Fake meat once had a negative connotation, as products like veggie burgers and hot dogs left some meat-eaters disappointed. But during the past decade or so, a growing number of businesses, like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, began offering synthetic- and plant-based substitutes that more closely mimic the taste of beef, chicken, and pork.
In the U.S., products from those companies and others have become widely adopted, from the frozen food aisles of supermarkets to fast-food franchises and restaurants, including McDonald’s, White Castle, Burger King, Qdoba, and The Cheesecake Factory. As a result, demand for meat alternatives is expected to expand in the coming years.
Companies in the fake meat business are looking to solve a number of issues that go beyond just creating a tastier burger — they are also looking to limit global warming and other problems exacerbated by the current food manufacturing industry.
Producing beef, for instance, requires about 20 times more land and emits 20 times more greenhouse gas emissions per gram of edible protein than many plant proteins like beans, according to the World Resources Institute. Shifting away from meat- and resource-intensive diets could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions from food production.
“What you're seeing is people’s growing awareness and desire over the past couple of years to each take some step in helping address climate change in ways that include the food we eat,” says Charlene Li, founder of and an analyst at Altimeter, a San Francisco-based research and advisory firm. “For some, that means giving up meat entirely. For others, that means giving up meat one day a week to use one of these substitutes in their cooking — it’s not to necessarily switch over entirely, but every little bit helps.”
For Li, the plant-based meat substitute products from Beyond Meat, MorningStar Farms, and Gardein are a godsend for her family of four, which includes both meat eaters and a vegetarian. Because their products provide a taste more comparable to meat, she and her husband now frequently cook meals at home using these products in an effort to appease everyone’s palates and dietary habits.
Head of the pack
While earlier fake meat products were focused almost entirely on the vegetarian market, companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods more recently have targeted meat eaters with plant-based alternatives that taste more like the real thing.
That seems to be a successful strategy so far. Gallup reports vegans and vegetarians comprise just 8 percent of all U.S. consumers, so it's a smart move to expand their market to also include those who might be switching up their diets on occasion with meatless meals.
Since its IPO in May 2019, Beyond Meat has resonated with both investors and consumers. Its stock has surged nearly 170 percent since its first day of trading to $178 a share this January.
Fast food chains were quick to adopt the company’s products. A&W, for instance, serves a Beyond Burger that was once a Canadian exclusive but is now available at select locations in the U.S. Del Taco, meanwhile, makes Beyond Meat tacos that replace traditional ground beef at all 580 of their locations across the country.
Impossible Foods, which was founded in 2011, has also gained adoption with a slew of fast food chains and restaurants launching products like Burger King’s Impossible Whopper, Little Caesar’s Impossible Supreme Pizza, and Qdoba’s Impossible Tacos and Bowls.
As a private company Impossible Foods does not publicly disclose sales, but it reports the availability of its items in grocery stores across the U.S. grew more than 100 percent during 2020, from 150 stores at the start of the year to about 17,000 stores by year’s end.
While Beyond Meat’s products rely on a combination of plant proteins — including pea, rice, mung bran and faba bean — to mimic the taste of meat, Impossible Food’s not-so-secret ingredient is soy leghemoglobin, a protein found in soy.
As Impossible Foods CEO Pat Brown discovered during the development process, when soy leghemoglobin is cooked, it produces heme, an iron-rich compound that gives Impossible Foods’ burgers a meat-like taste. The company’s patties sizzle just like the real deal, and they often pass taste tests with burger aficionados, too. Even better, Impossible Foods accomplishes this without harming cows, the source of meat for traditional burgers.
“This is a company that exists in order to solve the two biggest existential threats that humanity faces: global diversity and biodiversity collapse,” says Rachel Konrad, chief communications officer of Impossible Foods. “We’re not here just to sell more burgers or anything like that. We exist only to solve those two problems, and it turns out that the best way to solve those problems is by making the food system sustainable and by creating a burger that eliminates the need for cows.”
Other companies are taking a more synthetic approach to creating meat substitutes, although their products remain a work in progress. For example, The Netherlands-based Mosa Meat, founded in 2013 by Dr. Mark Post of Maastricht University, produced the first hamburger from bovine muscle cells grown in a lab. With investors such as Google co-founder Sergey Brin, Mosa Meat plans to get its products out within the next three to four years.
Likewise, Memphis Meats, formed in 2015 by Uma Valeti and Nicholas Genovese in Berkeley, California, developed the first cell-based meatball in 2016 and the first-cell based chicken and duck in 2017 by identifying specific types of cells in a lab that they cultivated into meat.
