BALTIMORE — As the plant-based meat space becomes inundated with new offerings in 2019, food manufacturers are inevitably preparing for the fact that not everyone will capture a coveted place on the shelf, an official with fast-growing upstart Beyond Meat told Food Dive.
When Seth Goldman invested in Beyond Meat in 2012, he was decidedly upbeat about the future of plant-based meat. But since then, as more meat-loving consumers flock to foods made from plants amid a push to eat healthier and help the environment, the space has exploded, he said. This has attracted upstarts and big-name players such as Nestlé, Tyson Foods, Perdue, Hormel Foods and Conagra into the space, or pushed them to make their existing offerings taste even more like the real thing in a bid to attract more meat eaters.
"At some point, not all those products are going to make it on the shelf. Not all of them are going to stay on the shelf," said Goldman, who joined Beyond Meat as a board member in 2013 and became executive chairman in 2015, told Food Dive.
Restaurants, he said, will likely only want to carry one plant-based brand. Supermarkets will only stock a handful of them. The winners will rise to the top with product characteristics that have long outlined success in food: quality and taste, Goldman said.
Early stages of growth in faux meat
While legacy veggie burgers such as Conagra's Gardein, Kellogg's MorningStar Farms and Kraft Heinz’s Boca have dominated the space for years, the emergence of Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods with their meat-like hamburgers have thrust more attention on plant-based options. Unlike prior iterations, these brands are not just referred to as "veggie burgers." Instead, they are being referred to by their brand names, helping to enhance the visibility of the product in the marketplace.
The plant-based meat market is expanding at an impressive clip. Sales climbed 42% between March 2016 and March 2019, when they reached $888 million, according to Nielsen data reported by the Associated Press. At the same time, sales of conventional meat were up 1% to $85 billion. Euromonitor predicts the market for plant-based meat substitutes will reach $2.5 billion by 2023.
Beyond Meat went public in May. In July, the company said sales nearly quadrupled during the quarter from the prior year, and it is on track to post a profit this year after adjusting for some expenses and taxes.
"At some point not all those products are going to make it on the shelf. Not all of them are going to stay on the shelf."
Executive chairman, Beyond Meat
Eager to boost sales and grab a share of the growing segment, several major food companies have entered the space, some of them for the first time.
Nestlé is debuting a plant-based product called the Awesome Burger under its Sweet Earth brand that is set to hit shelves on October 1. The global food giant grilled up samples as part of the brand's unveiling at Natural Products Expo East in Baltimore last week.
Bob Connolly, vice president of marketing with Sweet Earth, told Food Dive the Awesome Burger will separate itself from others on the market not only through taste but also with a better nutritional profile, which includes 26 grams of protein and 6 grams of fiber. (Beyond Meat has 20 grams of protein and 2 grams of fiber, while the Impossible Burger contains 19 grams of protein and 3 grams of fiber.)
Connolly said the plant-based space can absorb more offerings, much like alternative milks grew beyond nuts to oats, hemp, soy, coconut and rice. While he declined to say which stores will carry the Awesome Burger when it's launched, the product has been "really well received" so far with retailers that have "lined up ready to take it."
"Meats have such a long way to go that we can have a couple brands out there," Connolly said. "We got a retail-ready product and I think it's going to take off."
Tyson Foods, known for its beef, pork and chicken products, has a new brand called Raised & Rooted. The offerings include plant-based nuggets made from a blend of pea protein isolate and other ingredients. It also has blended burgers made with Angus beef and pea protein isolate. Hormel is developing a vegan pizza topping and a non-GMO meat substitute made with soy protein that can be used in any recipe calling for ground meat.
"The acceleration in plant based is just taken everyone by surprise," said Goldman, who splits his time between Beyond Meat and Honest Tea, the beverage company he co-founded. "It's been far quicker and more aggressive and more robust than anyone expected it to be. We always believed it would go to this level. It's just surprising how quickly that has happened."
'Nothing is off the table'
Goldman said companies like Beyond Meat may not have as large of a research and development budget as some big food manufacturers. What they do have is focused on one area: creating food from plants. This allows them to continually update and improve their product offerings, compared to a bigger player that has a large portfolio on which to focus its time, attention and marketing budget.
Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have made valuable inroads establishing their presence not only on retail shelves but in restaurants. Beyond Meat has partnerships with Subway, Dunkin' and TGI Fridays, while the Impossible Burger can be found in White Castle, Burger King and Red Robin. Beyond Meat recently tested out its chicken at an Atlanta KFC, and it sold out in five hours. The restaurants are invaluable, Goldman said, because they allow for expanded visibility of the brand while acting as powerful marketing tools.
Andrew Henkel, senior vice president of brand growth solutions at SPINS, told the Expo East audience that "categories that are reliant on animal products," such as jerky, are ripe for further disruption from plant-based offerings.
Goldman echoed that sentiment. Beyond Meat started out in burgers but has since added sausage and the aforementioned chicken to its lineup. He declined to speculate where the California company would go next, but did go so far as to say that "nothing is off the table. Anything that is a meat-based occasion is fair game."
Carlotta Mast, senior vice president of content and market leader at New Hope Network, said at a session at Expo East that "plants are redefining food."
"There is so much innovation and disruption from the plant kingdom," she said.
Still, Mast noted that while the innovations may be "creative and delicious," they "may not always be the healthy" alternative to meat, dairy and seafood.
While real meat has long been associated with higher risks of cancer and heart disease, critics have pointed to the fact that plant-based versions often have similar amounts of sodium and saturated fat.