For committed vegans, most existing cheese, meat and dairy alternatives are a passable, even delicious protein option. Who cares if vegan cheese doesn’t melt, stretch and bubble when placed atop a pizza? For those who eschew cheese, the savory, umami flavors of salt, fat and spices are satisfying enough. But for the vast subset of Americans who don’t consider a meal complete unless meat or dairy is involved, traditional substitutes such as tofu, seitan, tempeh or good ol’ fashioned beans and greens is a tough sell.
We get it. There’s an eidetic quality about cooking meat—the smell alone seems to awaken the primal part of our brain, conjuring images of summer barbecues, Thanksgiving dinner and a dormant memory buried deep within our DNA that tells us eating meat means survival. Yet for someone who eats meat often, plant-based proteins signal not satiety, but scarcity.
Luckily, we’re entering an era in which innovation in plant-based protein has reached a level of sophistication where everyone—your meat-loving, deer-hunting Uncle Herb included—can consider such alternatives. Beyond Meat’s newly launched Beyond Burger is a prime example of how “meat” made from plants has potential to radically overhaul a food as iconic as the burger. Made with a vegan ingredient blend including pea protein isolate, coconut oil, yeast extract, non-GMO food starch and potato starch, the Beyond Burger differs from traditional bean-and-rice veggie burgers because it has the appearance of raw meat. It’s sold nestled inside a package similar to prepared burger patties. When thrown onto a grill, it sizzles, chars, crisps and burns just like the real thing—some testers say it even “bleeds,” a result of beet juice extract added to the extruded ingredients to lend the burger a realistic appearance. It’s not an exact replica, but it’s close.
Even more audacious, rather than merchandise the product next to traditional protein replacements such as seitan, tempeh and tofu (often found in the produce section of grocery stores), Beyond Meat works with natural retailers to sell the Beyond Burger right next to the meat—the animal-based meat.
“In this way, we can help people on their journey to eating more plant-based by allowing them to purchase plant-based foods in the section of the store where they are already purchasing other forms of protein,” explains Beyond Meat on its website. The idea is to nudge shoppers perusing the meat case toward plant-based options. While Beyond Meat’s products are suitable for strict vegans, the brand is clearly trying to access consumers who would never even think of purchasing a veggie burger for dinner.
Another tactic: Beyond Meat avoids placing the label “vegan” anywhere on the product packaging to avoid scaring off potential customers.
Michele Simon, executive director of the Plant Based Foods Association, a group of 89 member food and beverage companies that works to promote vegan and vegetarian eating, agrees that “plant-based” is significantly more approachable to shoppers than “vegan,” a loaded word that reminds many shoppers of protests, fighting the status quo, drastic ideology and, let’s face it, every so often subpar meals (some vegan recipes from the 1970s make us cringe). Although “vegan” and “plant-based” essentially mean the same thing, the latter highlights the delicious bounty of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains and legumes that can be consumed. Another example: Califia Farms, makers of nut milks, refers to its products as plant milks, not vegan milks. Although subtle, pairing improved meat and dairy alternatives with specific branding that appeals to all shoppers, not just vegans, effectively encourages people to eat fewer animal products.
That said, plant-based burgers alone won’t significantly impact how often people eat meat and dairy. Rather, Simon explains plant-based options need to permeate all sections of the grocery store to make measurable change. “I don’t think it’s going to be just a couple of brands who are aiming to mimic meat, but rather a variety of options that are appealing to different consumers,” she says. “Just like not all meat eaters only like burgers, for example, we need to appeal to a variety of consumer needs and desires. In short, we need to take over the meat aisle.”