APS News | Research

Making a Beef Patty – Without the Beef

Meet Dr. Huan Yan, a chemical physicist at the plant-based meat company Impossible Foods.

Published Jan 12, 2023
Can you guess what this burger doesn’t have? Animal meat.
Can you guess what this burger doesn’t have? Animal meat.
Credit: Impossible Foods

When Impossible Foods launched in 2011, the company’s mission was “to restore biodiversity and reduce the impact of climate change by transforming the global food system” — no small task. But in the dozen years since, the start-up did what many thought was indeed impossible, developing tasty, nutritious, and more sustainable meat, dairy, and fish substitutes, using only plants — no critters involved.

To succeed, Impossible Foods needed to attract bright scientists of all stripes, including biologists, chemists, materials scientists, and plant scientists, to join the team and scrutinize why meat looks, cooks, and tastes the way it does. One of its recruits? Dr. Huan Yan, a chemical physicist.

Yan, who earned her doctorate in chemical physics from Kent State University in 2015, first dabbled in food science at a California-based consulting firm, improving testing for pesticide residues, heavy metals, and allergens. After a year, Yan joined Impossible Foods and, in the seven years that followed, worked her way from a team lead to a senior scientist to Director of Research and Development (R&D) Analytics.

“We’re looking at proteins and small molecules, profiling the nutritional analysis and the chemistries or physical properties behind [animal] meats, so that we can recreate all that,” Yan says. “That’s a very interesting and scientific problem for us to solve.”

When you bite into an Impossible Burger (and, full disclosure, this reporter eats them regularly), one of the first qualities you notice is the texture, which is surprisingly congruent with real beef. This is by design. By harnessing the tools of diverse fields, including analytical chemistry, Yan’s team can identify molecules that create flavor and proteins that add texture, and then recreate them from the building blocks of plants.

“We need to have that materials science and physics knowledge to be really innovative on that front,” Yan says. Physics indeed plays a role, as Impossible Foods researchers study interactions between molecules, and ingredients’ viscosity and phase transitions, to improve the products.

Huan Yan, a chemical physicist at Impossible Foods.
Credit: Huan Yan

Yan says the company emphasizes not only innovation and creativity, but compassion, a value she saw firsthand in her earliest interaction with the company. She was en route to an interview at Impossible Foods, headquartered in the San Francisco Bay Area, when she hit a traffic jam. She was 20 minutes late, but to her surprise, “everyone was super understanding and super kind,” she recalls, a response she says is consistent with the company’s culture. “And in the end, I got the offer.”

For Yan, workplace ethos is only part of Impossible Foods’ appeal. The company’s aim — to create more sustainable food that’s better for the planet — resonates with her.

“When I was in school, I wasn't thinking a lot [about] my purpose. I was just thinking, ‘Okay, let me just get a job and make a living,’” Yan says. But now, she sees her work as mission-driven.

That’s because animal agriculture uses 30% to 50% of Earth’s ice-free land and about a third of all freshwater, and the livestock sector produces at least a seventh of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nations Climate secretariat — a problem that Impossible Foods aims to help fix.

“Being able to make delicious, nutritious meat from plants is actually helpful for the environment,” Yan says. In 2019, a life-cycle analysis by a third-party consultant, Quantis, found that the Impossible Burger (now called Impossible Beef) uses 87% less water and 96% less land, and produces 89% fewer greenhouse gas emissions, than a beef patty.

That’s important to Yan. “The mission is what really drives a lot of us working here,” she says. “It's beyond just a job. … It is more [about] being able to use what I know, and the science, [to] make an impact. That's very inspiring for me.”

Alaina G. Levine

Alaina G. Levine is a science writer and career coach based in Tucson, Arizona.


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