Impossible Burger's key ingredient wins FDA approval

The meatless burger's "heme" is safe to eat, regulators say.

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An Impossible Burger is made entirely of plant proteins but looks, tastes and smells a lot like beef.

Dara Kerr/CNET

The key ingredient in the Impossible Burger, the meatless burger that bleeds and browns when cooked, has finally passed muster with federal regulators.

Impossible Foods, the Redwood City, California-based startup behind the plant-based burger, said Monday the key ingredient in the burger had been determined to be generally recognized as safe (GRAS) to eat by the US Food and Drug Administration. That ingredient, soy leghemoglobin, or "heme," had reportedly been under review by the FDA as a potential allergen.

Impossible Foods is part of a vegan meat movement, in which products made from faux beef, chicken, pork and fish are produced in a high-tech lab to replicate the taste, look and smell of the real thing. Other companies include Beyond Meat, which makes meat-free chicken strips, and New Wave Foods, which sells fishless fried shrimp.

One of the main things that contributes to its appeal with diners is that it "bleeds" like a regular burger.

"Heme is identical inside a plant and in the muscle tissue of an animal. It is the taste of blood," Celeste Holz-Schietinger, Impossible Foods' principal scientist, told CNET's Dara Kerr during a 2016 visit to the company's lab.

The burger, which has earned high marks from carnivores and vegans alike, is sold at restaurants across the US, and the company recently partnered with the White Castle burger chain on a meatless plant-based burger done with White Castle's typical square-bun flair.

The FDA said in a statement that it "does not have any questions at this time about the company's conclusion that soy leghemoglobin is GRAS under the intended conditions of use (in the company's cooked ready-to-eat vegetarian products emulating ground beef, such as its plant-based Impossible Burger) and therefore does not require premarket review as a food additive. It is important to note that the safety standard for food additives and GRAS substances is the same -- reasonable certainty of no harm."

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