How do you know when a food trend is worth taking seriously? When McDonald’s picks it up.
And by that measure, plant-based meat alternatives are some serious business. In late September, the fast-food chain that put burgers on the map began a 12-week Canadian test run of the P.L.T.—a.k.a. “Plant”—a meatless patty that Beyond Meat, the Los Angeles–based purveyor of plant-protein products, developed expressly for McDonald’s.1
This came less than half a year after Beyond Meat raised almost a quarter of a billion dollars in a high-profile initial public offering.2 And it came within a week of the September retail debut of the Impossible Burger, the contribution of Impossible Foods (Oakland, CA)—now joining competitor Beyond Meat in the grocery store aisle—to the burgeoning meatless-burger bonanaza.3
Yet these are just the most conspicuous examples of how plant-based innovators are disrupting the very definition of what we call “meat.” And as far as Steven Gumeny, regional product manager, North America, Beneo (Morris Plains, NJ), is concerned, the best is yet to come.
“The recent IPO from Beyond Meat and the growth of the Impossible Burger were certainly breakthroughs showing just how strong demand for plant-based meat alternatives is,” he says. “It’s exciting to see two startups become clear market leaders almost overnight. And now major food brands are buying in, trying to innovate quickly to catch up.”
Their innovation wouldn’t be feasible, though, were it not for an emerging class of plant-based ingredients that approach the taste, texture, appearance—even the nutritional value—of “real” meat. In so doing, they’re leaving the bean burgers and tofu patties of the past in the past.
Meeting the Meat-Free Need
You needn’t be a vegetarian—let alone a vegan—to appreciate the latest generation of cheat meats. In fact, the 2019 International Food Information Council Foundation’s Food Health Survey found that one-third of consumers eat plant-based protein daily, with three quarters viewing protein from plant sources as healthy.4
Cargill (Minneapolis) conducted its own survey of consumers’ protein perceptions and found that of the 1,900 U.S. grocery shoppers polled, nearly half agree to feeling better about eating plant protein, and almost as many actively try to eat more protein from plants,5 notes Pam Stauffer, Cargill’s global marketing programs manager.
And though consumers across the age range are curious about plant-based meat alternatives, the real oomph comes from the younger crowd. ADM’s (Chicago) OutsideVoice Primary Research Study, completed in May 2019, found that younger consumers “drive the plant protein agenda,” says Kurt Long, ADM’s commercial director of protein specialties and flexitarian solutions, “motivated by health and wellness, taste, ethics and beliefs, and cost and convenience.”
If It Tastes Like Chicken…
Young or old, plant-curious consumers have triggered an explosion in product development. “New launches have grown significantly,” Stauffer says, “and with these innovations we’ve seen dramatic improvements in product flavor and texture. Those who may have been turned off by early versions of meat and dairy alternatives are coming to them today and finding a different, very satisfying experience.”
For that they can thank novel plant-protein ingredients that are closing in on the organoleptic qualities of “real” meat. While past iterations of meat analogues mainly replicated ground proteins—think burgers, patties, sausage crumbles, and franks—current products can aim much higher.
As Melissa Machen, senior technical services specialist in plant protein at Cargill, explains, “Burgers were always a forgiving format for meat analogues, as they’re usually served on a bun with condiments and other toppings that add flavor, texture, and juiciness.”
But with new ingredients surfacing, “We’re seeing other product formats that closely mimic traditional meat in color, texture, and bite, including meatless nuggets, analogue tuna, and plant-based meat alternatives in frozen and convenience foods,” she continues. “It’s clear that some brands are striving to create products that are indistinguishable from meat—a goal they’re making significant progress toward accomplishing.”
Long adds that by altering inbound ingredients and extrusion methods, his team “can yield a variety of different shapes, sizes, and textures depending on the target application.” Even pulled pork is possible, he claims.
“Some products, like fish analogues, may require a completely different ingredient set and processing method,” Long continues. “But by having a deep understanding of the science behind the ingredients that go into these products, we can design natural flavors and maskers to make these products emulate meat even better.”
- McDonald’s website. “McDonald’s Tests New Plant-Based Burger in Canada.” September 26, 2019. Accessed at: https://news.mcdonalds.com/news-releases/news-release-details/mcdonalds-tests-new-plant-based-burger-canada-plt
- Linnane C. “Beyond Meat goes public with a bang: 5 things to know about the plant-based meat maker.” MarketWatch. May 28, 2019. Accessed at: www.marketwatch.com/story/beyond-meat-is-going-public-5-things-to-know-about-the-plant-based-meat-maker-2018-11-23
- Institute of Food Technologists’ website. Press release. “Impossible Foods debuts in U.S. grocery stores.” September 27, 2019. Accessed at: www.ift.org/news-and-publications/news/2019/september/27/impossible-foods-debuts-in-us-grocery-stores
- International Food Information Council Foundation. “2019 Food & Health Survey. International Food Information Council Foundation.” May 2019.
- Cargill Proprietary Research, 2018.
- Kyriakopoulou K et al. “Plant-based meat analogues.” Sustainable Meat Production and Processing (2019): 103-126