UPDATE: Aug. 26, 2020: Impossible Foods posted a response on Medium that called Lightlife's campaign a "highly misleading" and "desperate attempt" to cast doubt on a product with which "it can't compete on quality or value." Impossible Foods pointed out that the campaign is financed by one of North America's largest animal agriculture companies, and said it was proud of its use of genetic engineering.
"Fortunately, a growing number of consumers recognize meat-industry propaganda and the agenda behind it. And when they go to the grocery store, they pick the product that delivers on taste, nutrition and sustainability. They pick Impossible Burger," the response states.
UPDATE: Aug. 25, 2020: Beyond Meat emailed Food Dive a written statement responding to the campaign. “If Lightlife were clear on our ingredients, they would see that our food is made from simple, plant-based ingredients. With no GMOs. No synthetic additives. No carcinogens. No hormones. No antibiotics. No cholesterol. Our foods are designed to have the same taste and texture as animal-based meat, giving more consumers more options that are better for them and the planet.”
About a year ago, Lightlife President Dan Curtin challenged his team to make the cleanest plant-based burger they could create, using as few ingredients as possible, and ensuring they would be recognizable by consumers who flip over the package to see what's inside.
After launching the new version of the Lightlife Burger — which is made with 11 ingredients known to consumers — Curtin is making the same challenge to competitors in the plant-based meat space. An open letter to Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat signed by Curtin is running as an advertisement in major newspapers such as the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.
"Enough with the hyper-processed ingredients, GMOs, unnecessary additives and fillers, and fake blood," the letter reads. "While we want the same things — a greener planet and a more sustainable food system — at Lightlife, we’ve chosen a very different way to get there. We’re making a clean break from both of you 'food tech' companies that attempt to mimic meat at any cost."
Lightlife, which has been around for 41 years and is one of the original players in the meat-alternative market, has been working to keep abreast of what consumers want in plant-based meat. While the sector is booming — Lightlife sold more than 100 million servings of its plant-based meals in the last 12 months, Curtin told Food Dive — penetration is low. Polling done before the coronavirus pandemic indicated about half of consumers have tried plant-based meat, according to the International Food Information Council.
Curtin said Lightlife hired Boston Consulting Group to examine what consumers thought about plant-based meat. The goal, he noted, was for the company to find out what consumers wanted, and then try to deliver. The company connected with more than 11,500 people and the results were clear.
"The thing that screamed out to us time and time again was ... consumers are a little confused about plant based," Curtin said. "They looked at some of the ingredient decks. They didn't understand why there were so many ingredients in them. There were things in there that they weren't familiar with ... But 98% of the people we spoke to said that their needs were not being met, that they couldn't find what they were looking for."
It was obvious to Curtin what he needed to do next: simplify the ingredients list, minimize the process, ensure Lightlife is made out of things that consumers recognize and get competitors on board.
"They didn't understand why there were so many ingredients in them. There were things in there that they weren't familiar with ... But 98% of the people we spoke to said that their needs were not being met, that they couldn't find what they were looking for."
Curtin started out with the challenge issued to his team, led by Jitendra Sagili, chief of R&D and food technology officer. Curtin said he was unwilling to deviate from the core principles of what he wanted: Good taste, simple ingredients, a meat-like texture and a high-nutritional profile.
"It was not an easy task," Sagili said. "We took several months, several iterations."
He said Lightlife used fermentation from natural processes to transform some of these ingredients, like using mushrooms to create the extract for umami meat-like notes. Colors came from ingredients that were minimally processed and natural, such as beet powder, while onion powder and garlic provided some of the flavors.
Curtin and Sagili both highlighted Lightlife's manufacturing process. It's fairly easy to follow and understand, Curtin said, and every step is done in one of Lightlife's own plants. While the burgers are well-processed — many things need to be done before plants and other vegetables can become something that looks and performs like ground beef — Sagili said consumers can easily understand what Lightlife does.
"There is always a process involved, right?" Sagili said. "Right from the crop state, all the way to when you put it in food. Process is definitely the way you make it more edible and more presentable in an application."
Sagili said if he had all of the ingredients to make a Lightlife Burger, as well as common kitchen tools like blenders and mixers, he could make the burger in an actual kitchen — no factory required.
In the plant-based meat sector nowadays, it's rare for companies to call one another out. Although there are rivalries between companies, Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat — the two biggest solely plant-based meat companies —say they have just one competitor: the meat industry.
Lightlife looks at things differently. The brand is a division of Greenleaf Foods, the plant-based arm of Canada-based Maple Leaf Foods, which owns several large meat brands sold in that country.
Curtin said Lightlife is a pro-food company that supports consumer choice for protein. Lightlife does not anticipate the conventional meat industry will go away or be completely displaced by plant-based offerings, he said. Lightlife also does not advocate that consumers turn their backs on meat — though their products are suitable for vegans and vegetarians. Curtin said he wants to serve flexitarians — who sometimes eat plant-based foods — and reducetarians — who are trying to cut down on consumption of animal-based food.
"We want to be as encompassing as we can," Curtin said. "We don't want to alienate people because we don't believe that that's the right thing to do with it. Taking a more holistic approach is where we believe it's going to win at the end."
Curtin was not sure how Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods would react to the campaign. In the past, when outside organizations have attacked plant-based meat companies for not-so-clean-label products, Impossible Foods was quick to provide a snarky response. However, those critics were outside the industry, not part of it.
What Curtin hopes to see is other plant-based meat companies following Lightlife's lead for cleaner labels. Though in the end, he said the reaction he cares most about is the one from consumers.
"When they try it, they're going to have an amazing experience," Curtin said. "The products are absolutely delicious. And I think that that's what it's bringing a call to: What's going on and what we're doing. ...The consumers are going to, I think, be incredibly impressed with what they see and then what their experience is, and they'll be coming back for more and more and more."