Vegetarians might be turned off by plant-based burgers that sizzle and bleed, but it’s just the start of innovation that will place meat-free front and centre, says Emily Byrd.
Increasing demand for healthy, sustainable foods coupled with innovations in food science has elevated meatless alternatives to new heights of quality. Those who suffered through the early days of chewy, uber-processed soy products would say it’s about time. Now these options are not only tasty, they’re actually trendy. Gone are the days of travelling to forsaken corners of the grocery store’s freezer section; these items are being placed front and centre, both on the shelf and on the menu.
I had a little time to savour this fact over a first-class plant-based dinner recently. The Impossible Burger, by Impossible Foods, is the latest feat in plant-based meat alternatives. One of my fellow diners – a longtime vegan – was actually unable to eat the burger because of its marked similarity to the real deal.
Impossible Foods was able to reach this level of similarity through some cutting-edge food technology: isolating haem iron from plant sources and combining it with beet juice to make a burger with all the juiciness and texture of ground beef, but none of the negative environmental impacts. It isn’t the only one pushing the boundaries either – the Beyond Burger made by Beyond Meat actually “bleeds” beetroot juice.
The experience of eating this, as well as other new meat-free products on the market, simultaneously satisfies the culinarian, nerd and environmentalist in me – and I’m clearly not alone. As Restaurant Hospitality puts it: “We’ve reached a tipping point for vegetables. Consumers are pushing animal protein to the side of the plate, sometimes entirely off it.”
While this particular eating experience came complete with a white tablecloth, the push to include more meatless items on the menu holds true not only for upscale or health-focused restaurants but also for segments that have traditionally been ruled by cheap, low-quality, meaty options. I’m talking fast food.
In fact, the beet-juice-bleeding Impossible Burger served up to me was created with the ultimate goal of becoming the fast-food replacement burger: a substitute that would have a tremendous effect on reducing the pollution and environmental degradation that are the direct results of conventional animal agriculture.
Quick-service restaurants that have already invested in the vegetarian market are seeing very positive results. Pret A Manger serves as a prime example. When management decided to run an experiment and open a fully meat-free outlet, they did so as a future-facing, eco-conscious investment. They didn’t expect the unit to turn any profit. Contrary to that belief, Veggie Pret generated a whopping 70% profit surge within the first few weeks of opening, starting conversations about converting more Pret units to veg-only outlets.
To ensure that these eco-friendly, profit-generating products get into more restaurants, big-name investors such as Bill Gates and the Alphabet CEO, Eric Schmidt, are promoting plant-based proteins. Even traditional food giants like Kellogg’s and General Mills are using their venture capital arms to invest in plant-based food innovation.
In turn, new product development has been booming. New Wave Foods is using red algae and soy protein to create a plant-based popcorn shrimp, for instance, while the hyper-realistic Beyond Burger sold out within hours at its Whole Foods debut.
There are also less traditional organisations working as accelerators for the meat-free movement. Take my organisation. The Good Food Institute is a nonprofit with a goal to make these quality options broadly available while encouraging new research and development of plant-based meat alternatives. We’re even looking down the road toward the production of “clean” meat, in which classic dishes like burgers and chicken can be grown in a culture without the need for hormones, antibiotics or animal slaughter, or the detrimental environmental effects of large-scale animal agriculture.
With the flurry of interest and innovation in food free from conventional animal agriculture, meat-free foods are becoming the latest rags-to-riches story – and they’re wielding their A-list status with world-changing results.
Emily Byrd is communications manager at The Good Food Institute.