissions.
Paul Rand: 22 years of fossil fuel emissions. I’m sure a lot of climate scientists would love to get that time back.
Pat Brown: So, we’ve got 15% from stopping emissions. We’ve got another 22 years worth of emissions nullified over the next 30 years. Then, two of the greenhouse gases of which livestock are the primary sources, and they’re very potent greenhouse gases, it’s more potent than CO2, are methane and nitrous oxide. Methane has a half-life of nine years. Nitrous oxide has a half-life of about a hundred years. Okay? Unlike carbon dioxide that it’s spontaneously decay. Which means if you shut off the emissions, okay, you don’t get it now. Zero emissions. You get negative emissions, because those gases spontaneously decay.
Paul Rand: Industrial meat is also the single biggest cause of deforestation globally. In Brazil, farmers are deliberately setting forest fires, like the Amazon rainforest fires that you may have seen in the news.
Tape: Cattle are the biggest single reason the trees are cleared. They’re grazing on land that used to be forest. Brazilian beef is in big demand all over the world.
Pat Brown: So, if you see smoke rising from the Amazon, that’s the second hand smoke from your barbie.
Paul Rand: And there’s more.
Pat Brown: Biodiversity is probably even worse.
Tape: About 1 million species of animals and plants around the world are now at risk of extinction.
Paul Rand: For more than half of a century, the World Wildlife Fund, and a consortium of more academic institutions, have been tracking the total population of more than 4,000 animal species that have been selected to represent animal biodiversity on Earth.
Pat Brown: And as of two years ago, in their last report, the total number of living wild mammals, wild birds, wild reptiles, wild amphibians, and wild fish living on Earth is less than a third what it was 50 years ago.
Speaker 10: Animals all over the world find their habitat threatened by human activities like unsustainable farming and pollution.
Pat Brown: So when I started college, there were three times as many total wild animals living on Earth as there are today. And it’s almost entirely due to the use of animals and food technology.
Paul Rand: The industry also uses a huge amount of water. It takes more than 18,000 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef.
Pat Brown: That means that we need to make products that compete sufficiently well to remove the economic incentive for covering the planet with cows and all the impacts of that industry.
Paul Rand: Researchers say that cutting meat from our diets is the single biggest way we can reduce our individual impact on the planet, but there’s a problem.
Pat Brown: The thing is that people love is they are so used to the pleasure that they get every day from eating these foods. That it feels too difficult to them to make the decision to stop or significantly cut back.
Paul Rand: This was the central problem that Pat realized during his sabbatical. Years of activism and education to convince people to go vegetarian hasn’t worked on a wide scale.
Pat Brown: Even people who fully understand the destructive impact of that industry. And I mean, when I went to the Paris Climate Conference five years ago, everybody acknowledged that this was a huge problem, and they all went on head state to that. So, my feeling is, okay, what that tells you is you’re not going to solve the problem by educating people or by telling them what I just told you. Forget about that. Governments aren’t going to do it. So, what I recognize, anyone who has a better idea, please tell me, was that pull the economic rug out from under this industry that’s destroying our planet by competing in the marketplace.
Paul Rand: And so, Impossible Foods was born.
Pat Brown: We need to do a better job of serving consumers by figuring out how to make foods that are more delicious, healthful, and affordable, and of course, much more sustainable. And that, as a biochemist, I thought, actually, that is completely doable. It’s very hard, but it’s doable. We can understand the molecular mechanisms that make these foods desirable, and use that knowledge to figure out a way to produce foods that deliver those same values and pleasures way more sustainably. So, that’s when I decided to do it.
Paul Rand: So, let me tell you, getting ready for this, and I’ve enjoyed your product for years, not as a vegetarian or as a vegan, but as a true meat lover.
Pat Brown: You are the exact person that I’m dedicating the rest of my life to make happy.
Paul Rand: Pat insists that his product be referred to as impossible meat. Not a vegetable protein substitute, but meat. And that’s because his target consumers aren’t vegetarians or vegans, they’re meat eaters.
Pat Brown: Yeah. Well, I mean, obviously that’s what we have to do, because we can’t ask consumers to meet us halfway. We have to focus on delivering and then over-delivering the things that they value. That’s the only way you win in the market.
Paul Rand: Pat believes that he has a fundamental advantage over the meat industry. They can’t change their product. Meanwhile, he can bring all his knowledge as a Stanford biochemist to continually improve his recipe.
Pat Brown: It’s why I know we’re going to win this, because it’s like the first mechanized transportation, which is locomotive, famously lost a race to a horse. But the point is, it was never going to again, because the horse wasn’t going to be any faster. And now, you have a technology that can be continually improved. The cows stop working on this problem a thousand years ago, 10,000 years ago. And it’s never going to get really any better at this stuff, and that’s our core advantage.
Paul Rand: After the break, how Pat brown cracked the code on making plants tastes like meat.
