Walk into a fast-food or fast-casual restaurant with a craving for a plant-based burger, and the odds of being able to satisfy that craving are getting better all the time. White Castle, Burger King, the Hard Rock Café, and Carl’s Jr. are among the chains that have added them to the menu in the United States; in Canada, McDonald’s is testing the P.L.T. sandwich made with Beyond Meat’s plant-based patty.
“The single fastest-growing dish or ingredient on menus last year was the plant-based burger, which will only become more omnipresent in 2020 as large food manufacturers release their own options on the market,” says Mike Kostyo, a trendologist with Datassential, which maintains a global menu database.
The scenario is similar in the supermarket, where both branded and private-label plant-based meat offerings are proliferating. Beyond Meat’s Beyond Burger can be found in leading national chains in the United States as well as in thousands of grocery stores globally, the company reports. The Impossible Burger from Impossible Foods is available in 150 Gelson’s, Fairway, and Wegmans supermarkets, and the company will expand retail availability over the course of 2020, says Rachel Konrad, chief communications officer. In December, Kroger began testing a three-foot refrigerated section designed specifically for plant-based meat products in 60 of its stores (Emmett 2019).
What started as a movement by idealistic entrepreneurs dedicated to reducing the environmental impact of livestock production has moved into the mainstream as major food companies jumped on the alternative protein bandwagon, either acquiring startups or applying their own R&D muscle to plant-based product development. Poultry giant Tyson Foods last year debuted its Raised & Rooted brand comprised of plant-based nuggets and burgers that blend beef and pea protein. Nestlé-owned Sweet Earth Foods introduced the Awesome Burger made with yellow pea protein and Awesome Grounds, which is a plant-based replacement for ground beef, this past fall. In December, Nestlé announced that it would use Awesome Grounds in meatless versions of its DiGiorno pizza and Stouffer’s lasagna.
One of the newest entries in the segment is the pea protein–based Gardein Ultimate Plant-Based Burger from Conagra Brands; it is sold in the freezer case in six packs and two packs. Conagra bolstered its plant-based presence when it acquired the Gardein brand, which includes a wide array of faux chicken, beef, fish, turkey, and pork products, in 2018.
Sales of frozen and refrigerated meat substitutes in major outlets (grocery, drug, mass market, military, and select club and dollar store retailers) were up 19.1% to nearly $680.5 million for the year ended Dec. 29, 2019, according to data from market research firm IRI. (See Figure 1 for more details on the leading players in the category.)
Non-animal meats are no longer niche products. In a December 2019 survey conducted by the International Food Information Council, almost half (49%) of consumers said they had tried a plant alternative to animal meat. A 2019 survey by the Hartman Group, a research and consulting firm, found that only 12% of plant-based product purchasers described themselves as vegetarians, while 41% said they were omnivores.
More than 80% of the purchasers of plant-based UNCUT burgers from Before the Butcher are meat eaters, reports company founder Danny O’Malley. The UNCUT brand includes alternatives to chicken, beef, and turkey burgers.
When pork processor Smithfield Foods launched its plant-based protein portfolio (burger and breakfast patties, meatballs, and protein starters) under the Pure Farmland banner, the company developed a flexitarian eating plan. The plan is highlighted on the brand’s website, reinforcing its focus on the segment of consumers who are trying to reduce meat consumption rather than avoid it altogether.
What’s driving the trend toward meat reduction? “There are several things at play,” says Shelley Balanko, senior vice president with the Hartman Group. “We’re becoming a health and wellness culture, and that’s been in play for a couple of decades now. And meat consumption in particular is associated with cancer. … Many consumers are also concerned about the health impact of exposure to hormones and antibiotics.”
Add to that ethical concerns about animal welfare, sustainability, and processing. “Consumers for the last two decades have been on this unrelenting path toward all things fresh, real, and less processed,” Balanko adds.
