Beyond Chicken is officially back.
Beyond Meat is reintroducing a breaded chicken tender product today at hundreds of foodservice outlets nationwide. The new formulation is the result of more than a decade of R&D work, and uses fava bean protein as its main plant-based ingredient. Dariush Ajami, chief innovation officer at Beyond Meat, said this new product mimics the texture, juiciness, taste and crispness of chicken, and scored on par with meat-based chicken tenders in consumer taste tests.
"Beyond Meat has invested heavily in our R&D program," Ajami said. "Our scientists have a very good understanding of animal product at the molecular level. But also, the product that we have, we understand the gap between the two. Through the process that we have ... Beyond Meat has relentless innovation, and we try to close that gap."
Beyond Meat actually got its start with a plant-based chicken product introduced at retail in 2012. That product was quietly discontinued in 2019, and the company said at the time it was working to improve on the plant-based chicken experience.
The new Beyond Chicken Tenders have completely changed the formula and manufacturing method of the previous Chicken Strips, which were made out of extruded ingredients including soy powder, gluten-free flour and carrot protein. The new tenders, which are breaded — unlike their predecessors — have 14 grams of protein per serving and 40% less saturated fat than the leading meat-based foodservice chicken tender, the company said.
Part of this nutritional profile comes from the choice of fava bean as the base protein in the product. Ajami said Beyond Meat's technology allows it to create texturized and juicy products from a wide variety of plant proteins. Considering that there are many plant-based chicken products on the market, Ajami said Beyond Meat wanted to use a different sort of protein to set it apart from competitors and to utilize the company's capabilities.
Fava beans are a highly sustainable crop, which is another key reason Beyond Meat was attracted to using them for its chicken, Ajami said. Fava beans also can grow in colder weather, and they are known for adding nutrients, including nitrogen, to soil. Beyond Meat also uses fava bean protein as part of the blend in its dinner sausage products. Fava bean protein does have a distinct taste, but Ajami said that it complements flavoring to mask off-tastes and amp up the chicken taste.
While Beyond Meat has been creating plant-based chicken products over the last few years, with limited-time offerings at KFC restaurants in Atlanta, North Carolina, Tennessee and Southern California, the new Beyond Chicken Tenders are a completely different product. KFC's menu item was designed to replicate a whole-muscle chicken breast piece, the company said. In February, Beyond Meat announced a strategic deal with the restaurant chain's parent company Yum Brands that includes the co-creation of exclusive menu items at KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut during the next several years.
These new chicken tenders are launching in foodservice only for the time being, but Beyond Meat said there will be a retail plant-based chicken product "in the near future."
It seems that chicken alternative options are growing quickly in 2021, with numerous retail and foodservice launches — including plans for Quorn's fermented chicken analog to make a big push into U.S. restaurants this year. But Beyond Meat said it isn't trying to jump on a trend. The company has been working to perfect a chicken product for years, and now is the right time for the launch, a spokesperson said. However, the timing is extremely validating, the company said, as demand for chicken and plant-based products in general is accelerating.
The wide relaunch of Beyond Chicken is something that has been anxiously awaited for years, and this announcement has been teased for months. In April, Bloomberg reported that the company started telling customers it was launching a new chicken product this summer. And in May, Beyond Chicken Tenders won a 2021 FABI Award from the National Restaurant Association for being one of the best new innovations. A Beyond Meat spokesperson said in an email that the tenders are a versatile product to expand the company's foodservice reach. They work well in places where chicken tenders are on the menu, and can be used in products such as sandwiches and tacos.
The company said the pandemic made consumers in general more interested in all forms of plant-based meat because of the health and environmental impacts of the traditional meat industry. And as the United States moves past the COVID-19 peak, diners are returning to restaurants. At the start of the pandemic, only 12% of the company's sales came from foodservice, the company said. In the first quarter of 2021, that increased to 25%.
For all of its products, Beyond Meat continues the development process after launch to make improvements. For example, the company debuted a comprehensive reformulation of its signature Beyond Burger product in May that cut the fat and calories.
"We have dedicated lots of resources to this sector," Ajami said. "There's a tight collaboration with our partners and we'll see feedback from chefs, the people that actually make this for [the] consumer, and the team here will adjust to satisfy [them]."