And Israeli startup Aleph Farms cultures steaks using proprietary 3-D technology to create muscle, fat, and connective tissue alongside vasculature to produce a fully formed steak within three to four weeks. The company partnered with Mitsubishi’s Food Industry Group to release its first products in Asia in 2022.
“This is a company that exists in order to solve the two biggest existential threats that humanity faces: global diversity and biodiversity collapse.” — Rachel Konrad, chief communications officer, Impossible Foods.
Enter the goliaths of food manufacturing
The success of plant-based alternatives and recent developments in synthetic meats has drawn the attention of large food companies. Dairy giant Danone spent $12.5 billion to acquire the fast-growing organic foods maker WhiteWave in 2017, making it a player in soy and plant-based products.
Tyson Foods, which already owns a minority stake in lab-grown meat startup Memphis Meats, launched its own plant-based alternatives, including burger patties blending angus beef and pea protein. Nestlé introduced a plant-based Awesome Burger in fall 2019 under its Sweet Earth Brand.
Perdue now also sells Chicken Plus products that mix chicken with vegetables. For Perdue, offering hybrid meat products instead of going all-in on synthetic- or plant-based meat alternatives was a purposeful decision driven by consumer feedback.
“Frank Perdue’s legacy has always been about listening to consumers: if you don’t listen to the consumer, you don’t survive,” explains Tracy Hostetler, vice president of marketing of premium prepared foods for Perdue, who emphasized that chicken remains the company’s specialty. “Not only are we helping to meet demands for millions of parents with picky eaters, but we are appealing to the growing number of ‘flexitarian’ families who have an increased commitment to getting more plants and vegetables in their families’ diets.
The future of fake meat
More investment will inevitably follow these developments. Over $2.3 billion in venture capital has gone into U.S. plant-based and cell-based meat companies in the past decade, with 204 of all 210 venture financing rounds — over 99 percent of all venture dollars — since 1980 closing between 2010 and the end of 2019, according to The Good Food Institute.
Prime Roots is one of those newer ventures. Co-founded by Kimberlie Le, a self-acknowledged “flexitarian,” or semi-vegetarian, Le wanted to make delicious foods that reduced meat consumption.
Together with Prime Roots co-founder Joshua Nixon, they developed their own unique take on plant-based products at the Alternative Meat Lab at UC Berkeley’s Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology. Their key ingredient is Koji, a protein-rich Japanese mold used by acclaimed chefs like David Chang and Sean Brock, that offers a meat and seafood-like taste.
“We wanted to develop a product that had a similar taste and texture of meat and seafood,” says Le. “Koji offers more protein than its meat counterparts, so eaters can feel good that they’re nourishing both their palate and planet with our climate-friendly foods.”
Last year, Prime Roots launched its first product, Koji-based bacon, which initially sold out. The startup would not disclose sales numbers, but its bacon proved successful enough for Prime Roots to expand its product line to include six plant-based meals, including a plant-based kung pao chicken and plant-based beef thai lemongrass larb that retail for around $10.
Longeve Brands, which just closed a $5 million seed round this January, specializes in fake meat crumbles made of pea protein. Unlike many of their rivals, the startup’s Protein Crumble products don’t require refrigeration.
For CEO Doug Kanter, the mission to create plant-based meat alternatives was also a personal one, driven by the desire to stay healthy. “I've always been health conscious and involved with athletics,” he says. “Then I turned 50, and while I've always watched what I put into my body and what I'm eating.
Companies like Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, and others are making progress but they’re just starting to scratch the surface of a much broader market. Investment firm UBS projects growth of plant-based protein and meat alternatives to increase from $4.5 billion in 2018 to $85 billion by 2030.
“We'll know that the future is here when recipes call for plant-based protein products and say that in a pinch, you can substitute in real meat,” says analyst Charlene Li.
That day remains far off, but expect companies to expand their product offerings to meet increasing demand, even if some of them are facing production slow downs due to safety protocols related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Prime Roots, which reports many delays in their supply chain, still plans on rolling out seafood-based meats and meals this year, while Longeve Brands will explore whether to release products like bolognese sauce and taco meat.
Konrad says Impossible Foods, which cut prices on its products for grocery stores by nearly 20 percent in early February, will continue to innovate by exploring and releasing new meat — and even dairy — products down the line that will make the “biggest positive impact” in displacing consumption of meat from animals.
“You need to acknowledge that there are other parts of the cow that we haven't touched yet,” says Konrad, who suggests Impossible Foods is exploring and could release meat substitutes for steaks, ribs and T-Bones, tuna, as well as a dairy-alternative “Impossible Milk.”
Translation: there’s much more work to be done.