Don’t Call It ‘Fake’: Beyond Meat Makes Real Meat (from Plants)

Don't Call It 'Fake': Beyond Meat Makes Real Meat from Plants
image courtesy of Beyond Meat

We tend to think of beef (or any animal-derived product) as a singular ingredient. But a burger or a steak is a highly complex compilation of chemicals, amino acids, saturated and unsaturated fats, cholesterol, sodium, potassium, iron, B vitamins, calcium, etc. For an animal to convert grass or grain into the products humans later eat is as much a systematic processing as taking plant-based ingredients such as peas, coconuts, and beets, and processing them together to taste and perform like animal ingredients. All food is greater than the sum of its parts–although it is indeed the parts that matter more than anything else. And for Beyond Meat, the El Segundo, Calif., plant-based company, this science lesson is crucial.

For decades, plant-based meats, which earned the rather disparaging nickname “mock meats,” were the bane of any vegan trying to enjoy a meatless meal in the presence of nonvegans discomforted by tofu. As delicious as it is, the ever-popular Tofurky roast did little to help this issue. Its playful name became a laughing stock, fodder for anyone feeling the need to hurl insults at someone else just because of their meatless diet choice.

But things are changing. More omnivores are leaning toward flexitarianism—while not completely eschewing animal products, bringing more plants to their plates regularly. Nondairy milk sales are at an all time high, and conventional supermarkets have begun carving out more shelf space for plant proteins, milks, and cheeses. U.S. News & World Report just named the plant-based diet as the healthiest diet for the seventh year in a row.

For Beyond Meat, these are all critical signs it’s heading in the right direction with its “meat from plants” ethos.

“The overall mantra of the company is to continually try to collapse any distinction between our products and animal protein,” says Beyond Meat founder Ethan Brown.

Inside an indistinct brick warehouse just a few blocks from the Pacific Ocean, Beyond Meat’s team of scientists are hard at work trying to shrink this distinction Brown speaks to. They don white lab coats and hold test tubes filled with pink and blue liquids up close to their eyes. They write down notes and pause to collect their thoughts. This is the same science stuff you’d expect to see in labs working, say, to cure diseases. And in some ways, it’s the same problem. Prevention is as much a piece of the puzzle as finding cures. Developing a satisfying burger without the saturated fats or cholesterol unavoidable in animal protein could save countless lives from heart disease, high cholesterol, and type-2 diabetes.

Then there are the indirect issues with the livestock industry, namely pollution, which is a massive contributor to climate change, antibiotic resistance, and competition for natural resources, all of which put humans at risk for serious health issues.

Don't Call It 'Fake': Beyond Meat Makes Real Meat from Plants
Ethan Brown, Beyond Meat Founder, with the Beyond Burger. Image courtesy of Beyond Meat.

An ethical vegan, Brown was looking for healthy plant-based proteins to feed his growing family. He wanted something that would also satisfy guests and keep them from turning up their noses or making those dreaded jokes about vegan food. He founded Beyond Meat in 2009 to solve this problem.

The company, which sells burgers, beef-like crumbles, and meatless chicken strips, is now earning quite a bit of praise over its recent launch of the Beyond Burger–a burger so perfectly formulated to taste and perform like meat, most people who try it have a hard time believing it’s not meat.

A vegan more than two decades, I had to roll pieces of the burger around in my mouth for minutes while it conjured up faint memories of eating burgers in my childhood–the slightly charred taste of fast food burgers, crisped on the edges but dense throughout. The Beyond Burger is undeniably “meaty” in just the right ways.

According to Beyond Meat, the Beyond Burger clocks in at 20 grams of protein compared to beef’s 19 grams, has double the iron, contains no trans fats, and also includes 12 percent of the recommended daily intake for fiber. It’s a product the scientists at Beyond Meat have been working on for years, and it’s constantly being tweaked.

“We’d like to improve the color transition a bit,” Will Schafer, Beyond Meat’s Marketing Director tells me as we tour the lab. The burger is made primarily from yellow peas, but it gets its meaty-pink hue from beets. The only problem, says Schafer, is that consumers used to animal meat wait for that pinkness to go away when cooking, so they tend to overcook it. “That’s a hard one,” he says. But it’s a good problem to have; it tells Beyond Meat that its core consumers aren’t just vegans, but meat-eaters looking for plant-based alternatives that perform like meat.

