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Leon Kaye headshot

Playing Chicken with Meat: One Company's Quest to Build a Better Garden Burger

By Leon Kaye

Could our society ever move beyond meat as the dominant source of protein? One startup believes its concoction of pea powder and soy, with a bit of carrot fiber and gluten-free flour tossed in for good measure, can change the improving, but still marginal, meat alternatives on the market. And this company, Beyond Meat, is close to transforming the $340 million fake meat market.

Now in fake chicken form, the product is flying out of Whole Foods stores in California and two in Maryland, the home of state of the company’s founder, Ethan Brown. Brown had already launched a career within the clean energy sector, but had asked himself repeatedly if the surging demand for animal protein was really necessary if a delicious and cost-effective substitute existed. His journey took him to the University of Missouri and now Beyond Meat has backing from the leading Silicon Valley venture capital firm, Kleiner Perkins. Obvious Corporation, a business incubator, is also betting on Beyond Meat’s potential.

The product could shake up the state of the fake meat industry, one that is slowly growing but has been dogged by mediocre products that are often too pricey for most consumers and are therefore of little value. While fake meat is getting better and better, far too many are pallid in taste, suffer from terrible texture and only taste good after pan frying them to a crisp. Then there are the questionable methods to used to process soy and other ingredients that go into those sometimes delectable veggie burgers such as the treatment of soy with hexane. And yet consumers will buy a non-animal based food product out of a bevy of concerns, from animal rights to a desire to eat healthier - if it tastes good and is available for a fair price.

Beyond Meat is could change the current sad state of affairs of fake meat. The fake chicken, most of which ends up for sale in Whole Foods’ prepared foods section, is causing commotion in those stores and on Twitter. The results almost sound too good to be true: the chicken impostor is free of GMOs, dairy, gluten, trans fats, antibiotics, hormones, and cholesterol. And meat. The high-protein, low sodium, high-protein vegan product is receiving rave reviews for its great flavor and texture that, as the cliche goes, tastes like chicken. According to Brown, its price could be cheaper than the real thing if the product can scale. Currently Whole Foods sells the salads at about $12 to $14 a pound. The company plans to sell the product plain soon at a cost comparable to real chicken, and a fake beef product is in the works.

With livestock production responsible for as much as one-fifth of the globe’s greenhouse gas emissions, Beyond Meat could be a huge game changer. Until then, the stubborn fact persists that most of us just are not quite ready to trade in their Hebrew Nationals for Smart Dogs. Could pea and soy Big Macs be just around the corner? Cheese and marshmallows could use some help, too.

Leon Kaye, based in California, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of GreenGoPost.com. He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business and Inhabitat. You can follow him on Twitter, where he usually tweets about sustainability and CSR, but last night showed the progress of a vegetarian lasagna using fake soy ground beef.

Photo courtesy Beyond Meat.

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye