The chicken sandwich wars were last year's news. In 2021, the poultry battle royale is over plant-based chicken.
The two leading plant-based meat companies, Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, both said this month that they are launching new chicken products. Beyond Chicken Tenders were launched at about 400 restaurants nationwide on July 8. And the next week, Impossible Foods told Bloomberg it would be debuting chicken nuggets this fall.
Beyond Meat had been working on improving its chicken product for years, Chief Innovation Officer Dariush Ajami said in an interview. The company first introduced plant-based chicken strips in grocery stores in 2012, but quietly discontinued them in 2019 and concentrated on its ground meat and sausages.
After nearly a decade of R&D, Beyond Meat is making another run at chicken tenders. The strips, which use fava bean protein as their base, have consistently ranked on par with actual chicken by consumers, Ajami said. There was a lot of work behind the scenes to bring the chicken up to Beyond Meat's current standards, he noted, with about 200 scientists developing the product.
"They have access to advanced technology in our innovation center," Ajami said. "They use imaging — scanning electron microscopy, confocal laser microscopy — to look at the microstructure of texturized plant protein, ... compare it to the muscle tissue of chicken, and try to match that texture. The same goes for flavor." He went on to describe high-tech electronic "noses" and "mouths" that can compare the smell, composition, texture, chew and mouthfeel of the plant-based chicken products.
Impossible Foods declined to answer Food Dive's questions about its planned chicken launch. Company President Dennis Woodside didn't share R&D details behind its chicken product for the Bloomberg story, but said the company has been working on chicken "for some time.” Impossible's chicken nugget base is made of soy with sunflower oil to give it juiciness, and has none of its signature plant-based heme — a copy of the molecule that imparts a signature meat-like taste.
Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are two of the latest entrants to a category that has been showing enormous growth in recent years — and is sure to continue to climb. According to statistics from market analysis provider SPINS, plant-based chicken is growing at a rate of 18%. This is lower than the average for the whole plant-based meat category, but more than four times higher than chicken from animals, which has grown at a rate of 4%.
So far this year, there have been several high-profile plant-based chicken launches, as well as huge funding rounds for startups and plans for international manufacturers to expand to the U.S. This makes sense when looking at the numbers. Jeff Crumpton, a SPINS retail business consultant, said chicken analogs are the second most consumed plant-based meat product category today, after beef-like burgers.
With chicken making up 45% of meat consumed, plant-based options are an exciting alternative to consumers, said Emma Ignaszewski, corporate engagement project manager for The Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that promotes alternative proteins. The large dollar and volume opportunities make it an exciting space for manufacturers.
“Having a tasty, affordable plant-based chicken option has the potential to deeply transform our food system,” she said.
Consumers chicken out
Poultry — especially chicken — has slowly taken over as U.S. consumers' preferred meat product.
Fifty years ago, the average consumer ate more than twice as much beef compared to chicken — or 83.9 pounds of the red meat compared to 40.1 pounds of the poultry, according to USDA stats cited by the National Chicken Council. In 2020, the average American ate 97.6 pounds of chicken. Chicken consumption is rapidly expanding worldwide, leading the projected worldwide meat market growth through 2030, according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Through the years, chicken edged out beef and pork because it started being considered a healthier meat, and mass production drove consumer prices down while keeping a high rate of availability. Crumpton said this type of understanding has influenced consumer choices. During the pandemic, some consumers started to consider plant-based meat as an even healthier alternative.
“We see that continue to kind of migrate from something like a chicken, turkey sausage into a plant-based chicken sausage,” he said.
All types of plant-based meat saw sales increase in the last year
The plant-based chicken product that had seen the most growth recently is the nugget, according to SPINS statistics. Between mid-May 2020 and mid-May this year, nugget sales were up 48.4%, though there were more sales across the board for all plant-based and analog chicken products.
Sam Terris, co-founder and chief operating officer of plant-based chicken company Simulate, said that chicken nuggets are ubiquitous in the United States — a big part of the reason his company decided to start with that product.
“It's very low barrier to entry,” Terris said. “I think you can kind of convince anyone to eat a plant-based chicken nugget. … It doesn't take a huge leap of faith to try something a little bit different, whereas if you're trying to simulate filet mignon, people have these kind of extremely high expectations.”
