It's the stuff that makes the meatless patties "bleed." 
Credit: Aubrie Pick

When Impossible Foods burst onto the scene a couple years ago, the killer app for the company’s plant-based burger wasn’t just its similarity to meat in taste and texture, but also that the patty “bleeds” like a real burger.

Of course, the inevitable question becomes how does it do it? It’s a question that even the Food and Drug Administration was interested in delving into a bit deeper…but now, good news for Impossible Foods and fans of the Impossible Burger alike: The FDA has officially given the company’s “magic ingredient” the go-ahead.

Impossible Foods likes to say that the key to its burgers is an iron-containing molecule called “heme.” If you’ve read about the Impossible Burger before, you’ve likely heard this four-letter word, as well as Impossible’s pitch that heme is “one of nature’s most ubiquitous molecules,” existing “in virtually all the food we eat,” particularly in animal muscle, making it “uniquely delicious and craveable.”

What makes the backstory of “heme” a bit more complicated, however, is how Impossible Foods produces it. As Impossible explicitly states, “The company genetically engineers and ferments yeast to produce a heme protein naturally found in plants, called soy leghemoglobin.” Needless to say, “soy leghemoglobin” is more of a mouthful, and it’s also the ingredient the FDA wanted to spend a bit more time reviewing. This protein was already deemed safe enough to allow Impossible Burgers to be sold at nearly 3,000 locations including major chains like White Castle. However, with Impossible Foods' continued rapid expansion, the FDA decided to take a second look.

After digging through a (now public) 1,066-page submission from Impossible Foods, the FDA issued what is known as a “no question” letter, upholding the idea that Impossible Burgers are “generally recognized as safe” to eat. “We have no questions at this time regarding Impossible Foods’ conclusion that soy leghemoglobin preparation is GRAS under its intended conditions of use to optimize flavor in ground beef analogue products intended to be cooked,” the FDA stated.

“Getting a no-questions letter goes above and beyond our strict compliance to all federal food-safety regulations,” Impossible Foods CEO and Founder Dr. Patrick O. Brown said in a statement after the announcement. “We have prioritized safety and transparency from day one, and they will always be core elements of our company culture.”

Interestingly enough, Impossible Foods' announcement of its GRAS status came on the same day as their biggest plant-based burger competitor, Beyond Meat, maker of the Beyond Burger, announced that the company’s entire line of products had received Non-GMO Project verification. Though both brands position themselves as environmentally-friendly meat alternatives, the two companies have drawn a line in the sand between them when it comes to GMOs—an interesting distinction since both are so heavily tech-based.

Regardless, these recent announcements from both plant-based burger giants would seem to underscore an even larger point: The growing plant-based burger phenomenon is here to stay.