Gallup research confirms Hartman’s analysis, with 70% of those who never eat meat or have cut back on it citing health as a major reason. In addition, 49% of these consumers characterize environmental issues as a major factor, and 41% cite concern about animal welfare (McCarthy and Dekoster 2020).
“Generally, younger consumers are initially motivated to shift toward a more plant-based diet by the environmental impact, whereas older consumers are motivated for health benefits,” says Dariush Ajami, Beyond Meat’s chief innovation officer.
“Social responsibility is becoming more important in the decision-making process for consumers, particularly Millennials,” says Tim Zimmer, chief marketing officer for Smithfield Foods. To that end, the company’s Pure Farmland brand has partnered with agriculture conservation organization American Farmland Trust and pledged a donation for each package sold; it also uses recycled packaging materials.
To meet the taste expectations of mainstream consumers, plant-based product formulators are working overtime to develop products that get closer to the taste and texture of conventional meat. In 2019 both Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat launched new iterations of their original burgers. (See Figure 2 for a look at consumers’ purchase drivers.)
When Beyond Meat revamped its burger, the company opted for a blend of pea, mung bean, and rice proteins, which delivers a meatier taste and more fibrous texture, Ajami explains. “We also added marbling made from cocoa butter designed to melt and tenderize like traditional ground beef,” he says.
Impossible Foods’ burger reformulation included switching from textured wheat protein to textured soy protein. “This single change drove significant improvements across nutrition, texture, and culinary versatility,” company founder and CEO Pat Brown writes in a post on the company’s website (Brown 2019).
Pea and soy are the proteins of choice for most plant-based product developers, and each has its advantages, with pea protein favored because it is nonallergenic and soy valued for its versatility.
O’Malley says that Beyond the Butcher evaluated both pea protein and soy protein before opting to use the latter in its formulation. “We found it was easier to work with soy protein,” says O’Malley, adding that his company’s product developers think it does a better job of mimicking animal-based protein.
Product development consultant Maggie Sadowsky, founder of The Culinary Architects, says research into formulating with proteins other than pea and soy is still in the early stages. “It will take some time to get them into products,” she predicts. “The immediate future is probably more about blending the proteins to achieve a complete amino acid profile.”
With demand surging, managing their plant protein supply chains is a priority for makers of meat alternatives. “We do have some concerns about supply,” says Beyond the Butcher’s O’Malley, noting that the company uses only soy that has not been genetically modified in its UNCUT products.
Expect to see plant-based meat companies forging closer relationships with their protein suppliers. Early this year, for example, Nestlé announced agreements with Canadian plant protein suppliers Burcon and Merit Functional Foods, and Beyond Meat revealed that it had extended its agreement with French ingredient supplier Roquette, substantially increasing its protein supply (Nickel and Koltrowitz 2020, Beyond Meat 2020).
Recognizing the growth potential of pea protein, Cargill formed a joint venture with leading U.S. pea protein producer PURIS in 2018 and last year invested $75 million in PURIS, allowing the company to double its pea protein production, reports Melissa Machen, senior technical services specialist at Cargill.
Cargill is developing non-GMO soy protein ingredients to meet growing demand from food companies, says Machen, adding that demand for genetically modified crops “continues to be significant. We believe GMO and non-GMO crops can and will co-exist to feed a growing population.”
Ingredion also reports upping its plant protein production capacity. In 2018 the company purchased a processing facility to produce pulse-based protein isolates and forged a joint venture with a Canadian company that produces pulse-based protein concentrates and flours from peas.
“The increased demand for plant protein will be placing high stress on crop production, with acres reassigned to more legumes,” says IFT Chief Science and Technology Officer Maria Velissariou. “Current demand for pea protein isolate is already outstripping supply.
“What’s more,” Velissariou observes, “as demand for plant protein continues to increase, the value chain needs to be optimized to ensure crop production does not stress the land by replacing forests, the conversion process is efficient, and by-products are valorized.”