The Good Food Institute's Ignaszewski said plant-based meat as a whole seems to be doing a good job of attracting omnivores.
“Chicken is clearly just a huge part of the American diet, and a huge opportunity for these companies to provide sustainable, healthy alternatives.”
Head of policy and communications, Plant-Based Foods Association
“There's definitely a perception gap where the products are actually outperforming consumer expectations in a lot of ways,” she said. "Having those high-fidelity products that match the taste, texture and appearance of animal-based meat, companies are really making advances in that mimicry. And plant-based chicken products that do compete with animal-based products on taste and texture will continue to drive the category growth."
Michael Robbins, who is in charge of policy and communications for the Plant-Based Foods Association, said there is definitely room on shelves for products other than plant-based burgers.
“It does make sense that as the plant-based beef market continues to have success that companies are going to look for other areas as well to grow,” Robbins said. “Chicken is clearly just a huge part of the American diet, and a huge opportunity for these companies to provide sustainable, healthy alternatives.”
New ideas bring new opportunity
Plant-based chicken is a diverse category.
At an average grocery store, consumers can find nuggets, tenders, patties, non-breaded strips and prepared products containing plant-based chicken shreds or chunks as an ingredient. Some of these products are in kid-friendly shapes, like nuggets that look like cartoon characters. Some have a striated texture that is more like cuts of meat. Some are made of pea protein, while others are mainly soy or fava bean.
PBFA's Robbins said this is a good thing for the segment. It shows that there is diversity in offerings, formulations — and potential consumers. Different plant proteins have varied taste and nutritional profiles.
There is also no one major technological advancement that is central to the growth of plant-based chicken. Extrusion — which uses heat and motion to change the shape of proteins — is an important technique. Some companies are working with more specialized high-moisture extrusion processes to enhance juiciness, taste and mouthfeel.
Ignaszewski said the breaded format of most of the plant-based chicken products lends itself to inherently being closer to traditional chicken. With breading, consumers have an expectation of texture and cooking process, one that is not quite as complicated to replicate as a browning and “bleeding” plant-based burger. Breading on plant-based chicken also gives manufacturers more of a chance to experiment with different taste and texture enhancements.
But, Ignaszewski wouldn’t characterize plant-based burgers as being more difficult to make than plant-based chicken. She said the two items have “different challenges,” though after plant-based companies have shown they can replicate the all-American hamburger, everything that follows — including chicken — has an easier time of winning consumer acceptance.
SPINS' Crumpton said the last year has seen a diverse array of plant-based chicken launches. Many focus on natural and specialty profiles, with trendier global flavors and a cleaner ingredients deck than previous products. The newest generation highlight a short ingredients list and careful sourcing, including organic and non-GMO ingredients. Considering the diverse array of plant-based chicken consumers, as well as the differences in the products that they make, Crumpton thinks there is space in the larger market for all of these subcategories.
While consumers are embracing plant-based eating for a number of reasons — wanting to eat healthier, interest in sustainability, desire to try something new — the segment as a whole is getting better at delivering what they expect from meat, said Sara Wheeler, general manager of Nestlé's plant-based Sweet Earth brand. The food giant saw this kind of opportunity to develop its Sweet Earth Mindful Chik'n line: a refrigerated, ready-to-eat product that isn't breaded.
“The sort of the top of the funnel, if you will, has become much broader and bigger,” Wheeler said. “More people [are] saying, 'OK, I'm comfortable coming into this space. It doesn't seem like there's any sort of scariness that there may have been several years ago when the products didn't taste as good.' "
Seizing market opportunity
As the plant-based chicken market gets more crowded, companies are working to differentiate themselves.
Some are making price parity with conventional chicken their priority, said The Good Food Institute's Ignaszewski. Others are playing up the environmental and social benefits of plant-based chicken. According to a life-cycle assessment her group commissioned on alternative proteins, which included plant-based chicken, it produces 86% less greenhouse gas, uses 96% less water, and takes up 97% less land when compared to traditional chicken.
