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Impossible Foods' pig-free pork is here, and it's scary-similar to the real thing

Following the success of its plant-based burger substitute, Impossible Foods debuts its latest lab-created meat invention.

impossible-pork

Impossible Foods' new plant-based pork product is designed to look and taste like the real thing.

Abrar Al-Heeti/CNET
This story is part of CES 2020, our complete coverage of the showroom floor and the hottest new tech gadgets around.

What's next after you've successfully imitated the look, taste and smell of real beef? For Impossible Foods, the choice is obvious: Move on to pork. (And, maybe soon, bacon.)

The Silicon Valley-based startup that launched the Impossible Burger in 2016 is tackling another meat. At CES 2020 in Las Vegas on Monday, the company debuted Impossible Pork, a plant-based substitute designed to mimic ground meat from pigs. It'll launch Impossible Sausage later this month with a new Burger King partnership, this time in an Impossible Croissan'wich.

Traditional meat production is a "ridiculous technology for food," CEO Pat Brown said at Impossible Foods' CES press conference Monday, punctuating the air with his hand as he answered a reporter's question about his breaking point that led to pursuing plant-based meat. Traditional meat, he said, contributes significantly to "the two biggest threats humanity has ever faced, which is catastrophic climate change and a catastrophic meltdown in biodiversity."

"Are you kidding me?" Brown asked the crowd of international press, sitting on the edge of his chair under bright lights in what would otherwise be the moody, dim lighting of the Kumi Japanese restaurant of the Mandalay Bay resort on the Vegas Strip. "This is the absolute most important task in the world," he finished, sparking applause and whoops of approval from pockets of the audience. 

Impossible Pork, which is gluten-free and designed for kosher and halal certification, looks strikingly similar to real pork, with its light pink hue when raw and tender, juicy texture after cooking. Given I've never eaten pig meat due to religious reasons, I can't personally speak to how similar the flavor is, but my CNET colleagues say it tastes just like the real thing. There's no word yet on where and when it'll be sold.

The new product joins a growing list of plant-based meat products looking to decrease the need for animals as a food source. Driven by a desire to reduce environmental impact and offer health benefits such as lower cholesterol and fat, several companies offer products like plant-based bacon, sausages and meatballs. Beyond Meat, a close competitor to Impossible Burger, also sells plant-based ground meat and sausages, and last year teamed up with KFC to offer plant-based chicken.

"Pigs are the single most popular source of meat globally and particularly in Asia," Brown said last month during a visit to the company's Redwood City, California, headquarters. "Internationally, it's a clear No. 1, and our goal [and] our mission is global. For us to have an impact, particularly in Asia, pork is kind of a no-brainer."

Bacon is also on Impossible Foods' roadmap, Brown said Monday at the CES press conference. While he declined to specify what would be Impossible Foods' next meat imitator, Brown hinted that seafood is high on his priority list. 

But the first question put to Brown from the crowd, which had started the evening sampling Impossible's new pork in dishes like pork banh mi sandwiches and dan dan noodles, was when to expect bacon.

"We're not going to release a bacon product until we feel like anyone who is the most hardcore bacon worshipper thinks it's awesomely delicious," he said. "But we're definitely on track."

What's in it? 

The makeup of Impossible Foods' latest creation doesn't differ too much from that of the Impossible Burger, which has faced some criticism for being highly processed. Like its plant-based meat predecessor, the main protein in Impossible Pork is soy, and the major fat sources are sunflower oil and coconut oil. Impossible Pork also includes amino acids, vitamins and sugars, as well as heme, an iron-containing compound found in all living organisms, which catalyzes the flavor chemistry to produce meaty flavors and aromas. 

The heme concentration of Impossible Pork is lower than that of the Impossible Burger, just as it is in real pork, Brown says. 

"That has a significant impact on the flavor chemistry," he notes. "It's one of the reasons why the flavor of pork is generally milder than the flavor of beef."

impossible-pork-3

What Impossible Pork looks like when raw.

