Editor's Note: This article is part of a series on plant proteins. All stories in this series can be found here.
The iconic summer image of a juicy hamburger sizzling on the backyard grill may be getting a makeover.
Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods and other scrappy startups are at the forefront of a major undertaking in the food space: Finding the right mix of peas, coconut oil, potato proteins and other plant-based ingredients that mimic everything people love about ground beef. If they can appeal to even the pickiest of diehard carnivores, the financial payoff for these nascent companies could be huge — placing them in direct competition with multi-billion dollar meat producers who already have taken notice.
"For us to have the impact, we have to appeal to meat consumers — and that's been the target from day one," Nick Halla, chief strategy officer of Impossible Foods, told Food Dive. "The connection of people and where their meat comes from I think will change over time. Right now, people aren't really tied to their meat coming from an animal — they just want it to taste good."
Replicating the taste of real meat has proven painstakingly slow, but in many cases, that's by design.
The manufacturers have been careful not to rush out a product before it's ready, fearing a premature debut could turn off meat connoisseurs or conjure up comparisons to the frozen, hockey puck-shaped veggie burgers that have defined the space for years. To attract consumers beyond the usual vegetarian and vegan crowds, the plant-based meats must have the same taste, texture and smell of meat that humans have been salivating over since prehistoric times.
Much of the early focus in plant-based meat has been in the beef market. An estimated 7.3 billion pounds of ground beef was purchased by food service operators and sold by stores with revenue more than $2 million in 2016, according to industry data. Manufacturers of plant-based meat products are hopeful that if they can capture even a fraction of those totals, they will be a major player in the food space. They need to meat eaters to help them do that.
"The connection of people and where their meat comes from I think will change over time. Right now, people aren't really tied to their meat coming from an animal — they just want it to taste good."
Chief strategy officer of Impossible Foods
There is evidence this is more than just wishful thinking: A report published in 2015 by NPD Group, Midan Marketing and Meatingplace, a trade publication, found 70% of consumers who eat meat are substituting a non-meat protein in their meal at least once a week. And of that total, 22% said they are using non-meat proteins more often than the year before — a sign of the growth potential in the category.
Last year, total plant-based meat sales topped $606 million — excluding data from Whole Foods — with refrigerated meat alternatives surging 15.9%, according to retail sales company SPINS. As researchers craft plant-based beef that more closely resembles what comes from animals, there is optimism that more shoppers could buy the product, pushing sales even higher.
Finding 'a new way to make food'
Employees at Impossible Foods — started in 2011 by Patrick Brown, a Stanford University biochemistry professor — spent the first four years of its existence working in secret to deconstruct the hamburger. Scientists labored to tackle the decidedly complex problem of replicating a burger without real meat by asking equally challenging questions: Why do people like meat? Why does it go from soft to firm when you cook it? Where do the flavors and aromas come from when you put it on the grill?
Rather than adding colors or flavors to reproduce the appearance and taste of meat as previous brands tried to do, they turned to chemistry to better understand why these things occurred before turning to nature to find plant-based solutions to reconstruct their new meat.
"The approaches taken so far weren't going to build products that meat consumers would prefer over what they get today," said Halla, who grew up on a Minnesota dairy farm, but now eats 90% less meat than he used to due to its environmental impact. "We need to find a new way to make food."
During its work, Impossible Foods uncovered a compound known as heme that helps give meat its color and craveable taste as well as catalyzing all the other flavors when it's cooked. It took months of research before scientists uncovered a protein — the legume hemoglobin found in the legume plant — that caused the same chemical reaction to occur when heat was applied. Scientists also wanted to mirror the textural change beef undergoes — from soft and spongy to firm — when it's cooked. The answer was uncovered in wheat and potato proteins.
Today, the burger includes four main ingredients: Heme, coconut oil and wheat and potato proteins. After developing thousands of meat prototypes during the last few years, a team of nearly 100 researchers are still fine-tuning the product in the company's expansive laboratory nestled in Silicon Valley.
Impossible Foods has focused its strategy on first introducing its products in restaurants — it's now found in establishments in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, New York City and San Francisco — where restaurant employees can experience the product and learn more about it, while at the same time passing on their wisdom to the curious consumer. The price for one burger, between $12 and $19, is comparable to an average entree or pricey appetizer.
'Not quite beef-like'
While these startups know most people are reluctant to give up meat, they are hoping to capitalize on barbecuers and restaurant foodies who are eating healthier and increasingly choosing their food based on personally held beliefs such as environmental sustainability and humane treatment of animals. It takes a lot of land, water, food and time for cows to turn plants into meat.
Compared to a burger made from cows, making an Impossible Burger, for example, takes about 1/20th the land, a quarter of the water, and produces 1/8th the greenhouse gas emissions, according to the company. For the health conscious, burgers made from plants have less fat, no cholesterol and tend to have more protein than a regular burger.
"As a company, we believe we still have room to grow. We're in the right ballpark, but I still think when you taste the burger, it's not quite beef-like, a 100%, and so we're still hungry to improve in that area."
