Even the most devout vegans and vegetarians have to admit that today’s meat substitutes are no substitute for the real thing. Some of them are tasty, but none actually have the same taste and texture of a piece of chicken, a burger, or a steak. They’re not fooling anyone. That’s why most people in meat-loving countries like the U.S. haven’t traded in their steak for Tofurky, even when they have health problems that should compel them to do so, and even when they realize that livestock are responsible for approximately 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions.
Beyond Meat, a startup that makes vegan meat analogues, is manufacturing products that purportedly taste and feel like real meat (we haven’t yet confirmed this ourselves), have a better nutrition profile (no cholesterol, no saturated fat, but lots of protein), and will eventually be available at a lower price point than the industrially farmed stuff. The company has some surprising backers, including the Obvious Corporation—a company founded by Twitter co-founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone and former Twitter VP of Product Jason Goldman—and venture capitalist powerhouse Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers. Why is Beyond Meat garnering so much interest?
The Obvious Corporation generally works with web-centric companies like Neighborland, Pinwheel, and Lift. But Biz Stone has been a vegan for over a decade, and he’s acutely aware of the potential health and sustainability gains of a world that eats less meat. Stone first learned about Beyond Meat when one of the partners at Kleiner Perkins mentioned that they were considering an investment in the company. He was intrigued.
"These guys are coming at the meat analogue industry not as a novelty kind of thing or hippy dippy," says Stone."They were coming at it from this big science, super practical, scalable angle. They were saying, 'We want to get into the multi-billion-dollar meat industry with a plant-based meat.'" When it came time for Beyond Meat to raise a round of funding, the guys at Obvious jumped at the chance.
Kleiner, too, was impressed with the company’s potential. "Being able to change the game in terms of how we deliver protein to the growing human population is probably the single biggest thing anybody could do," says Amol Deshpande, a partner at the firm.
Obvious just announced its involvement in Beyond Meat last week (they will help with marketing in addition to funding), but the meat analogue company’s beginnings can be traced back to 2009, when it began collaborating with researchers at the University of Missouri who were working on a product with the taste and texture of chicken.
Beyond Meat founder Ethan Brown has a background in clean energy, but realized at a certain point that the energy sector could only be a part of solving the climate change problem. "What fascinated me that we’d be sitting around in these alternative energy conferences, these big hotels with fancy speakers, and at the end of the day you’d sit down and have steak," he says. "There’s a misallocation of focus. People haven’t focused on this area. So many greenhouse gas emissions are because of livestock."
Not every vegetarian or vegan will love Beyond Meat. In fact, says Stone, "For people who are actually repulsed by meat, they’re not going to like this." It’s just too real-tasting. But for anyone who craves the flavor and feel of meat, this might be the first legitimate substitute.
"The first reaction I had was, I know this is a meat analogue but if someone were to serve this to me in a restaurant I would have said 'I think this is a mistake,'" explains Stone. "There’s something about the mouth-feel, the fattiness. It feels fatty and muscly and like it’s not good for you when you’re chewing it. For a long-time vegan, it’s a little bit freaky."
Beyond Meat’s first product is Veggie Chicken Strips. After that will come a beef crumble. The chicken strips do contain soy—a somewhat contentious ingredient because of its possible health risks and connection to industrial agriculture—but the beef crumble features pea protein. In the future, Beyond Meat hopes to move beyond soy, too. "We want to expand the use of alternatives and the number of alternative proteins available," says Brown. "Instead of just relying on soy, we want to use lupin, mustard seed protein, and barley to give consumers a broad range of plant-based proteins."
LikeMeat, an EU-backed project that aims to create a respectable meat analogue, is also looking at alternatives to soy. The big difference: Beyond Meat’s chicken strips are already on sale, starting at Whole Foods in Northern California and landing at grocery stores throughout the Western U.S. in the summer and fall. Stores in the Eastern U.S. will come soon after. LikeMeat, on the other hand, is still in the process of perfecting the taste of its products.
Right now, Beyond Meat ships wholesale for less than the cost of natural meat. It’s still more expensive than factory-farmed meat, but that will change as the company scales up. Stone is optimistic that if Beyond Meat takes off, it can have a real impact on meat consumption—and in turn, our health and the environment. "You have to stay committed and get to a certain size before you can start seeing results," he says. "You can’t [make change] on a boutique level. It gets way less expensive the more product you have, but we won’t get there unless we can cross the long scary divide towards scalability."