The world produced 317M metric tons of meat in 2016, powering a processed foods industry that was worth $714B in 2016 and is expected to reach $1500B+ by 2022, according to a market research report. Beyond Meat, the LA-based foodtech company, has other plans.
The company is looking to replace all those meat products with its range of 100% plant-based protein products, and for a good cause. Beyond Meat’s vision is to provide customers the possibility of enjoying the taste without the health concerns, environmental costs, and animal cruelty that usually go with eating conventional meat products.
Beyond Meat’s series of products imitate chicken, beef, and pork in taste and consistency, but are made from non-GMO peas instead of raw meat. Their crafted substitutes have more iron, lesser saturated fats, and no cholesterol, addressing the biggest dietary concerns in eating meat. It also helps avoid the problem of hormones and antibiotics, since their products don’t need them. Beyond Meat has created faux meat that is demonstrably healthier than the original. Their Beyond Burger, in particular, has helped push the company’s products into 10,000+ supermarkets and 10,000+ restaurants and dining establishments across the world.
What about the taste – could Beyond Meat convince meat eaters?
Health, however, is not the most compelling pitch. There is no dearth of healthier alternatives to meat, just none which managed to capture popular attention and satiate meat-loving palettes. The reason for meat’s taste to be desirable is deeply mired in human physiology, but the immediate cause for the flavor is well-known – the complex interaction between carbohydrates and amino acids named the Maillard reaction.
Also known as nonenzymatic browning, in beef it occurs when myoglobin, a compound in the meat, turns tan brown at 168.8 degrees fahrenheit. It results in an explosion or odors which “make us go weak in the knees”, according to Adam Drewnowski, director of the Nutritional Science Program at the University of Washington. Since odor comprises 95% of the taste of meat, according to Barb Stuckey, author of Taste: Surprising Stories and Science About Why Food Tastes Good, the first focus of substitutes was odor. This got them to an $330K ‘almost’, in a widely covered event at the end of a 5-year long research project financed by Google co-founder, Sergey Brin.
The 5 oz. patty that cost nearly one-thirds of a million dollars was made from stem cells harvested from a cow’s shoulder, and grown in a petri dish along with a nutrient mixture. It was the first of many attempts to replicate meat, and Mark Post, the scientist at Maastricht University who created it, optimistically predicted that there would be artificial meat in markets in ‘10 to 20 years’.
Some four years later in June 2017, Beyond Meat made it into the meat aisle of Safeway after serving corporate executives burgers to convince them that their product was indistinguishable from the real thing, in what was hailed by Quartz as a moment that “… opened the window for massive disruption of the traditional meat industry.”
Beyond Meat’s journey to take humans beyond meat through veggie burgers
Today, a new generation of more environmentally-conscious consumers are finding out about these options which allow them to have their ‘meat’ and eat it too, with a Buzzfeed correspondent finding it hard to believe that the meat wasn’t real.
The Oprah magazine declared that Beyond Burger could charm even die-hard carnivores. This is far cry from the veggie burgers of the past, which the MIT Technology Review declared in its sagacity to taste akin to ”overseasoned, underhydrated cardboard.”
Ethan Brown, the vegan “rogue scientist” who moved from making fuel cells to making meat substitutes and found Beyond Meat, spent childhood weekends and summers on his family’s farm. He credits this experience for the drive to push Beyond Meat into the homes of Americans and begin to create a world free of consumer sacrifice, guilt, and compromise. By saving on the amount of land and natural resources that go into supporting the livestock which supply the global meat industry, he also intends to save the world. Such lofty aims rarely come easy, and vegan meat was no exception.
According to Professor Don Mottram, a flavor chemist at the School of Food Biosciences of the University of Reading, meat is the hardest problem for flavor-chemical companies to solve. He has spent decades investigating meat flavor and the Maillard reaction, and attributes the difficulty to meat’s complex structure which causes flavor to develop at different rates as fat, muscle, and bone successively cook.
Brown began his journey plowing through scientific papers to find researchers doing the best work in adding texture to textured vegetable protein (TVP), as he was convinced this was key to a better meat substitute. To cater to concerns about GMO, he choose peas as the vegetable base instead of soy. After many years of experimentation and testing, Brown arrived at a texture and flavor that inspired Bill Gates, Twitter co-founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams, and even the screen legend Leonardo di Caprio to become investors. The company has raised $72M from them and others including meat company Tyson Foods, animal protection organization the Humane Society, a former McDonald’s CEO, and VC firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers.
The vegan burger that’s selling out
Beyond Meat products are now found in outlets of Kroger, Safeway, Whole Foods, Hy-Vee, Wegmans, and Central Market, and the Beyond Burger is served in TGI Friday’s, Bareburger, Veggie Grill, and numerous other independent restaurants across the US, and A&W in Canada. It made its international debut in Hong Kong in 2017, and made it to tables in Australia and New Zealand in 2018. Supermarket distribution deals in Germany, UK, and Europe give Beyond Meat a wide international footprint.
The Beyond Burger has been the company’s biggest success, selling out in just an hour at the Whole Foods in Boulder, Colorado where they were first being served. It has been running out in various places across the world with several other Whole Foods, A&W restaurants, and even at the Grand Hyatt Singapore, where they sold a 1000 units at the launch event.
If Beyond Meat lives up to its potential, the biggest gainers might not be customers loving the taste of meat. The human impact upon the fragile ecological balance of the planet has, in large proportion, been driven by our stomachs. Food production accounts for 30% of global emissions, 70% of all water use, is the leading cause of global deforestation, and rearing livestock for meat accounts for 30% of the planet’s land surface. Switching to meat substitutes like Beyond Burger might be the answer to our long term sustainable existence on Earth.
For now, it’s food we’d be happy to taste.