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Exclusive: Inside Beyond Meat’s innovative future food lab

The meat substitute burger company’s diverse R&D team of tech, health, and chem experts want to make Beyond Meat products taste like the real thing.

Exclusive: Inside Beyond Meat’s innovative future food lab
In the new sensory lab, Beyond Meat can conduct consumer panels and focus groups to gather frequent feedback that helps inform the innovation and renovation of products. [Photo: courtesy of Beyond Meat]

“This is our E-tongue,” explains Parker Lee, lead scientist of Beyond Meat’s analytical lab.

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The young scientist stands by a sleek, two-foot compactor that squishes Beyond Meat’s burgers to test for chewiness, juiciness, and elasticity. A mechanical arm increases and decreases pressure to examine whether the mouthfeel replicates what you might experience at, say, an In-N-Out.

With each lever, the plant-based non-meat patty oozes–then bursts with blood orange-colored juice. The question: Can they further delay the bursts? Or make the texture a bit softer, without expensing firmness?

“We’re always trying to improve our products,” says Lee as he swaps in a fresh patty to meet its fate in the E-tongue.

The chew is a subtle but key element in the eating experience of meat. Above, Beyond Meat uses an “e-mouth” to precisely measure the density of its products and resulting chew required to match beef. [Photo: courtesy of Beyond Meat]
I am getting an exclusive look at the updated Beyond Meat R&D lab in El Segundo, California. Here, dozens of scientists don white coats stitched with “The future of protein” logos. The 26,000-square foot facility features every machine, gadget, and gizmo dedicated to solving one question: How can we mimic meat? And more importantly, how do we make it look, feel, and taste like the real thing?

Beyond Meat is no longer the small startup competing against the humble black bean burger. The plant-based meat substitute maker has sold 13 million burgers since its 2016 debut and just last week admitted it is having trouble meeting demand after multiple Whole Foods stores ran out. Besides the market chain, Beyond Meat sells at Amazon Fresh and 20,000 other grocery retailers–as well as 10,000 restaurants, hotels, and universities.

Several cultural trends led to Beyond Meat’s success, but so has its commitment to tweaking its collection of ready-to-cook products. So, it makes sense the brand would need a space to reach its ultimate purpose–namely, to get even meatier.

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The entire El Segundo operation dedicates itself to flavor, aroma, appearance, and texture. Every day, a team of scientists essentially share one job: to discover how ingredients such as peas or fava beans can become an alternative to cows and other animals.

“Everything here is an investment toward that goal of making it indistinguishable,” says founder and CEO Ethan Brown.

In Beyond Meat’s analytical lab, scientists work to identify the signature aroma molecules of meat, and then source those same molecules from simple, non-GMO, plant-based ingredients. [Photo: courtesy of Beyond Meat]

The ‘meat’ machines

Lee, a macromolecular scientist, previously made medical devices for cancer patients–today, he uses his scientific background to replace animal cartilage with garden produce. This is no way strikes him as strange. “It’s all science,” he says.

The same goes for Jonny Gordon, Beyond Meat’s color lab scientist. A chemist with no prior food science experience, he now runs a research facility whose sole job is to improve the color of substitute meat.

His lab coat splashed with beet stains, he plays with a variety of fruits and vegetables–blending them together in a more sci-fi version of a Vitamix. The contents are then powderized in what looks like a cotton candy machine. This despite the brand’s patties already exhibiting a very realistic pink. It even turns brown during the cooking process.

Here in the color lab, Beyond Meat extracts juice from raw beets and transforms it into a concentrated powder colorant. [Photo: courtesy of Beyond Meat]
Later during my facility tour, Daniel Ryan, Beyond Meat’s director of chemistry, works with the “E-nose” aroma inspector. The machine isolates more than 1,000 molecules in animal and plant matter to factor which contribute to smell and taste. It doesn’t sample meat, rather the air that surrounds pieces of meat inside tiny vials.

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Ryan then tries to match it to molecules similar in the plant kingdom, everything from parsley to fennel. He handles tiny glass bottles marked with descriptions like “meaty,” “gamey,” “roasted,” and “fatty.” The goal? Recreate the exact sensory experience of a classic steakhouse. “It’s a continuous process,” says Ryan, adding, “a lifetime’s work.”

One of the key differentiators of Beyond Meat is the texture and meaty chew of its products. This work begins at a microscopic level as the team analyzes the architecture of meat using sophisticated imaging equipment. [Photo: courtesy of Beyond Meat]
Brown credits the research team’s unique mishmash of backgrounds–biochemistry, biophysics, plant science, health care, tech, and chemistry–to the nine-year-old company’s success. In fact, the founder didn’t particularly seek out food science development experts. Innovation, says Brown, is best served by scientific diversity.

“We needed to invest in science technology to fundamentally understand meat–its composition and architecture and to rebuild it from plants,” says Brown. The old system wasn’t going to cut it: “We expect a bunch of chefs and food scientists to solve a massive global problem, which is supplying protein to seven billion people.”