Nestlé's Wheeler said that Mindful Chik'n, first introduced by the Sweet Earth brand in 2019, sets itself apart. Because it is more of a cooked chicken pieces product, it has more versatility than breaded chicken nuggets or tenders, she said. Responding to consumer feedback, Nestlé made Mindful Chik’n ready to eat out of the package, meaning no cooking is required. The plant-based chicken chunks can be added to a salad, sandwich or burrito.
Sales of many plant-based chicken products — especially nuggets — are increasing
Nestlé also recently added different international flavor profiles, with its Mindful Chik'n Chipotle Chik’n Strips and Shredded Seasoned Chik’n and Shredded Korean Style BBQ offerings. The main driver behind product design for Mindful Chik’n is getting it to fit into flexitarians’ lifestyles.
“We look at chicken, and we look at the way that consumers are really using chicken in their kitchen,” Wheeler said. “That's the first thing that drives us in terms of helping understand where we should take it, and what's really driving the way that we're focusing our energies as we create these particular products.”
Mindful Chik’n is also becoming ubiquitous in grocery stores nationwide, which Wheeler said is important to its success. If consumers can easily find it and it is presented to them like chicken, they are more likely to buy it and use it as intended. Wheeler said that repeat purchase rates for Mindful Chik’n have been high.
Daring Foods, a relative newcomer to the food space, has a similar ethos behind its products. Co-founder and CEO Ross Mackay said in an email that the company wanted to create both a healthy and tasty plant-based chicken. The brand, which came to the United States last year, currently has four SKUs — Original, Original Breaded, Lemon & Herb and Cajun — and is designed to be a versatile product that could be eaten several times a week because of its wide variety of potential uses.
"The variety of flavors fit into endless recipes and are perfect for any meal of the day," Mackay wrote.
This brand, which counts recording artist Drake and and former Burger King chair Brian Swette among its investors, also differentiates itself with its short ingredient list. Its Original version — which is plant-based chicken chunks without breading or seasoning — is made with water, soy protein concentrate, sunflower oil, natural flavoring and spices such as paprika, pepper, ginger, nutmeg, mace, cardamom and salt. The company has prioritized a short ingredients list with items that are recognizable to consumers from the beginning, Mackay wrote. It is important to "create the cleanest plant-based meat option on the market, while still delivering on the taste and texture."
Daring just closed a $40 million funding round, which the company plans to use for retail and foodservice expansions, as well as adding to its team. Mackay wrote that the brand is currently sold in more than 1,100 retail stores, as well as through the company's website.
“I think you can kind of convince anyone to eat a plant-based chicken nugget. … It doesn't take a huge leap of faith to try something a little bit different, whereas if you're trying to simulate filet mignon, people have these kind of extremely high expectations.”
Co-founder and COO, Simulate
Kellogg's MorningStar Farms is a veteran in the plant-based space, but continues to refine its product. It has had a line of plant-based chicken nugget products for years. But as the parent of the newer Incogmeato brand, it has leveraged technology to upgrade its offer with a line of Chik'n Tenders.
Sara Young, general manager of MorningStar Farms, said the new Incogmeato products fill a need for more realistic plant-based chicken. She said the more chicken-like tender is a product of high moisture extrusion, which experts say can more realistically recreate the fibrous texture and bite of meat. The entire process is proprietary, Young said, but the company uses non-GMO texturized soy as well as flavors, batter and breading to make Incogmeato Chik'n Tenders tear like a strip of actual chicken, with a similar look and mouthfeel.
“When you look at the flexitarian consumer and bringing more consumers into plant based, what we found is that we needed a broader range of products to delight their occasions, or different needs,” said Young. “And really, that 'tear experience' — in addition to looking and cooking and tasting just like the real thing — is really important. So we've been working on this for well over 18 months.”
Simulate, a relative newcomer that launched in 2019, takes the technology principle of iterative development — constantly changing small things and getting feedback in order to come to the best formula more quickly — and applies it to food. Simulate currently makes only chicken analogs: Nuggs nuggets and Discs patties.
The pandemic has been good to Simulate, which is now valued at more than $250 million, according to Bloomberg. The company started as a DTC operation two years ago, then slowly rolled out to retail stores and ghost kitchens during the pandemic. Nuggs are now in more than 5,000 retail stores, with another 10,000 planned by the end of the year.