Brown and the Beyond Meat team were so convinced that the Beyond Burger would be an excellent choice for meat-eaters that the company insisted it be placed adjacent to the meat counters at Whole Foods Markets. (At the initial launch in Boulder, Colo., the burgers sold out in less than an hour.)

Then, last October, Beyond Meat announced it sold a five percent stake in the company to Tyson Foods for an undisclosed amount of funding. Tyson is the largest producer of beef, chicken, and pork products in the world.

Plant-based offerings tend to not be viewed as friends of the giant livestock industries they’re taking market share away from. In 2014, Unilever, parent company to Hellmann’s Mayonnaise, sued another California-based start up, Hampton Creek, over its use of the word “mayo” on its eggless mayonnaise. Unilever, which later dropped the suit and launched its own vegan mayonnaise, claimed that the product couldn’t use the term “mayo” because an FDA definition of mayonnaise (or any variations on the word) from the 1950s included eggs. Plans to derail Hampton Creek were linked all the way to the CEO of the American Egg Board, who resigned after emails pointed to her efforts to discredit Hampton Creek out of fears its success would hurt the egg industry.

But Brown says the move by Tyson is in earnest, and a big step forward for both the livestock industry and plant-based offerings.

“It’s a huge moment of courage for Tyson,” he says.

For the largest producer of animal proteins to give validity to the nascent plant-based protein industry, Tyson received a lot of criticism from both stakeholders and suppliers. But the stock market responded positively, with Tyson’s stock prices climbing after the announcement. And Beyond Meat customers can rest assured their favorite burgers and crumbles aren’t going to disappear anytime soon (or stop being vegan).

“Plant-based proteins are definitely a critical part of the food system moving forward,” says Brown. “We think they’re the future of protein.”

It’s part of the Beyond Meat mantra as well as elsewhere in the food industry. Competitor Impossible Foods also recently launched a “meaty” burger that resembles beef much more than it does the bean and grain veggie burgers that crumble on the bun or burn on the grill. Memphis Meats, a Northern Calif., startup, is creating beef and pork products from cultured animal cells but without the mess, waste, pollution, or cruelty of raising livestock for food.

With limits on natural resources–namely land and fresh water–raising animals, particularly cattle, is proving to be unsustainable. And to raise animals ethically, that is to let cattle graze outdoors on natural grass diets, would be impossible to keep up with current demands. There simply isn’t enough grazing land to support the amount of animals needed. And as soil conditions deteriorate and growing seasons are compromised, dietary needs will change–an issue experts say will happen as a result of a warming planet. Products like Beyond Meat’s can be tweaked accordingly. It’s much more difficult and costly to attempt to tweak the health profile of a 1,200 pound steer eating nutrient-deficient corn, soy, or alfalfa, than it is to formulate plant-based products that address the changing health needs of the general population.

With the recent launch of the Plant Based Foods Association, the first lobby group for producers of plant-based products, the industry is poised to redefine plants as being more than just the obligatory stalk of (uneaten) broccoli on the plate. And, much like what almond milk has done for the fluid dairy category, brands like Beyond Meat are helping remove the stigma associated with relying on plants for protein, upending myths about flavor, texture, and nutrition profile.

Beyond Burgers cooking at the Beyond Meat test kitchen. Image courtesy of author.

Shortly after the Tyson news, Beyond Meat announced another big partnership, this one with Veggie Grill–the west coast-based vegan fast casual chain. Veggie Grill is the first restaurant chain to serve the Beyond Burger, and a logical partnership between the two operations.

“My initial foray in this world was wanting to create a plant-based McDonald’s,” says Brown.

Veggie Grill serves up the meaty-tasting patty alongside crispy fries for a plant-based, albeit indulgent, comfort meal.

With the funding from Tyson, Brown says Beyond Meat can move to a larger facility and hire more scientists to keep working on making a variety of meats from plants. The company has a non-GMO commitment, and the use of pea protein makes the burgers both soy- and gluten-free.

“There’s a whole plant kingdom out there to tap into,” Brown tells me. Yellow pea is being used currently because it’s widely available, but if the Beyond Meat scientists find another protein that works better, Beyond Meat will work to build the supply chain. The company has already proven the audience is ready for whatever they come up with next.

“It’s really amazing what’s been happening in the last few years; we used to have to push to talk about these products and there’s just been a huge shift toward plants,” says Brown. “I can’t tell you how cool it is.”

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Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites OrganicAuthority.com and EcoSalon.com, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better. www.jillettinger.com.