Paul Rand: Thank you for listening to Big Brains. If you’re enjoying our podcast, please take a minute to give us a review and a rating, and tell a friend about the show too. We hope to share these conversations about pioneering research with as many people as possible. Again, thanks for listening.
Paul Rand: So, let’s go through you. You came up with this idea that you have to beat them in the market, which is a huge insight. And you’ve decided that you’ve got to crack the code of what makes meat taste good. And only if you figure that out, are you going to solve this. What did you find out? What’s the code?
Pat Brown: Meat is instantly recognizable by a meat eater. Any kind of meat, whether it’s from a toad or a cow. It’s different from anything from a plant. There’s a bunch of common characteristics. One of which is that, when you cook broccoli, it gets mushy and warm. When you cook meat, you get this rather spectacular explosion of flavor and aroma. Where this thing, if tasted in the raw state, is relatively bland. So, I want to understand what is about meat, and I had an idea what it was. And just to make a long story short, it’s that meat, animal tissues have very high amounts of molecule called heme.
Paul Rand: Heme. If there’s one thing that the center of the Impossible Foods code, it’s this.
Pat Brown: So, heme is what makes your blood red, it’s what carries oxygen in your blood. It’s also an essential molecule for every living cell on Earth, because it’s part of the energy generating system cell, and it has multiple functions. It’s also well-known to biochemists. We didn’t discover any of this stuff. One of the best catalysts known in nature. It’s, for example, the business end of the enzymes in your body that are involved in synthesizing estrogen, testosterone, corticosteroids, the enzymes that metabolize caffeine in your body and metabolize drugs in your body. They all use heme as basically the catalytic element. Here’s the thing. You have this category of foods. They’re screaming at you, wow, we got lots of heme in them. You know heme is a great biological catalyst, and the behavior of meat when you cook it screams ketolysis. Because basically, a lot of chemistry is happening fast. So, we studied meat to try to understand the mechanism, and discovered, basically, that 95% of the answer to why meat tastes categorically different from anything in the plant world, is that meat has lots of heme.
Paul Rand: Now, tell me where you have found it, because it’s interesting. Where you’ve got the heme to produce in your products.
Pat Brown: Well, initially, I thought I had a brilliant idea, which was legumes have these structures on the roots called root nodules, which are basically, it turned nitrogen from the atmosphere and the fertilizer. So, they’re nitrogen fixing plants. These root nodules contain a heme protein called leghemoglobin, and high concentrations of it actually. So I thought, okay, I’m going to calculate how much leghemoglobin is there in the root nodules of the soybean crop. And it was approximately as much equivalent to the amount of the heme protein in meat, and the entire meat supply. So I thought, okay, great. Here’s a part of the soybean plant that no one values. We’ll just harvest that extract the leghemoglobin. That’s where I’ll get the heme coding for our meat.
Pat Brown: Well, I thought that was a brilliant idea, but actually it was not such a great idea. It took us maybe the better part of a year, spending time out in Midwest soybean fields, digging off root nodules, and using an inverted street sweeper to strip them off the roots. But eventually decided that for a whole variety of reasons, this was not going to be a scalable solution. And at that point we decided, okay, we’re going to express the heme protein in yeast, by engineering the yeast cells to produce the heme protein. The yeast cells, by the way, are completely able of making the heme molecule itself. Every cell has to be able to make heme pretty much, or else they have to able to scavenge it on every cell on Earth, including yeast. But you need a specific kind of protein to hold that heme molecule, so that it protects it from oxidation. And then, when you cook, it unfolds and releases it, and sets off this explosion of chemistry. So, we engineered yeast to express heme protein, and now we have yeast cells that are world-class professional producers of heme protein.
Pat Brown: It’s extremely sustainable. It’s much lower environmental impact than harvesting the soybean roots, and scalable.
Paul Rand: All right. So in addition to the heme, tell me the other ingredients that are making up your hamburger-like product.
Pat Brown: We had to understand what are the kind of biochemical mechanisms that account for juicing it. What are the mechanisms that account for the textural transformations that meat undergoes when you cook it? And then, what we did was we said, okay, where can we find a potentially scalable source of proteins or fats or whatever, that enabled us to match these characteristics? Our current product has soy protein as a major protein. And I’ll just tell you a thing about soy protein that most people don’t appreciate is that, according to the kind of standards for measuring protein nutritional quality that the FDA uses and the World Health Organization uses and so forth, soy protein, in terms of its protein quality digestibility, amino acid composition, is better than beef protein.
Paul Rand: Interesting.
Pat Brown: It’s a higher quality protein source. We have other things. We have fats on sunflowers, a particular strain of sunflowers, coconut oil, and a variety of other things that contribute to the flavor.