Abrar Al-Heeti/CNET

Impossible Pork also touts fewer calories than conventional 70% lean pork from animals (220 calories vs. 350 calories in a 4-ounce serving), less total fat (13 grams vs. 32 grams) and saturated fat (7 grams vs. 11 grams), and no cholesterol (compared with 86 mg in regular pork). But it does have 420 mg of sodium, versus 80 mg in pork. The protein contents, at 16 grams, are about the same.

Impossible Sausage, which debuts in late January, can also be used in any recipe that calls for traditional sausage, the company says. The product is gluten-free, and a raw, 2-ounce serving has 130 calories, 7 grams of protein, 1.69 milligrams of iron, 9 grams of total fat, 4 grams of saturated fat and no cholesterol. (A press release didn't offer up the sodium content.)

Impossible Sausage will be available at 139 Burger King restaurants in five test regions: Savannah, Georgia; Lansing, Michigan; Springfield, Illinois; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Montgomery, Alabama. It'll be available in the limited-time only Impossible Croissan'wich, which includes a toasted croissant, egg and cheese.

The key to the success of the Impossible Whopper at Burger King has been its ability to draw in a wider net of eaters, Fernando Machado, Burger King's chief marketing officer, said Monday at Impossible Foods' CES press conference. 

"It's not just our true fans, but it also attracts lots of people," he said. "We saw the trend in the marketplace with some people wanting that plant-based option."

The National Pork Producers Council released a statement Tuesday challenging Impossible's naming of its new plant-based pork product, calling it "a brazen violation of labelling law." Dan Kovich, director of science and technology for the NPPC, said: "What's impossible is to make pork from plants. This is a brazen attempt to circumvent decades of food labelling law and centuries of precedence. Any adjective placed in front of the word pork can only refine it, not redefine it. It's not pork. It's not pork sausage. It can't be labelled as such." 

In response, Impossible Foods said it "takes pains to emphasize that our product is entirely plant-based and contains no animal products whatsoever. In fact, the surging growth in the plant-based movement is due entirely to the fact there is zero consumer confusion; when given the choice between products that are delicious and nutritious, consumers prefer a product that is plant-based and sustainable -- not ground-up muscle from mammal cadavers."

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Sustainability focused 

Impossible Foods' goal is to replace the need for animals in the food chain and to bring sustainability to the global food system. The company says creating plant-based meats has a "much smaller environmental footprint than meat from animals," and that it takes a fraction of land and water to make Impossible Pork. Reducing the need for crops that are then fed to pigs also means cutting back on fertilizer and pesticides. That's not only better for the environment, Brown says, but it could ultimately lead to lower prices. 

"Right now, we're still a small startup," Brown said. "We don't have economies of scale. But our cost of production is steadily dropping and fast. So we expect before too long to be beating the pig on price, the cow on price and so forth."

Does that mean Impossible Foods is going to tackle chicken, another ubiquitous meat? 

From the start, Brown says, the company's research and development focused on building a broad understanding of how meat works as a biochemical system. Most of what researchers learned applies across various meats, he notes, and the flavor chemistry between them differs only subtly. He adds that the company is therefore "fully capable" of tuning the flavor for chicken, but it'll take a bit of work to figure out the right texture and form factor.

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Impossible Pork is designed be used in any recipe that calls for traditional ground pork.

Abrar Al-Heeti/CNET

"I think you can be highly confident that it will happen before long," he said. "It's definitely in our roadmap."

Impossible Chicken might not be far off, but the company isn't done tweaking its latest creation just yet. Soon after launching the Impossible Burger, it rolled out a second version that aims to more closely resemble and taste like real beef. It's planning to do the same with its plant-based pork product. 

"We are very, very picky," said Celeste Holz-Schietinger, director of research at Impossible Foods. "We're not shy to be like, how do we keep improving this?"

Originally published Jan. 7.
Update, Jan 8: Adds more details about Burger King Croissan'wich partnership and comment from the National Pork Producers Council.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.