Eating the Impossible
A decade or two ago, the terms vegan and vegetarian were relatively obscure to the majority of Americans. Today, though, plant-based food and beverage products are coming into their own. In fact, according to a 2017 Nielsen Homescan survey, 39 percent of Americans said they were actively trying to eat more plant-based foods, and today, almost 20 percent of our food and beverage dollars are spent on products that meet the requirements of a plant-based diet.
The global dairy alternatives market, for example – soy, almond, cashew, rice, and coconut milk, not to mention non-dairy ice cream, like Ben & Jerry’s three new vegan concoctions: Cherry Garcia, Coconut Seven Layer Bar, and Caramel Almond Brittle – has increased by 62 percent between 2013 and 2017, and is expected to garner over $21 billion by 2022.
But nowhere has the buzz for alternative options been more pronounced than in the fast-food and casual dining sectors, where the all-American hamburger is being challenged by non-meat products made by its two biggest manufacturers: Silicon Valley start-up, Impossible Foods, which received more than $250 million in financial backing from Bill Gates, venture fund Temasek, and several other businesses; and Beyond Meat, a manufacturer of a variety of meat alternatives – patties, sausages, crumbles – that was founded in 2009 in El Segundo, California, and went public this past May.
The “Impossible Burger” is made of water, plant proteins, coconut oil, and heme, a natural molecule that gives burgers their distinctive taste and is also found in plants, and the patty is formulated to look and taste like a traditional red meat burger. It’s been on the menu at all Red Robin locations since April; White Castle offers an “Impossible Slider;” and, having tested its “Impossible Whopper” in St. Louis, recently, to great response, Burger King has announced that it would soon be bringing the burger to other cities and then to its 7,200 units, nationwide, by year’s end.
Other chain restaurants — Burger Fi, Carl’s Jr., TGI Fridays, and Del Taco, among others — also have plant-based proteins on their menus, supplied by Beyond Meat, while other well-known eateries are creating their own special formulas: McDonald’s is experimenting with a vegetarian burger in Germany, and even Chick-fil-A is mulling over whether to add vegan options and meat substitutes to its menu.
This does not mean that the traditional hamburger is going to disappear anytime soon. While Beyond Meat sold about 15 million pounds of “not-meat” last year, most of it being its burger product, the North American Meat Institute, a national trade association, reports that American meat companies produced about 26 billion pounds of beef the year before, at substantially lower cost: while Beyond Meat costs nearly $12 per pound, grass-fed beef can cost as little as $3.70.
That being said, the not-meat industry is here to stay – Beyond Meat estimates the potential value of the U.S. plant-based meat market at a whopping $35 billion per year. And for those consumers who are just as interested in the planet’s health as they are in their own, these plant-based burgers are touted as sustainable – they take less water and less land, generates fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and require less energy to produce than a beef burger.
So, the next time you circle around to the drive-up window of your favorite, neighborhood burger joint, your options will likely have increased to include a meal that, only years ago, would have seemed, well, impossible.