When the fast-casual restaurant chain Tender Greens decided to test a new dish on its menu that included plant-based meat earlier this fall, the company didn’t turn to Impossible Foods or Beyond Meat, but to a little-known producer called Abbot’s Butcher that describes its food as “small-batch” meat replacements.
Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods now sell products at thousands of restaurants, ranging from Del Taco and Burger King to David Chang’s Momofuku Nishi. “They have so much brand equity built up,” says Jack Oh, chief marketing officer at Tender Greens. “But for us, it was a very difficult decision to even think about exploring plant-based protein. That’s because we have a philosophy that’s pretty simple—real food cooked by real chefs in real kitchens.”
The team agonized over the choice and decided that they wanted to work with plant-based protein. But they filtered out any products that were heavily processed. “It was a simple gut check for us when we look at the ingredients list,” he says. “Does it seem like real food? Are there things that seem like they’re coming out of a science lab?”
Abbot’s Butcher was the only supplier that met the chain’s requirements for quality product, made from natural ingredients, that had the ability to scale nationwide. The startup was founded in 2016 by a former investment banker who decided to leave corporate finance, took cooking classes, and, as a vegetarian, started experimenting with making meat-like textures and flavors. “I was eating a lot of meat alternatives, and I wasn’t feeling very good after eating them,” says founder Kerry Song.
She was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder and started questioning whether the food that she was buying in stores was as healthy as she had assumed. “I realized that I was eating a lot of highly processed foods,” she says. “So I cut all of those out.” As she experimented with making less processed versions for herself, she started selling the food at farmers’ markets in Los Angeles, then natural grocery stores, and then into food service.
The company’s chopped “chicken” is made with pea and wheat protein, herbs such as sage and thyme, and salt and pepper, without preservatives, additives, or artificial flavors or colors. “I think that in the plant-based category, there’s so much innovation and so much excitement going around with what we can develop in a lab and what science can really add to the category,” Song says. “But at the end of the day, this is ‘We’re in the food space,’ and I think people are forgetting that this needs to be food.”
Some objections to certain products on the market seem unfounded; some consumers avoid Impossible burgers because the company uses two genetically engineered ingredients, including its version of heme, an ingredient that helps the food have a characteristically meaty flavor. But most scientists believe that genetically modified food is safe, along with the National Academy of Sciences and the American Medical Association.
The heavy processing of some plant-based meat could potentially be an issue, however. In a recent opinion article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, professors from Harvard’s School of Public Health note that people should be cautious in assuming that the proven benefits of eating plants translate into plant-based meat, because of the processing. They also point to a small controlled feeding study that found that people eating “ultra-processed” food ate more, and gained more weight, than those who didn’t. (While most food that we eat is at least somewhat processed, “ultra-processed” food involves not just adding sugar, salt, and fat, but things such as artificial flavors, colors, and preservatives.)
The Impossible and Beyond burgers have less fat than beef burgers and no cholesterol, but more sodium and a similar number of calories, and the authors say that it’s not clear that the plant-based burgers have a nutritional advantage. Excess consumption of heme is also linked to some health problems.
That’s not to say that people should eat meat instead. The JAMA article outlines meat’s links with obesity, heart disease, and other health challenges. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified processed meat as carcinogenic and said that unprocessed red meat is a probable carcinogen. Antibiotics used in meat production can transmit drug-resistant bacteria to the humans that eat the meat. Runoff from animal farms can contaminate drinking water and crops grown on nearby farms, as in the recent cases of tainted lettuce that have sickened and killed people. And more fundamentally, meat production is a major contributor to climate change, which itself harms human health in several ways. The benefits for the climate, not nutrition, are the main driver for companies such as Impossible Foods.
Arguably, to have a chance of tackling meat’s climate problem and convincing consumers to switch from highly processed animal meat, the substitutes may also have to be processed to be as tasty as possible. “Most consumers don’t want to swap a burger for beans,” says Caroline Bushnell, the associate director of corporate engagement at the nonprofit Good Food Institute, which studies the plant-based food industry. “They’d much prefer to still have a burger, but a better one. And on many important metrics, a plant-based burger is certainly a healthier option than a traditional burger. For example, plant-based burgers have zero cholesterol and contain no antibiotics. And in our current food system, a majority of the food we eat is processed in some way, including conventional hamburgers.”
Plant-based burgers that looked and tasted less like meat, of course, have been around for a long time, previously known as veggie burgers. But they didn’t garner much interest from non-vegetarians. Now that the market has grown and become more mainstream, however, it’s possible that alternatives like Abbot’s Butcher may also begin to capture part of the market and make up the next wave of the industry.
Some demand already exists. Chipotle’s CEO, for example, told Bloomberg that the chain had spoken with plant-based meat producers, but “unfortunately, it wouldn’t fit with our ‘food with integrity’ principles because of the processing, as I understand it, that it takes to make a plant taste like a burger.” Abbot’s Butcher, on the other hand, recently tested its chorizo with Mod Pizza, a pizza chain that focuses on quality ingredients.
Like the larger plant-based companies, Abbot’s Butcher focuses first on how its products taste, attempting to replicate the texture and flavor of animal protein as much as possible. “For us, taste and texture is still paramount, because if people don’t love to eat something, and really enjoy how delicious it is, they’re not going to come back,” says Song. “What Impossible and Beyond are doing is incredible because they’re the ones out there that are converting so many people to just even try plant-based,” she adds.
“People who would have maybe never like been open to the idea of a vegan meat are now realizing how accessible and how delicious it can be. So we’re definitely more of a second-wave plant-based meat where people are looking for ways to sort of refine their plate, make better-for-you choices, and also just expand outside of the burger ground beef.”