Last month, Simulate closed a $50 million investment round, led by Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian's Seven Seven Six venture firm, and featuring a second investment from McCain Foods, which manufactures the plant-based startup's products. Terris said Simulate will use those funds to double down on its technology and expand, likely quadrupling the size of its tech team. The company is looking for potential acquisitions, and using the funds to expand outside of the United States.
Terris said Simulate's success is a result of the tech team’s close attention to detail to improve the product. Clever marketing, no matter how targeted, can only get so far, he said.
“You just don't have legs to stand on unless the quality of the product is really high,” Terris said.
Looking at a food product through the lens of iterative development has helped Simulate make dramatic improvements, Terris said. He described the product of a year ago as “not good.” It used unpopular ingredients including MSG and the whitening chemical titanium dioxide. It was mushy and salty, and didn’t have the right taste and consistency.
The granular feedback on the iterative development cycle has helped quite a lot, he said. However, the firmness and the juiciness are key.
“Every person has their own subjective tastes and whatnot, but ultimately, if you can get a springy texture, and you can make your product taste like chicken, in terms of a grilled chicken flavor, people are pretty happy,” Terris said.
An enzyme blend the company uses does a lot to bring about the springy texture that consumers expect from chicken, Terris said. He also credited Simulate's switch from using pea protein to soy protein to product improvement. This swap happened in summer 2020, as the main change in “Version 2.0” of Nuggs.
“Very much the ethos of the company is that if the consumer doesn't like something, great. We're an open book,” Terris said. “Tell us about it. We can make a change. I think that's a pretty special and unique opportunity for consumers.”
Alternative chicken's future
SPINS' Crumpton said there are currently two barriers to plant-based chicken’s wider adoption.
One is consumers not liking the taste and flavor profile of the analogs, though he said many companies have been working hard to make their chicken offerings taste more authentic.
“More people [are] saying, 'OK, I'm comfortable coming into this space. It doesn't seem like there's any sort of scariness that there may have been several years ago when the products didn't taste as good.' "
General manager, Nestlé's Sweet Earth
The other, he said, is companies that aren’t improving on the nutritional profile of the plant-based version of chicken. In general, chicken nuggets tend to be packed with less-than-desirable filler ingredients. Some plant-based options, while being able to claim a better environmental profile than traditional chicken, may find themselves just as unhealthy.
“Coming out of this, we will continue to see a type of innovation and formulation to be able to eliminate that kind of barrier, that you really can't tell the difference, one to the other,” Crumpton said.
GFI's Ignaszewski said technology will do more to advance this segment to the point where it's commanding much more shelf space and a larger share of consumer spending in the meat department. Since plant-based meat is made out of ingredients, she said, there can be much more versatility in terms of health and function than conventional meat.
Robbins predicts there will be a lot of development and growth still to come in the plant-based chicken category. While the market is small right now, exponential growth is a given. As it becomes more of a sizeable product segment, there still will be product innovation. After all, he said, the plant-based milk category isn’t growing much in terms of size any longer. It’s already a mature category, making up about 15% of the milk segment. But new products are constantly coming to shelves and improvements are always being made — including products with higher protein or using unique blends.
“As long as there is room in the marketplace, you'll continue to see new products coming to market, a refinement of the various products that are out there,” Robbins said. “I think what's great about this industry is it's not static."
Several plant-based chicken makers said their ultimate goal is for less animal-based chicken on store shelves and restaurant menus. They aren't focused on what other plant-based companies are doing. Instead, they want to make the best products for consumers, period.
When Simulate's Terris thinks of the future for plant-based meat, he recalls a more-than-century-old news article about how “Edison’s gas light substitute” — better known now as an incandescent light bulb — was catching on. Calling this then-novel product by the name of what it was replacing quickly became obsolete. To modern ears, it even sounds a bit preposterous. Terris thinks the entire meat section will go that way in the future.
“We make true animal-based meats obsolete, and the only things that are in there are simulations,” Terris said. “We might still refer to it as ‘meat’ because that's a term that we're used to, but I certainly hope that in five years, we see fewer animal-based products globally.”