While Kroger, Super Target and Walmart pick up Beyond breakfast sausage, a race for availability pervades the plant-based meat sector.
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One of the direct-to-home offerings is a limited edition 20-pack of burger patties for $40 that sets a new bar for lowering the cost of plant-based meat. Beyond also recently announced that availability of its breakfast sausage patties is expanding by 5,000 outlets, including Kroger, Super Target and Walmart. The pork-centric Chinese market may reward Beyond's effort for plant-based pork sausage, which tends to be overshadowed by Beyond's burger in the US market.
This called for a new burger with a more coarse appearance, the addition of mung beans and brown rice to the existing pea protein, the use of apple juice extract to brown a burger much like a cut apple browns, and a flavor that is just less strong. The ingredient list has been cut down to 18 items from 22, and only one of them sounds like better living through chemistry: methylcellulose, a thickener.
"The greatest thing about peas is they're not soy," says Beyond Meat CEO Ethan Brown of the go-to ingredient in veggie burgers for decades. "Consumers don't like soy, whether it's because the milk board's doing a really good [PR] job or what, I don't know. But consumers don't like soy, and that made everyone's job here really hard."
Absent from the new formula that rolled out Monday, however, is a major shift in price, keeping Beyond Burgers around $3 a patty at retail. "We shouldn't be more expensive than animal protein, and we only are because we have a very nascent supply chain," says Brown.
I spent a day at Beyond's headquarters in LA to see how peas, brown rice and mung beans convincingly emulate hamburger and sausage. While the ingredients are familiar things, the lab gear processing them is not. Like the "e-mouth," a tall, column-shaped press that gauges the force of chewing on a burger and how much it pushes back. In another room a 5-foot tall lab setup turns a beaker of fresh beet juice into a small pile of pink colorant powder, instantly. And an electron microscope reveals how fats are distributed in pork sausage so that can be emulated in Beyond's plant version. By the way, nothing looks less appealing than a sausage at several hundred times magnification.
All this science leads to something both pedestrian and miraculous: a good burger patty. In Beyond's consumer panel testing room a door slid up and I was presented with two samples of identically cooked burger: "241" and "415."
Sample 241 tasted satisfyingly greasier to me and ground smoother, while 415 was coarser and a little cleaner. 415 is the new formulation. The new mung beans and brown rice seem to be unsung heroes behind the oft-touted pea protein and beet "blood," but the patty doesn't look like any of its ingredients, just a familiar burger. In hard-core vegan circles products like this are often called junk food, a badge that market-savvy Beyond might wear with more pride than pain.
What I saw next surprised me: The Beyond burger's new raw look. Consumers make many decisions about food through clear cellophane and the new formula looks more like it belongs in the raw butcher's section (something which is contentious) thanks to now prominent bits of plant fat that resemble the gristle and fat in ground beef. I can't say the marbling looks entirely convincing, but I never found that aspect of ground beef appetizing anyway.
Then there's the biggest shoe yet to drop: McDonald's. Impossible Foods has already won over Burger King. But with twice as many locations as No. 2 Burger King and cultural integration that's unmatched by other food outlets, McDonald's has yet to pick a plant burger. The one that it does may largely win on that basis alone, essentially the VHS of plant burgers. McDonald's scattered offerings of veggie burgers so far don't count; They're from another era when plant-based protein looked and tasted like plants.
"But I never take my eye off of retail because I'm so interested in serving families where they shop," Brown says. "We're just scratching the surface with our one or two SKUs now in stores. What about 10? Or instead of a Beyond meat section in the meat case, what about an entire Beyond meat case?"
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