The Manhattan Beach Project

With that came the need to expand its R&D, at which point Beyond Burgers took over an old airport hangar in El Segundo, 10 times the size of its previous lab space. It was dubbed “The Manhattan Beach Project” in reference to its location (it’s near SoCal’s Manhattan Beach) and the WWII atomic bomb research. (Brown is a “big fan” of Richard Rhodes’s Pulitzer prize-winning book The Making of the Atomic Bomb.)

Brown sees the facility gathering a group of scientists, engineers, and researchers for a very clear goal: to save humanity from its destructive animal consumption. A study by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that red meat production releases 10 to 40 times as many greenhouse gas emissions as common vegetables and grains.

[Photo: courtesy of Beyond Meat]
Beyond Meat constantly tweaks its bestselling burger–the brand plans to soon release its third iteration. Brown wants newer versions each year because he thinks it can always be more meat-like–and may keep competitors at bay.

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But like Coca-Cola’s new-formula fiasco, are there drawbacks of changing a recipe that’s already amassed millions of fans? The El Segundo quarters feature a “sensory lab” for blind-tasting capabilities. The controlled environment blocks out smell, noise, basically anything that might distract an eater.

Testers don’t necessarily hold the final call. When readying the latest version, results showed they preferred the original burger. Brown is pushing ahead regardless because “it’s better,” he says, “by any reasonable standards. I’m convinced something went wrong with the test.”

Constant tweaking isn’t simple for a company that refuses to incorporate gluten or GMOs, which competitors like the Impossible Burger rely on. “We make our scientists’ lives very difficult,” concedes Brown.

Beyond Meat refuses the controversial ingredients because it wants to position itself as a healthy food company, one that consumers can feel comfortable consuming three times a day. It promotes its healthier leanings first and foremost in its ad campaigns. Among its global ambassadors are athletes from the NBA, WNBA, MLB, and World Surf League. Several years ago, it hired Jeff Manning, the acclaimed architect of the iconic “Got Milk?” campaign.

“Can we market it in a way that makes it cool to eat our products, versus an obligation,” says Brown.

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Not that it’s a hard sell: Consumer demand for transparency quickly transformed the food industry, with 75% of shoppers now examining products prior to purchase, according to a study by Label Insight. Overall, Americans increasingly look to incorporate wellness: Nielsen reports that 88% of consumers will pay more for healthier foods.

Beyond Meat is keenly aware of that. When the brand was readying its sausage variety for market this past spring, it debated between three different versions, with the team tempted to go with the fattiest–and presumably tastiest–option. Ultimately, the healthier version was crowned the victor.

Besides health concerns, Brown believes consumers are now also factoring how their food choices contribute to the industrial farming system and impact the environment.

[Photo: courtesy of Beyond Meat]
“More and more consumers are beginning to understand the biggest choice they make in terms of impact on the climate is protein,” says Brown. A recent poll found that 43% of consumers more likely to try plant-based alternatives today than just five years ago.

It takes an estimated 18,000 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef. (Peas, in comparison, take 740 gallons.) Factor in the time it takes for an animal to grow muscle, and plants seem like a far more efficient supply chain.

Then there’s the economic argument: Brown is confident that in several years, plant-based alternatives will cost less than meat. A pack of Beyond Meat ranges from just above $5 on Amazon Fresh to $7.49 in grocery stores for two 4-ounce patties, which can be nearly double the price of beef per ounce in some markets. Its products will become more affordable as it masters processes and manufacturing, whereas beef and poultry is projected to get more expensive, according to the Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. (The Manhattan Beach Project is projected to help the company cut production time in half.)

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But Beyond Meat’s messaging doesn’t strive to make you feel guilty about your current diet choices; it’s more about making something so good and so tasty that, as Brown hopes, “they desire it.”

The Beyond Meat sensory lab [Photo: courtesy of Beyond Meat]

A plentiful plant-based future

The Beyond Meat founder’s office is a minimalist, sparsely decorated space with photos of Ethan Brown’s family in one corner, a surfboard hanging in another. One element that caught my eye: the multiple framed press quotes doubting the meatless juggernaut.

“Slightly better tofurkey,” reads one. “Companies like Beyond Meat will never be able to introduce pea protein powder into one end of a machine and extrude a convincing substitute for seared steak or roasted chicken from the other,” reads another.

Beyond Meat certainly defied market expectations and early naysayers. It no longer competes solely in the meat alternative category. The global meat substitutes market is expected to reach $6.4 billion by 2023, according to ResearchAndMarkets.com. Even KFC is experimenting with vegetarian fried “chicken.”

The company, which has  raised $72 million in funding to date, has more work to do to overcome the Tofurkey-tainted stigma, Brown says. To that end, an ambitious range of products are  in the pipeline, from home cooked essentials to snacky favorites, as is more plant-based poultry, pork, and likely bacon substitutes. (The latter is a toughie since it’s hard to get the fat to lie just right.)

Brown is adamant that his R&D team will crack the code of all your barbecue and restaurant favorites, no matter how daunting–including the Holy Grail: “The ambition is to go all the way up to steak.”

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