Consumer wariness about overprocessing and overly long ingredient statements is perhaps the greatest challenge facing makers of the new generation of plant-based meats. “The biggest issue that plant-based has right now is that it’s an ultra-processed food,” contends Dave Donnan, partner emeritus with consultancy A. T. Kearney and one of the authors of a 2019 report on plant-based and cultured meat.
Simplifying ingredient statements should be a priority for plant-based meat providers, says Donnan. “There are people that are looking for cleaner label,” he observes. “They’re looking for a more natural product. This is by no means a natural product nor a clean label product.”
Category pioneers Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are vocal in their response to such complaints. “This notion that the products are [over]processed is an active campaign by the animal meat industry to spread fear and doubt about plant-based meat, which poses an existential threat to incumbent industry,” says Konrad of Impossible Foods.
“It’s well known that many foods involve processing, from bread to yogurt,” says Beyond Meat’s Ajami. “In fact, commercially raised meat is a process—one that starts with feeding the animal plants and water to build muscle or meat. … Beyond Meat is also produced by using plants and water but bypasses the animal to instead form muscle or meat using heating, cooking, and pressure—the same three steps used to make pasta.
“We believe it’s a tale of two processes, and, ultimately, it’s up to the consumer which one they’re most comfortable with,” Ajami concludes.
“Everything we eat is a collaboration of nature and science—including all the ingredients in the Impossible Burger, which started in a farmer’s field or were made using familiar fermentation methods,” writes Konrad in a statement on the Impossible Foods website. “The Impossible Burger is as processed as a freshly baked apple pie” (Konrad 2019).
Plant-based product developers “have done their homework” on ingredient decisions, says Jon Falk, senior food scientist and meat specialist at spices and seasonings company Asenzya. For example, he notes that while some activists are critical of the ingredient methylcellulose, product formulators use it for a specific reason. “That’s needed to hold that burger together as it cooks,” he emphasizes.
“Education on this is really important,” Falk continues. He recommends clearly spelling out the purpose of ingredients on product labels. Overall, he thinks the market leaders are doing a good job with the way they present information. “You look at the ingredient statements,” he says. “There’s nothing really hiding.” (See sidebar Are Consumers Thinking Differently About Ingredient Statements? for some additional insights into how consumers view the ingredient statements on plant-based products.)
Label clarity is essential, the Hartman Group’s Balanko agrees, noting that Hartman’s research indicates that certain mindful consumer segments will scrutinize the labels of plant-based products even more carefully in coming months and years. “Right now,” says Balanko, “we see consumers asking questions … the core, the people who are really at the leading edge of this, [are] questioning and going, ‘Well, this is a plant-based protein source, but is that protein coming from GMO soy, or is it coming from peas? Where is it coming from? And is it sustainably sourced?’
“In the future, we’ll see the consumer becoming much more sophisticated and scrutinizing sourcing and production narratives to a greater extent,” she predicts. “That plant-based halo—as consumers get more familiar with shopping these categories—it’s going to be questioned.”
Beyond Meat, Sweet Earth, Before the Butcher, and others emphasize their use of ingredients that are not genetically modified, preemptively positioning their products to appeal to consumers with concerns about GMOs. As O’Malley notes, “It’s easier to say that you are non-GMO than to explain why you are genetically modified.”
Impossible Foods, on the other hand, has embraced genetic engineering. Heme, the ingredient that’s famous for making the Impossible Burger “bleed” like real beef and giving it its meaty taste, is made using genetically engineered yeast. And last year the company announced that it would begin using some genetically modified soybeans in order to meet fast-growing demand for its burgers, a practice that CEO Brown characterized as “the safest and most environmentally responsible option that would allow us to scale our production and provide the Impossible Burger to consumers at a reasonable cost” (Brown 2019). The company already includes the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “bioengineered” label on its Impossible Burger packaging even though use isn’t mandatory until 2022.
Issues related to labeling, processing, and protein supply notwithstanding, the future looks bright for plant-based meat. Consumers are on board with the concept, and ongoing technological advances will pave the way for further product enhancements, including the development of whole-muscle meats.
