There is no greater celebration of gluttony than the meatball sub. You start off with a baguette—a snack unto itself—which is sliced and and grilled up with butter and garlic. Then you pile in half a pound or more of meatballs, topped with a generous amount of butter-simmered marinara (basil, peppers, and cheese are optional but recommended). The creation is a drippy, chewy mess that’s structurally unsound by design, disintegrating by the moment, and bound to collapse at any second from the weight of its own ambition.
With its gooey red sheen, the meatball sub is the very antithesis of the clean quinoa bowls of plant-based eating. Which is exactly what makes it such an odd sight in the ad for Beyond Meat’s latest product: Beyond Meatballs.
Coming to grocery stores including Krogers, Whole Foods, and Albertson’s this October, Beyond Meatballs are essentially Beyond Meat’s plant-based beef, slightly reformulated, and preformed into balls with Italian seasonings. The price is $6.99 for 12 meatballs, which works out to about twice the price per ounce of the real meat counterparts.
Why meatballs, when Beyond Meat has a limited number of new products it can release to market, and convince retailers to carry? Can’t people just make meatballs with Beyond Meat at home? “It’s funny, because meatballs are bigger than you think,” says Beyond Meat CMO Stuart Kronauge. “This one had a lot of retailer demand before we actually made it. Some of our anchor retailers have been asking us for meatballs for a while. There was built-in demand.”
Indeed, meatballs are among the most universal foods eaten around the globe—and, paradoxically, that hunger extends to vegans, vegetarians, and people who would like to eat less animal protein. According to data analytics firm Information Resources (RIR), pre-made plant-based meatballs are one of the fastest growing segments of the plant-based meat category, having grown 145% over the past year. That might be explained by another trend: America is desperate for easy, wholesome meals. This was one of Innova Market Insights‘ biggest trends of 2020: Our modern, busy life ” raises the demand for nutritious foods that are easy to prepare, convenient, and portable.”
The pandemic has only increased Americans’ appetite for plant-based proteins. Plant-based meat sales were up 264% during the early months of the pandemic. Alongside that demand, fake meat is making its way into most grocery stores, as 1-pound packs, preformed burgers, and breakfast sausages. It’s arriving at many major fast-food chains, including Dunkin’, Burger King, Starbucks, Hardee’s, and White Castle. Much of the appeal, beyond being healthier than traditional meat, is that it’s gentle on the environment. While all processed foods carry a carbon footprint, Beyond Meat is clearly a better option over cattle production.
Beyond Meatballs are meant to resonate with Beyond Meat’s core consumer, a flexitarian looking to eat a bit healthier—but not necessarily ready to make the from-scratch meat replacements you might see at the NYC vegan eating meccas By Chloe (which sells a delicious vegan meatball sub) or Superiority Burger (known for making the best plant-based burger in the world).
The meatballs are also formulated for a range of food allergies. If you’ve ever tried to make a meatball without meat and you’re accommodating dietary restrictions, you know it’s tough. There are excellent recipes out there. But gluten (from breadcrumbs or the popular wheat-based protein seitan) and egg—two of the big seven allergens—are omnipresent in both carnivorous and plant-forward meatball recipes, as a way to bind together the meat mixture and hold it in shape while cooking.
Beyond Meat started with its basic “beef” mix, stained red from beets, and composed largely of pea and brown rice protein, while adding a tiny bit of extra coconut oil (1% more than its typical beef mix) to enhance what the company calls “structure” and mouthfeel. The mix holds its shape without bread or egg to help glue it all together into a ball form. The result is an all-around healthier revamp of the classic meatball that most people will be able to eat—a ball with 19 grams of protein per serving and 30% less saturated fat and sodium than its real beef and pork counterpart would have. To prepare the meatballs, you can sauté and braise them in sauce just like any classic meatball, or tear them up and bake for a pizza topping.
I was unable to sample the Beyond Meatball in time for this story, and honestly, I’ve had mixed responses to their products over the years. But offering more products seems like a good strategy for the company. Even if you don’t like Beyond Meat’s hamburgers or sausages, you might like Beyond Meats’ KFC nuggets. And in this regard, meatballs feel like an important product on a timeline to redefine what plant-based eating can be. Ten years ago, a pea-based “meatball” would have been laughed out of supermarkets. Now, it’s being sold alongside beef and pork, right in the meat section. I, for one, can’t wait to turn it into the gooiest meatball sub that I won’t feel guilty about.