What Is Heme? Vegan Plant Protein Makes Impossible Burger Possible

... and delicious

What Is Heme?
In this photo illustration, an 'Impossible Whopper' sits on a table at a Burger King restaurant on April 1, 2019, in Richmond Heights, Missouri. Michael Thomas/Getty Images

By now you've likely heard of the latest food craze sweeping the nation—the pink and juicy meat-like product known as the Impossible Burger.

The plant-based patties were first introduced to the world in 2016 when celebrity chef David Chang placed it on the menu at his New York City restaurant Momofuku Nishi. The faux-meat has since graced the menus of more than 5,000 establishments across all 50 states. The product, launched by Impossible Foods Inc., is even available at fast-food chains like White Castle, Qdoba, Burger King and, most recently, Little Caesars, and there are more plans for an even bigger rollout—retail grocery stores—down the pipeline.

The Impossible Burger has undoubtedly become a hit with vegans, vegetarians and carnivores alike, and rightfully so. It has all the qualities people love about beef—mouthwatering aroma, lip-licking flavor, texture and color and juiciness—without actually being beef or any other animal food product. That's all thanks to one special component in Impossible Food products; the one thing that separates it from all the other veggie burgers and vegan patties that have graced the market: Heme.

Newsweek recently spoke with Chris Davis, a research associate at Impossible Foods Inc., and he broke down exactly what heme is and how it works in Impossible Burgers.

What is heme?

What is Heme? Ingredient in Impossible Burger
The Impossible Burger 2.0, the new and improved version of the company's plant-based vegan burger that tastes like real beef is introduced at a press event during CES 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada on January 7, 2019. Robyn Beck / AFP/Getty Images

While it may be a relatively new term for many, heme is essentially one of the most fundamental molecules found in every living thing. According to Davis, who's worked alongside Impossible Foods scientists from the company's beginning, heme's main function is to carry oxygen.

"The hemoglobin in your blood carries oxygen from your lungs through all the cells in your body to keep you alive. The oxygen that's transferred inside the cell to myoglobin, which is another protein containing heme, is what provides the oxygen that fuels all your muscles and the muscles of all animals. Other organisms like plants and micros, etcetera, use heme and heme proteins for similar purposes," he said.

While researchers were trying to determine what made meat taste like meat, Davis and his team discovered it was actually heme that drove the flavor humans associate with meat tastes.

"White meat like chicken and alligator tend to be all relatively simple meat flavors. The meat flavors get more complex when you get to the darker meat like pork and beef and even further out there like whale—the complexity of the meat flavor changes," Davis explained. "One of the things we realized was that complexity wasn't just correlated to the process of heme but it was driven by the heme and that the flavor of meat is largely dependent on the reactions of heme."

How heme is used in Impossible Foods

What is Heme? Ingredient in Impossible Burger
The Impossible Burger 2.0, the new and improved version of the company's plant-based vegan burger that tastes like real beef is introduced at a press event during CES 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada on January 7, 2019. Robyn Beck / AFP/Getty Images

Since heme is ubiquitous and is found in every living organism, the Impossible Foods teams had to isolate a series of proteins from various plants to determine which would work the best for the Impossible Burger based on properties like color, taste and the way the product cooks. "We identified the linking of heme from soy as a strong candidate," Davis said, noting a widely abundant source of heme found in soybeans.

"It's a key part of the system where the soybean takes nitrogen to the soil, and it's actually found in the root modules, which is the natural 16 organs of soybeans," he continued. "It turns out that the system the soybean uses is oxygen sensitive so it packs all the nitrogen fixing the system but the heme protein doesn't protect it, leading to its abundance."

While there are enormous amounts of heme protein found in the bread-sized soybean roots buried in the soils of the Midwest—more than 80 percent of soybeans are cultivated in states like Minnesota, Iowa and Ilinois, according to a Statista report released in February—digging up land to extract the protein would result in an array of problems for the environment. For starters, it would disturb all the soil structure and, in turn, reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, Davis said.

"We decided it was a very bad idea to make it from that source, so we decided to make that same protein by fermentation," he said.

Heme's bright future as a vegan protein

What is Heme? Ingredient in Impossible Burger
In this photo illustration, meatless 'Impossible Sliders' sits on a table at a White Castle restaurant, April 12, 2018, in the Queens borough of New York City. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

With all the praise Impossible Foods has received regarding the quality and taste of the company's product, it's hard not to think about how heme can influence the foods of the future. Now that heme's flavor-driving qualities are common knowledge, Davis predicted there would be more products featuring it later down the road. "Now that we've shown that you can make delicious meat without using an animal, it changes the paradigm of what is possible," he said.

"It's similar to the first time people started making cars. It wasn't the initial designs of cars that ended up ruling the world. It was the many many companies who started with the paradigm once it was understood. And we expect the same thing to happen," Davis continued. "Many companies will see that this is now a possible foot forward to not only make money but also feed the world and save the planet."

As for the future of Impossible Foods, it'll likely continue leading the charge. "Unless it turns out that a piece of cow is the most delicious that meat can be, there's no reason to believe that we can't add value by the application of science. So we see our product and ideas continuing to improve as we learn more about what drives quality and provides consumer benefits," he said.

The focus, for now, is replacing the most environmentally destructive piece of the animal farming industry, cows. So the company is working on getting their products in the hands of the everyday consumer.

While Davis noted there was no official launch date or location for Impossible Foods plant-based meats yet, he confirmed consumers will see their ground beef in grocery stores by the end of the year.