Plant Based Meat Products: Going Beyond Meat

Consumers' interest in protein needn't be confined to meat.

By David Phillips, Technical Editor

While consumers seem more interested than ever in protein-rich foods, many also are picking and choosing where their protein comes from and when they will eat meat, says Brent Taylor, co-founder of Beyond Meat, an El Segundo, Calif., company that offers what it calls plant-based meat products.

“Consumers are going to continue to seek protein, and not just from animal meat,” Taylor says. “Our products appeal to consumers who eat meat and not looking to replace it completely, but simply want to find a happy balance.”

The current high price of beef is not the something that Beyond Meat will rely on as it works to encourage a 25 percent reduction in meat consumption by 2020 … but it doesn’t hurt either.

While poultry continues to enjoy a health halo image among many consumers, those most concerned about animal welfare and environmental impact tend to seek plant-based alternatives. And they are finding them. Chicken strips, ground meat, heritage grain patties and even eggs that are made from vegetable proteins (primarily soy and lentils) are making their way to into the mainstream with new rollouts from new companies.

Beyond Meat started with plant-based grilled chicken-strips, grew to include seasoned ground beef analog, and is about to expand to include The Beast — the company’s first shot at a vegetarian burger patty. Ingredients include soy protein isolate, pea protein and yeast. The products are sold in the frozen aisle in more than 500 retail outlets in the U.S., including Whole Foods Markets and Publix.

The company drew the attention of the New York Times this spring when its faux chicken products where confused with real poultry and mislabeled in a Whole Foods deli offering, leading to a recall. Consumers did not taste the difference but the potential for a soy allergy reaction led to the recall.

Taylor says they really are that good. “The biggest challenge we faced was getting the texture and the bite of real animal meat,” he says. “That’s not to say that we are 100 percent there, but we continue to close that gap.”

Beyond Meat began with research conducted at the University of Missouri by Fu-hung Hsieh and Harold Huff, who examined how plant-based foods could gain more commercial acceptance. All of the product development work was done there, and Beyond Meat has its production in Missouri as well. That R&D included plenty of trial and error, Taylor notes.

The products were commercialized in 2010 in a business launch that involved Taylor, co-founder Ethan Brown at the helm and high-profile investment from Bill Gates and Twitter pioneers Biz Stone and Evan Williams.

Converting carnivores to a fully vegetarian diet is not Beyond Meat’s mission, and in looking at research from Mintel Group and others, it’s easy to see why. Today’s consumers are more likely than ever to enjoy meatless products for their flavor, and to serve them alongside meat products, Mintel says. And that’s fine with Taylor.

“It’s a ‘less-of’ rather than an ‘either-or’ proposition,” he says. “We have customers tell us that by eating our products, they might be more likely to allow themselves a ribeye steak now and then.”

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