Editor's Note: This article is part of a series on plant proteins. All stories in this series can be found here.
The interest in creating a craveable, realistic meat substitute from plants has long been a desire for humans, but for much of the time it seemed closer to science fiction than the dinner plate.
In the late 1800s, John Harvey Kellogg and other pioneers in the Seventh-day Adventist community wanted to make such a product. The denomination operated Loma Linda and Worthington, two companies pivotal in developing and producing early-shelf stable plant-based meats. Together, they provided a major breakthrough in how meat substitutes were manufactured, including bringing more pliability to the texture, a process still in use today.
“Over the years, that desire to eat healthier and consume less meat has expanded far beyond the Seventh-day Adventist community,” Doug Hines, chairman and general partner of Atlantic Natural Foods, told Food Dive in an email. “Most recently, there has been an explosion in flexitarians and the number of people looking to reduce the amount of meat in their diet for an array of health, sustainability and ethical reasons.”
The push for new meats also extended into Asia, where people have been using gluten for hundreds of years. In China, they have used soy protein for decades to make meat alternatives, so much of what is going on today is simply an extension of their earlier work. The methods have improved — as well as the flavor — but the technology has been around for a long time.
Miyoko Schinner, chief executive officer and founder of Miyoko’s Kitchen, which offers vegan products, has been following the trend of plant-based meats closely. She understands people really want the flavor of meat in their healthier food choices.
“A lot of people still like the taste of meat but don’t want the harm that meat causes,” she told Food Dive. “This allows an opportunity for people to have their meat and eat it, too.”
Schinner said Chinese companies keep improving their quality, but because they haven't done enough marketing they've struggled to make headway into the U.S. marketplace.
Soy-based textured vegetable protein was the original meat substitute. This innovation led to meat alternatives made from nuts, beans and other vegetables available in an array of different formats all with one goal in mind — to mimic a variety of meat products.
“A lot of people still like the taste of meat but don’t want the harm that meat causes. (Plant-based products allow) an opportunity for people to have their meat and eat it, too.”
CEO and founder of Miyoko’s Kitchen
Early innovators are no longer around, but many of their initial processes and companies are still thriving today. Loma Linda and Worthington were acquired in 2014 by Atlantic Natural Foods, after being the exclusive producer of shelf-stable foods for Kellogg.
“The founder of Atlantic Natural Foods saw a growing need beyond the health-conscious segment as the global population continues to increase,” Hines said. “Plant-based foods are the only sustainable option for the future and it’s exciting to be at the forefront of the rapid innovation that has occurred over the past 10 years.”
The rise of vegetarians
The desire to find plant-based meat products likely began because vegetarians wanted variety. Today, Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat and other companies working in this space also are attracting shoppers concerned about the environment, feedig the Earth's rapidly growing population and improving animal welfare.
But acceptance beyond the early adopters is crucial for plant-based proteins to become a fixture in the American diet. To do that, the beef has to be so realistic — mirroring the taste, texture and smell — that the carnivorous public wouldn't mind including at least some of the products in their meals. With consumer tastes becoming far more sophisticated, developing and marketing a burger just because it is made of plants is no longer enough.
Nick Halla, chief strategy officer at Impossible Foods, which produces a meatless burger, said plant-protein production is more efficient, scalable and sustainable than animal-based meat. The company's burger, sold at restaurants in four cities, includes coconut oil, wheat and potato proteins. It also includes heme, a protein found in meat that helps give it its color and taste. The only difference is Impossible Foods' heme comes from a legume plant.
“We realized the only way to do this is to create the delicious products consumers love much more sustainably than animal-based meat," Halla told Food Dive in an email. “We started Impossible in 2011 under the premise that we have to completely rethink how we understand and develop foods to appeal to the hardest-core meat lovers. This had never been done before."
The 21st century
The global market for meat substitutes has exploded in recent years. Visiongain, a research firm, forecast the market will be worth more than $4 billion in 2017. This growth has attracted the attention of the financial community. Analysts say companies are rushing to Silicon Valley for the opportunity to produce fake meat, and venture capital investors are eager to join them.
“We started Impossible in 2011 under the premise that we have to completely rethink how we understand and develop foods to appeal to the hardest-core meat lovers. This had never been done before."
Chief strategy officer of Impossible Foods
A survey from Today’s Dietitian revealed 41% of registered dietitians believe plant-based proteins are on the rise. At the same time, consumers are decreasing their intake of beef, bacon and other processed red meats.
Studies show while consumers enjoy eating meat, many of them are looking for protein alternatives they think are healthier or more sustainable, especially millennials. Last October, Tyson Foods became the first major meat company to invest in a plant protein-based company, taking a 5% ownership in Beyond Meat. It was a savvy move by the meat giant and a preview of where the future of protein is headed.
Today’s consumers can now buy veggie-based burger patties, chicken nuggets and short ribs, among other meat-like products. But while plant-based proteins are trendy — with manufacturers adding the macronutrients to products of all types — it doesn’t mean they are going to overtake meat anytime soon.
Still, more innovations are on the horizon and will be hitting store shelves in the years ahead. Many analysts believe those innovations will include a superfood class, utilizing base materials such as konjac and hemp.
While many food analysts are skeptical alternative protein choices will convert meat lovers, if more plant and algae-protein products find strong flavor profiles and are available in more stores and restaurants, it could help the category become a major player in the protein space.