Paul Rand: One of the criticisms of plant-based alternatives to meat is that it’s highly processed and high in sodium. And it’s true, that one serving of Impossible Meat contains 16% of the FDA suggested daily value of sodium. And almost any nutritionist would tell you to try to cut down on processed foods as much as possible, and focus on whole foods, like fruits and vegetables.
Pat Brown: Something to keep in mind. What we’re trying to replace is not your kale, and quinoa, and lentil salad, or whatever it is. We’re trying to replace ground beef from a cow. So, the salient comparison in terms of nutrition is not with that salad, which if I were to offer a current weekend in some [inaudible 00:16:54], instead of that juicy burger, how about eating this pile of lentils and quinoa. That’s not the idea. But our product has no cholesterol. It has lower saturated fat, lower total fat, lower calories than the mass market ground beef product. So, that’s the salient comparison.
Paul Rand: You’ve said a few times, you think you can actually meaningfully impact this industry within 15 years. Where do you feel that you are on that path?
Pat Brown: Yeah, that’s a really good question. Well, our sales of our product and so forth are going up very fast, and the animal-based products are advanced plateaued. But we’re very early stage. I mean, right now, our share of the $11 billion US ground beef market is less than 1%. So, we have a long way to go. But we know where this ends, because the competition is not getting any better, and we’re getting better all the time, and we’re just scrambling to keep up with the demand at this point. I think it’s not going to be just a slow, steady erosion of their market. It’s going to be effectively getting them to a tipping point.
Pat Brown: The US beef industry is fragile. The average age of a beef farmer or rancher in the US is 59 years old. What that tells you is young people with options don’t choose that profession anymore. It’s not very profitable. And if you just look at economic statistics, the median beef farm in the US loses money in any given year. The reason that the industry continues is that, those that are on the high end make enough money to make it profitable overall as an industry. But it’s not thriving.
Pat Brown: Think of it this way. The fundamental economics of our products are vastly superior to the animal counterparts. We use 1/25 of land. We use 1/9 of water. We use a 12th of the fertilizer. We use even a smaller fraction of the pesticides that go into producing beef. All the stuff that goes into the feed crops, and managing the cows. We use less labor growing the plants, because right now, the feed crops are being turned very inefficiently into meat. And we turn them very efficiently with essentially a hundred percent conversion efficiency. A cow does it with 3% conversion efficiency. So, that means we actually need less plant crops, and we need no farm labor managing animals.
Paul Rand: So, all the economic inputs, including the labor, are far lower for the production process of an Impossible Burger than a regular burger. Which brings us to another criticism of Impossible Meat. It’s more expensive than regular meat.
Pat Brown: The problem is we’re building this starting from zero. The incumbent industry has a hundred years of investment in all their infrastructure and so forth, and a very sort of stable, predictable market. And in our case, we’re producing capacity, and we’re possibly growing into it. Which means that, you can’t be 100% efficient when you’re building new capacity and then growing into it. But what I can say is that, anyone who understands basic economics knows that at scale, we are going to be a lot less expensive. We can’t sell the product at a loss, because we won’t be around very well if we do that. But we’re driving the costs down, and then, we’ll be able to compete on price. So, that’s number one. And we’re not trying to screw consumers. We’re running our margins, and soon as we can run them, and still stay strong as a company.
Paul Rand: Well, you have pork on the markets. You’re working at a couple of others as well. What should we keep an eye out for here? Where do we see you going next?
Pat Brown: We have to make steak. Stay tuned.
Paul Rand: Can’t wait.
Pat Brown: The next most destructive part of the industry is the dairy industry. So, we have to make dairy products. Stay tuned. But I can tell you also to understand how we’re approaching this is, we never have to make beef liver. We never have to make beef kidney. Because we’re going to be strategic about making products that compete against essential elements of the kind of economic foundation of these industries that are destroying our planet. And then, maybe, we’ll decide to make beef liver just because we can. We’re still making discoveries, and we’ve made versions of products from three different animals, that in blind taste tests with hundreds of consumers, have been preferred over the animal versions of those products. They’re not on the market. And we are actually always working. We’re always working to make all those things, which are already better than the cow version, to make them even better still. And unlike the cow, we can.
Paul Rand: If you’re getting a lot out of the important research shared on Big Brains, there’s another University of Chicago Podcast Network show you should check out. It’s called Not Another Politics Podcast. Not Another Politics Podcast provides a fresh perspective on the biggest political stories, not through opinions and anecdotes, but through rigorous scholarship, massive data sets, and a deep knowledge of theory. If you want to understand the political science behind the political headlines, then listen to Not Another Politics Podcast. Part of the University of Chicago Podcast Network.
Matt Hodapp: Big Brains is a production of the U Chicago Podcast Network. If you like what you heard, please give us a review and a rating. Show is hosted by Paul M. Rand, and produced by me, Matt Hodapp, with assistance from Alyssa Eads. Thanks for listening.
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