Consultant Donnan theorizes that Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have done such a good job of perfecting the taste and texture of their burgers because—unlike major food companies, where the focus tends to be on bringing the next new concept to market—they’ve stayed laser focused on getting their plant-based formulations right.
“Impossible Foods is a food tech platform that has amassed a world-class archive of knowledge on how meat works at a molecular level,” Konrad points out. “Our scientists can pull various levers, such as those controlling texture, fat content, and heme.”
The company announced plans for Impossible pork and Impossible sausage early this year; the sausage debuted in the Impossible Croissan’wich breakfast sandwich that Burger King began testing in select U.S. markets in January.
A culture of continuous improvement also characterizes Beyond Meat. “We will continue to renovate existing products as we get closer and closer to our goal of perfectly building meat from plants that’s indistinguishable from its animal protein equivalent,” says Ajami. … “We’re currently focused on our three core platforms of beef, poultry, and pork, but anything that’s sold in the meat case is a potential target, so stay tuned for what’s to come.”
A couple of other factors will contribute to the disruption of the conventional meat supply, which the Kearney consultancy predicts will be reduced by more than 50% by 2040. One is the entrance of long-established food companies into the mix.
“The Nestlés and the Tysons of the world have a long history of food science and food development, particularly around meat …,” says Donnan. “So if they start to put the same level of R&D focus on these types of [plant-based] products, I’m expecting even more innovation.”
Investment bank UBS forecasts 28% compound annual growth for global plant-based meat sales, taking the category from less than $5 billion in 2018 to $85 billion in 2030. Kearney sees significant and disruptive growth for the current crop of plant-based meat products, which it describes as “novel vegan meat replacements.” Such plant-based products will account for 10% of global meat consumption within five years, although Kearney analysts expect cultured meat to eventually account for a larger share of the market than plant-based (Gerhardt et al. 2019; Figure 3).
Meanwhile, don’t write off animal-based meat. “The meat industry will always be a vital part of our food industry, but it will transform,” Sadowsky of The Culinary Architects predicts. Donnan agrees. “The traditional livestock meat industry has woken up,” he says.
“We’re seeing a lot more focus on sustainable agriculture for livestock—grass-fed meat, trying to [utilize] smaller lots so they’re not dealing with that issue of large feedlots,” Donnan continues. “So it’s a moving target. Even with the plant-based meats putting a lot of money into research and coming up with better alternatives, I think the livestock meat [industry] is moving the bar as well.
“I would expect that over the next five to seven years, you’ll see livestock meat become much healthier, more sustainable, [have] less impact on the environment,” says Donnan. “And you’ll see the plant-based [get] better at taste and texture.” All of which should translate to a major win for consumers seeking to eat more healthfully and with less impact on the environment.
Mary Ellen Kuhn is executive editor of Food Technology ([email protected]).
Beyond Meat. 2020. “Beyond Meat and Roquette Announce Multi-Year Pea Protein Supply Agreement.” Press release, Jan. 14. Beyond Meat, El Segundo, Calif. beyondmeat.com.
Brown, P. 2019. “How our commitment to consumers and our planet led us to use GM soy.” Impossible Foods, May 16. https://medium.com/impossible-foods/how-our-commitment-
Emmett, J. 2019. “PBFA and Kroger Plant-Based Meat Test Is Live!” Plant Based Foods Association, San Francisco. https://plantbasedfoods.org/pbfa-kroger-plant-based-meat-test-is-live/.
Gerhardt, C., F. ZiemBen, M. Warschun, et al. 2019. How Will Cultured Meat and Meat Alternatives Disrupt the Agricultural and Food Industry? A. T. Kearney, Chicago. kearney.com.
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McCarthy, J. and S. Dekoster. 2020. “Nearly One in Four in U.S. Have Cut Back on Eating Meat.” Press release, Jan. 27. Gallup, Washington, D.C. gallup.com.
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