If you tried the Beyond Burger before and thought it tasted a little strange, the company heard you. A new formulation seeks to close the gap with skeptical meat eaters who will seize on any shortcoming to dismiss plant-based meat.
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.
Beyond's IPO might make it the top offering of 2019 and its burger is dueling with Impossible Foods' to take much of the air out of the room for new entrants. Except the new entrants are big enough to have their own air supply: Tyson Foods sold its investment in Beyond to compete directly with it, and Nestle has a plant-based burger coming that looks nutritionally very impressive on paper. Those two food giants will have shelf, menu and marketing clout that even a fatly IPO'd startup will struggle to match, so having a strong story of continued innovation is key.
Then there's the biggest shoe yet to drop: McDonald's.. 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?"