Three years ago, the plant-based but meat-like Beyond Burger hit shelves at a Whole Foods in Colorado. The next month, the Impossible Burger went on the menu at Momufuku Nishi in New York City. Now–as the Impossible Burger starts to roll out at Burger King nationwide, and Beyond recently had the best-performing IPO of the year–Nestlé, the largest food company in the world, is preparing for the U.S. launch of a similarly realistic plant-based burger of its own.
Called the Awesome Burger, the new product was developed by Sweet Earth, a California-based brand that Nestlé acquired in 2017. “This is a great example of a small company being somewhat nimble and collaborating with a large company that has immense embedded knowledge in research and development, food processing, and procurement,” says Brian Swette, cofounder of Sweet Earth.
The brand, which makes products like “Benevolent Bacon,” also already makes more traditional veggie burgers that don’t attempt to closely mimic meat. But as omnivores have embraced more plant-based diets, the company realized that it needed to develop something new. “The next evolution of the veggie burger, as the customer becomes more mainstream, is that the burger becomes more mainstream or meat-like,” says cofounder Kelly Swette.
Like the products made by Impossible and Beyond, the new burger is designed to look and taste like beef, not plants. On a grill, it sizzles like the real thing. “We’ve got a great chew,” she says. “It’s very juicy. The color is very meaty, and it transforms as you cook it.”
The recipe is designed to be healthier than beef, with 28 grams of protein versus the 20 grams that might be in a beef burger. Yellow peas, which are high in protein, are a key part of the recipe. (The company also chose peas rather than soy in part because of the sustainability advantages of peas, which can help improve soil health as they grow, and can be sourced locally.) Wheat is another key ingredient. “Wheat gives us that tender and juicy profile that people expect and want from meat,” she says. The burger has six grams of fiber (beef has none), is high in iron and Vitamin C, and has no cholesterol or trans fat. The nutritional profile, she says, is one of the ways the burger differentiates itself from others in the market. Like other plant-based burgers, it avoids the problem of antibiotics that are used in meat production.
In Europe, Nestlé recently launched the similar “Incredible Burger,” which is now sold at McDonald’s in Germany. That burger took only a year of R&D, versus more than three years for the Beyond Burger and five for the Impossible. The Awesome Burger, which is expected to launch in grocery stores, college cafeterias, and restaurants later this year, took only a year and a half of development despite hundreds of iterations on the recipe. That speed might be in part because of Nestlé’s deep resources. Until the product is available for tasting, it also isn’t clear if the company has achieved something quite as realistic as the others. Nestlé is not the only food giant to jump into the space: JBS, the world’s largest meat producer, is launching another realistic plant-based burger in Brazil this spring. Tyson Foods, one of the other major meat producers, also plans to launch plant-based products this year.
That doesn’t mean that Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods need to be worried, says Bruce Friedrich, executive director of the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that focuses on the industry. “I think that the main thing to remember is how early we are into the idea of selling plant-based meat that is designed to biomimic animal-based meat, and compete for the stomachs of meat eaters,” he says. “Until Impossible and Beyond, there was an assumed market cap for plant-based meat products of probably $1 billion to $2 billion. You can have a lot of very successful companies competing for a $2 billion market. But the central observation of Impossible and Beyond is that we’re not competing for the consumer dollars of vegetarians and flexitarians–we’re competing for the consumer dollars of everyone who eats.”
A recent report from Barclay’s predicts that plant-based and cell-based meat will be worth $140 billion within a decade, and make up 10% of the global meat market. “When you start thinking about it that way, there’s a lot of room for new entrants, and a real need for new entrants if we’re going to create a robust plant-based meat sector,” he says.
Correction: An earlier version of this article said that the burger had no saturated fat, but it does have a minimal amount of saturated fat from plant-based sources such as coconut oil.