We made history this week with the launch of Impossible™ Chicken Nuggets Made From Plants(opens in a new tab), surpassing the animal version with a nugget that consumers unquestionably prefer over animal chicken nuggets from a leading brand. Here’s the story of Allie Gasparini O’Brien, one of the lead food scientists behind Impossible Chicken Nuggets, and how her team created a nugget that outperforms the animal version in every way.
Impossible Chicken Nuggets
After almost six years at Impossible Foods and two years as a Lead on the Product Innovation Team, Allie and her team were faced with an enormous challenge: design and develop a plant-based chicken product from scratch that wasn’t just an acceptable alternative, but actually preferred by consumers over the animal version.
Soon, the team landed on a nugget — a product with a low barrier to entry for plant-based skeptics, and the perfect product to show meat eaters that plant-based chicken can be super delicious.
Allie’s team started with a question: What is a chicken nugget, and how can we create the best one ever made? The team began the process of assessing all of the chicken nuggets on the market, including their flavor, nutrition, shape, texture, mouthfeel, and much more. They went to great lengths to get every nugget they could find — more than 20 in total: “We tasted every single type, described it, took photos, weighed it, all of that stuff.”
They sampled mostly animal-based nuggets for their comparisons: “We weren’t really trying to make a plant-based chicken nugget, we were trying to make an animal-based chicken nugget out of plants, so we were really focused on testing the animal products.” Through the benchmarking process and extensive consumer testing, they established a baseline product profile and created goals and targets for every aspect of the perfect chicken nugget, including nutrition, flavor, texture, and cost. “The people on our team really became chicken nugget experts.”
Then the team moved on to the next stage of the process: product development and testing. On this, they had a bit of a head start: Our R&D and Innovation teams have spent years understanding the flavors and textures of meat, building a knowledge base and technology platform for Impossible Burger that could be applied to other proteins like chicken and pork. Thanks to that institutional knowledge, Impossible Chicken Nuggets took Impossible Foods less than a year to create with a dedicated team.
Based on their existing knowledge of key ingredients, Allie and team worked together to create and sample different recipes — making up to a dozen different formulations at a time, each with slight modifications. “Some days on the project, we would make hundreds of chicken nuggets in a day.” Then they would sample them in a tasting session, noting the differences in flavor and texture, and repeat that process over and over again until they arrived at the perfect nugget.
Throughout the process, they always kept their end goal in mind. “We always know what we’re working towards,” Allie said. “We’re very scientific and always think about the end goal of the experiment and why we want to do it. That helps us create what we’re looking for in a very focused way, and keeps our bar high.” And the team was thrilled with the outcome: “We felt very proud of ourselves for this project. It was a lot of hard work, but we’ve gotten amazing results.”
The result is that Impossible Chicken Nuggets Made From Plants actually outperform the animal in every category. In a blind taste test of Impossible Chicken Nuggets for restaurants, seven out of 10 consumers preferred the Impossible Chicken Nuggets to animal-based chicken nuggets from a leading brand. The Impossible Chicken Nugget also scored higher on net-favorability in terms of appearance, flavor, and texture liking in the test, which was conducted in Irving, Texas, among 201 meat-eating consumers, many of whom also regularly eat plant-based products.
There were challenges along the way, especially as the team strived for perfection. But as Allie said: “It always comes together. The best thing that I can do as a leader on the team is make sure everyone knows that. I don’t think I ever had any doubt that it would.”
Allie's Journey to Impossible Foods
Like many of us at Impossible Foods, Allie has always had an interest in food — so much so that she planned to go to culinary school after graduating high school. When she found the Food Science and Technology program at UC Davis, it was a natural fit.
“I actually always wanted to be a chef, and that was my motivation for studying food. I found out about food science, and I think that’s really what helped to foster my love of science.” She has always enjoyed the experimentation aspect of cooking, and found learning the science behind it very empowering, giving her the knowledge to create anything she dreamed up.
After graduating, Allie worked as an intern at a seed company where she analyzed different melon varieties. During the internship, she happened to meet her current manager at Impossible Foods, who visited the company in search of information on honeydew melon and its similar flavor compounds to beef fat.
Allie joined the Impossible Foods team as a Science Intern in November of 2015, later moving to the role of Research Associate, then Associate Scientist, and finally to her current position as an R&D Manager focused on formulation development. When asked about her favorite part of her job at Impossible Foods, she said: “Working with my teammates and friends and constantly learning new skills and concepts.”
Her job is full of new challenges and learning opportunities, and she has a unique problem solving approach: “I like to solve problems by asking a series of questions to help focus my approach and to make sure I'm tackling the right problem: Is there a problem? What is the problem? What is causing the problem? And how do we solve the problem?” That strategy informs all of her work on the innovation team.
Allie’s proudest accomplishment at Impossible Foods has been working on the development of every single Impossible product formulation — from the early days of Impossible™ Burger, through Impossible™ Pork Made From Plants, Impossible™ Sausage Made From Plants, and Impossible Chicken Nuggets Made From Plants. And there are many more exciting challenges ahead.
While we chose to profile Allie for this highlight, we have many other team members to credit for the creation of our delicious, nutrient-rich, and sustainable Impossible Chicken Nuggets — including the rest of our Product Innovation team, our Culinary Team, our Product Development and Commercialization team, our Nutrition and Health team, and our Consumer Insights team, to name a few. It takes a motivated and collaborative cross-functional team to make an amazing new product like this one, especially because we hold each nugget to the highest standard of taste, texture, nutrition, and sustainability.