Beyond Meat's marketing director
Beyond Meat has been working since 2009 to develop plant-based meats, debuting its first commercialized product — chicken strips — three years later.
Much like Impossible Foods, the company has disassembled the standard meat burger and looked to nature to replicate those same characteristics using plants — a process that is not without its share of trial and error. Several different ingredients such as pomegranate juice were tried to give the meat its red color. Instead, researchers ended up settling on beet juice, which changes to a medium red hue and caramelizes to create grill marks on the outside of the meat just like a real burger when it's heated.
The company's first burger hit the market in 2015, but it has since been replaced by the popular Beyond Burger — which resembles the 80% protein, 20% fat product found in the supermarket meat section — as Beyond Meat refined its ingredients roster and the process it used to manufacture the product.
The Beyond Burger, which sizzles and oozes fats while cooking, has proven to be a hit, selling more than 10 times as fast as its next bestselling item. It has drawn scores of fans on social media who served it to their families for dinner only to surprise them later and tell them it wasn't meat, the company claims.
"As a company, we believe we've got a little room to grow," Will Schafer, Beyond Meat's vice president of marketing, told Food Dive. "We're in the right ballpark, but I still think when you taste the burger, it's not quite beef-like, a 100%, and so we're still hungry to improve in that area."
The company employs a team of scientists testing and tweaking the delicate balance of ingredients to improve the texture of the meat when it's chewed, darken its color when it's cooked and improve the aroma and taste.
The potential market for plant-based meat products has not gone unnoticed. Impossible Foods has raised more than $180 million from investors including billionaire Bill Gates and Google — the latter allegedly tried to buy the company for as much as $300 million.
Beyond Meat is not without its admirers either, with the Humane Society of the United States, General Mills and Tyson Foods, which acquired a 5% stake in the company last fall, among the strange bedfellows that are its investors. The plant-based meat producer is hopeful to someday expand the partnership with Tyson beyond an investment, Schafer said, and the company remains optimistic it can tap into the meat giant's extensive distribution network to get its product available in more stores and restaurants.
Earlier this month, the company boosted its executive ranks, hiring Charles Muth, a former vice president of sales for Coca-Cola's venturing and emerging brands unit, as its chief growth officer to oversee distribution and expansion of its products in retail and food service.
"Folks like Tyson see that [more people are incorporating plant-based meals into their diet] and they recognize the landscape is changing," Schafer said.
Monica McGurk, an executive vice president at Tyson, said at the time that the investment gave the company "exposure to a fast-growing segment of the protein market. It meets our desire to offer consumers choices and to consider how we can serve an ever-growing and diverse global population, while remaining focused on our core prepared foods and animal protein businesses.”
Cost and widespread adoption remain key
Christie Lagally, a senior scientist for the Good Food Institute, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that promotes meat alternatives, has been a vegan since 1995. She sampled the Impossible Burger in San Francisco last summer, but because the product reminded her too much of meat, she couldn't finish it.
“It was a very visceral experience," she said. "I was taken back to having eaten meat a long time ago.”
Lagally is optimistic the new generation of plant-based burgers will succeed, calling them "high-quality foods" that contain well-sourced ingredients. The concern — common among all versions of plant-based meat — is more about whether the products will be scalable and cheap enough to attract enough consumers.
“People eat meat because it tastes good. People eat meat because it’s convenient. It’s high protein. It’s packed with calories," she said. "If we ever expect the plant-based meat to really make an impact in how much animal-based meat people eat, we have to make sure it actually gets to them. It’s really just not enough to be a niche market.”
"One of my food rules is never eat anything artificial. So while I understand that people who don’t eat meat miss hamburgers a lot, or so they tell me, I don’t quite get this. I just want the meat I eat to come from animals that have been treated as well as possible."
Professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University
For years, the frozen veggie burger was represented by brands such as Kraft Heinz's Boca Burger.
Beyond Meat now sells its burger in the meat section at Whole Foods — something the company describes as escaping from the "penalty box" of the frozen food aisle. Two quarter-pound burgers average $5.99, significantly more than high-end premium burgers like grass-fed organic beef. Discussions are ongoing with other "household-name retailers" to carry the product, according to Schafer.
"The fact that we are now on the main stage competing head to head with meat ... is tremendously validating," said Schafer. "We've seen it again and again here on social media with people who have identified themselves as red-blooded carnivores trying the burger and saying, 'Wow.' It's not like they are going to give up meat forever, but they are saying, 'I'm going to incorporate that into my diet.'"
Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, told Food Dive plant-based meats are here to stay because they solve a "culinary problem" for a lot of vegetarians, vegans and animal welfare supporters. Still, that hasn't been enough to convince her — a plant and meat eater — to embrace them.
"One of my food rules is never eat anything artificial," she said in an email. "So while I understand that people who don’t eat meat miss hamburgers a lot, or so they tell me, I don’t quite get this. I just want the meat I eat to come from animals that have been treated as well as possible."
That's the challenge for plant-based meat makers. For now, Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are finding the right recipe to attract some skeptical eaters, but whether they're able to lure enough to compete with a real beef hamburger on a broader scale remains to be seen.