When you think of meat, you probably assume it came from a cow, chicken, or pig. But several startups are trying to convince the public that “meat” doesn’t strictly have to come from an animal.
Recently, Obvious Ventures-backed Beyond Meat started selling its pea-based Beyond Burger in select Whole Foods, and just this week the Impossible Burger, a plant-based burger made by Impossible Foods, debuted at David Chang’s Momofuku Nishi in New York. But what exactly is “plant meat,” anyway?
Today, most veggie burgers you find in your local grocery store are typically made with some sort of soy or bean base. They’re not really “burgers” in the traditional sense as much as they’re something you can throw on a bun and pretend is a burger. That’s not to say they aren’t tasty, but they’re not convincing anyone (or trying to convince anyone) that they taste the same as ground beef.
Both Impossible and Beyond want you to feel like you are eating real meat when you eat their products–in fact, their plant-based burgers even bleed. And if someone doesn’t tell you that these new burgers are plant-based, you might not even notice the difference when you bite into them.
Ethan Brown, founder of Beyond Meat, says that the key to creating a meat-like experience using plants is replicating the composition of real meat: its protein, fat, and water. “If you understand what goes into meat and the architecture of it, you can build a piece of meat right from plants.”
Beyond is particularly proud that its burger is close enough to the real thing to be sold in Whole Foods’ meat case, right next to animal-based proteins. The company already has a number of plant-based products for sale, including chicken strips and meatballs, but its burger is its first product to earn this coveted spot in the grocery aisle.
Brown recently showed off the Beyond Burger at a small press event in San Francisco, where attendees had an opportunity to try the burger. The general consensus: it’s pretty passable. The texture is spot on, and the flavor is exceptionally close to the ground beef we’ve all grown up eating. The patties at the event were unseasoned, just pulled right from the package and grilled. Add a little seasoning though, and I think the Beyond Burger has a solid chance of converting dedicated carnivores. It even sizzled and smelled like a real burger while it cooked.
“To make the aroma and taste of meat is not easy. There are about 6,000 molecules that contribute to the smell you get at a cookout, the flavor you’re getting, the fact that you’re salivating a bit when you’re eating meat,” says Brown. “We have a really gifted scientific team that looked at the molecular structure and said, ‘Where can we find analogous molecules in the plant kingdom?’ and how can we combine them and get them to react under heat in a way that’s going to give off the same aroma and the same taste?”
Reactions to Impossible’s Burger in New York have also been pretty positive, too: These things are pretty close to the real thing.
Sure, vegetarians needed a better non-murderous burger option, but these two companies are going after someone a little different than the stereotypical veggie-lover: carnivores. The reason? The health of our planet.
A 2009 study found that 51% of global greenhouse gas emissions are driven by livestock rearing and processing.
Impossible Food’s website notes that by not using animals, their burger is made using 95% less land (livestock need to graze), 74% less water (both the livestock and the plants they eat require lots of water), and 87% less greenhouse gas emissions (because livestock produce methane and expire carbon dioxide) than its ground beef counterpart. That’s a sentiment echoed by Beyond Meat, which notes that even the most ethically treated animals are dramatically affecting our environment.
“If you add up all the carbon emissions from the mere fact that animals are breathing—whether they’re sleeping in wonderful barns or factory farms, all of them are emitting carbon—it’s about 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions right there,” says Brown. “Science can do a lot of things, but I don’t think it can create an animal that doesn’t breathe.”
If just a small fraction of meat consumers switched to plant-based protein instead, even just some of the time, it could have a huge impact on our environment as a whole. There would be enough of an impact that big names like Bill Gates, Biz Stone, and Ev Williams have chosen to invest in its future. Gates has invested in both Impossible and Beyond, and Stone and Williams’s Obvious Ventures invested $17 million in Beyond Meat as one of the venture’s first investments. Stone serves on Beyond’s board. Impossible has reportedly raised $183 million in total, and even turned down a proposed $200 million to $300 million sale to Google last year.
“This is far more important than alternative energy, absolutely hands down, and anyone who understands climate will tell you that,” claims Brown.
Impossible’s burger is currently only available at David Chang’s Momofuku Nishi in New York, and while the company has said it plans to roll the burger out at a location in San Francisco this fall, that information has yet to be announced. Its current price tag: $12.
Beyond Meat is going a different route with its burger, launching in Whole Foods locations first. It is currently available in just a few stores, but by the end of fall, the company expects the burger to be available in all Whole Foods locations across the nation. If you live near a Whole Foods that carries Beyond’s burger, you can pick up a pack of two uncooked patties for $5.99.
After Whole Foods, the Beyond Burger will roll its burgers out in Target stores, and later in Walmarts and grocery stores. Brown also says that the burger will be making its way to “fast food restaurants,” and while none have been officially named, former McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson joined the company’s board late last year, leading us to speculate that plant burgers might possibly be served beneath the golden arches at some point in the future.
Regardless of where either company’s burger ends up, it’s safe to say that “plant meat” is something we’re all going to start seeing and hearing (and tasting) a lot more often.
“The meat case is no longer the meat case, it’s the protein case,” says Brown. “If you give people the opportunity to make a better decision for themselves and the planet, they’ll often take it.”