There are many plant-based meat options on the market today, but Planterra's CEO Darcey Macken has been wanting to create something truly different: an item consumers would want to eat with a knife and fork.
Later this month, products that make plant-based meat a more formal center-of-plate option are coming from Planterra. The plant-based meat arm of JBS USA is launching a new line of True Bite Plant-Based Chicken Cutlets and Shreds, which the company said has more of the texture and appearance of real chicken, either as a whole piece of meat or shreds.
Macken said Planterra has been working on these new products for about a year and a half. The company has had a dual focus as they have developed the technology, processes and ingredients for its True Bite products in a way that fits with the rest of Planterra's Ozo brand of plant-based meats.
"It is still very much focused on ingredients, nutrition and simplicity, but in a unique way to create [it]," she said. "It's almost a craft, small-batch, artisan type of way to manufacture and process and create this new flavor in food in a True Bite sense, where you feel like, 'Wow, this is unique.'"
While Planterra's whole cuts are hitting the market early this year, Conagra Brands' Gardein has had similar products on the market since last June. Gardein's Ultimate Plant-Based Chick'n line includes plant-based filets, tenders and nuggets.
Jill Dexter, vice president and general manager of Gardein, said that since eight in 10 plant-based meat buyers also eat traditional meat, the brand has been working to develop products that provide a similar experience.
"It's important to get that whole-muscle experience so that they come into the category, they taste something that is really, really delicious and kind of familiar, and then they stay in the category and maybe have Meatless Monday once a week," Dexter said. "That taste experience is really important, and that's what we were striving for here."
The products have struck a chord with consumers so far. In its first six months, the Ultimate Plant-Based Chick'n platform has brought in $22 million in retail sales. The most popular product, Dexter said, has been the filets.
Plant-based meat whole cuts have long been a food science challenge. They often involve different processes, different ingredients and different ways to put together the product. But these first examples — two out of several expected to hit the market in 2022 — have been worth the struggle, the companies said.
"We're along for the long ride," Macken said. "We're not just in it for short term, quick hits, quick innovation. We really want to build something special here."
Planterra: Reaching for a high bar of consumer acceptance
Talking about other entrants in the current plant-based chicken nugget segment, Planterra's Macken stumbled as she came up with the right words to use.
"It's kind of a tough word but, [it's], like, emulsified, right," she said. "It's a different type of dry extrusion that you hydrate."
Ozo's new True Bite Plant-Based Chicken isn't like that, though, Macken said. The company uses a proprietary high-moisture extrusion technique to make a plant-based alternative that looks, shreds and has a mouthfeel like actual chicken. She said this process and the craft that goes into the products is the main differentiator between True Bite Plant-Based Chicken and other poultry alternatives. The ingredients are mostly the same as Ozo's other chicken-alternative products, just put together in a way that makes them seem more like the actual meat. True Bite Plant-Based Chicken is still pea-based and has the distinctive fermented mushroom mycelia from MycoTechnology. The True Bite Plant-Based Chicken Shreds are pretty similar to the cutlets, Macken said. The base is the same, but the process and flavoring is somewhat different.
"What we knew we had to nail, that had to be consistent, was the texture and the overall eating experience: the aroma, how you prepare it and how you eat it on a plate."
Macken said the True Bite products have undergone more consumer testing than most others. Those who seek plant-based chicken cutlets are more likely meat eaters, so Macken said the bar is much higher.
"What we knew we had to nail, that had to be consistent, was the texture and the overall eating experience: the aroma, how you prepare it and how you eat it on a plate," Macken said. "...[We had, I'd] call it, 30 iterations. Then we said, 'Now, let's get into the taste and the formulas as we keep moving this forward.' "
True Bite Plant-Based Chicken isn't a product that's necessarily been created to steal marketshare from traditional poultry. Since Planterra started, Macken has said the brand's goal is to provide more options to consumers. In the case of True Bite Plant-Based Chicken, the message to consumers is different than simply providing a protein option that's more nutritious than traditional beef. After all, people often choose chicken as a healthier meat option, Macken said. Planterra's plan is to spread the message that True Bite can give them the chicken experience they want, but with less cholesterol and more fiber, she said.
True Bite Plant-Based Chicken is priced similarly to other plant-based poultry options, Macken said, and the goal is to make it as accessible as other similar products. And, she said, the innovation that started with True Bite Plant-Based Chicken will be on display in future Ozo products.
"This is really just the beginning," Macken said. "If you think about how many different types of food forms as well as flavors we can work our way into. I think this is so important in this category, with innovation of just finding, testing and learning, being able to be flexible and nimble enough to figure out what's working and what's not working, all with that consumer focus of bringing solutions to the table."
Gardein: Using a first-mover advantage to move toward more innovation
Gardein had been working on its Ultimate Plant-Based Chick'n products for about a year before they hit shelves, Conagra's Dexter said.
Clint Johnson, director of research and development for Gardein, said the products had to meet three standards. They needed to be juicy like actual chicken. They needed to pull apart into shreds, which actual chicken can do. And they needed to have a breading that is similar to what consumers expect from a premium frozen chicken product. It was an R&D challenge, Johnson and Dexter said.
"The issue with the plant-based space is the aftertaste that you would get from plant-based proteins, so [you need to be] dealing with that," Johnson said. "Dealing with... [texture]: You want succulence. That's like the new word in plant-based protein. You need succulence to be like the real thing."
The succulence and texture come partially from the process. Johnson would not go into detail about how Gardein makes its Ultimate Plant-Based Chick'n, but said they use high-moisture extrusion processes. Making the Gardein Chick'n product into something that works as a whole cut, he said, was the result of "smart formulation work."
Getting the breading right was also difficult. Even though Gardein's Ultimate Plant-Based Chick'n products are only for sale in grocery stores, Johnson said they worked to emulate the kind of breading found on QSR chicken sandwiches and nuggets: textured, crispy and complementing the flavor of the meat analog inside.
As a brand that's been in the plant-based space for decades, Dexter said Gardein is used to having first-mover advantage on a variety of products and watching competitors try to catch up. The brand is highly focused both on what consumers want and how to use food technology to make it happen, so the consumer knowledge, tech capability and manufacturing capacity can keep them ahead of the curve.
But, she and Johnson said others will catch up to the product. Gardein is already plotting out where it will use this technology next, and the brand is consistently working on improving all of its products.
"One of Conagra's core strengths and competencies is our capabilities within frozen meals — single-serve meals and multi-serve meals," Dexter said. "So how can we provide this great taste, texture, fibrous kind of real meat experience in some of those more convenient, complete meal solutions? I think that's our goal as we think about innovation and leveraging this technology: How do we continue to expand the variety within the space for our consumers?"