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More protein than beef. More omegas than salmon. Tons of calcium,
antioxidants, and vitamin B. In their secret R&D lab, the scientists at Beyond
Meat concocted a plant-protein-based performance burger that delivers the juicy
flavor and texture of the real thing with none of the dietary and environmental
Jacobsen Dec 26, 2014
I dumped meat a few weeks ago, and it was not an easy breakup. Some of my
most treasured moments have involved a deck, a beer, and a cheeseburger. But the
more I learned, the more I understood that the relationship wasn't good for
either of us. A few things you should never do if you want to eat factory meat
in unconflicted bliss: write a story on
water scarcity in the American Southwest; Google "How
much shit is in my hamburger?"; watch an
undercover video of a
slaughterhouse in action; and read the 2009 Worldwatch Institute report "Livestock
and Climate Change."
The Future of Meat Is Plant-Based Burgers | Culinary | OutsideOnline.com
I did them all. And that was that. By then I knew that with every burger I
consumed, I was helping to suck America's rivers dry, munching on a fecal
casserole seasoned liberally with E. coli, passively condoning an orgy of
torture that would make Hannibal Lecter blanch, and accelerating global warming
as surely as if I'd plowed my Hummer into a solar installation. We all needed to
kick the meat habit, starting with me.
Yet previous attempts had collapsed in the face of time-sucking whole-food
preparation and cardboard-scented tofu products. All the veggie burgers I knew
of seemed to come in two flavors of unappealing: the brown-rice, high-carb,
nap-inducing mush bomb, and the colon-wrecking gluten chew puck.
Soylent? In your pasty dreams. If I
couldn't have meat, I needed something damn close. A high-performance,
low-commitment protein recharge, good with Budweiser.
The Future of Meat Is Plant-Based Burgers | Culinary | OutsideOnline.com
I took long, moody walks on the dirt roads near my Vermont house. I passed my
neighbor's farm. One of his beef cattle stepped up to the fence and gazed at me.
My eyes traced his well-marbled flanks and meaty chest.
I stared into those
bottomless brown eyes. "I can't quit you," I whispered to him.
But I did. Not because my willpower suddenly rose beyond its default Lebowski
setting, but because a box arrived at my door and made it easy.
Inside were four quarter-pound brown patties. I tossed one on the grill. It hit
with a satisfying sizzle. Gobbets of lovely fat began to bubble out. A beefy
smell filled the air. I browned a bun. Popped a pilsner. Mustard, ketchup,
pickle, onions. I threw it all together with some chips on the side and took a
bite. I chewed. I thought. I chewed some more. And then I began to get excited
about the future.
It was called the Beast Burger, and it
came from a Southern California company called
Beyond Meat, located a few blocks from the ocean. At that point, the Beast
was still a secret, known only by its code name: the Manhattan Beach Project.
I'd had to beg Ethan Brown, the company's 43-year-old CEO, to send me a sample.
And it was vegan. "More protein than beef," Brown told me when I rang him up
after tasting it. "More omegas than salmon. More calcium than milk. More
antioxidants than blueberries. Plus muscle-recovery aids. It's the ultimate
"How do you make it so meat-like?" I asked.
Beyond Meat HQ was a brick warehouse located a stone's throw from Chevron's
massive El Segundo refinery, which hiccuped gray fumes into the clear California
sky. "Old economy, new economy," Brown said as we stepped inside. Two-dozen
wholesome millennials tapped away at laptops on temporary tables in the open
space, which looked remarkably like a set that had been thrown together that
morning for a movie about startups. Bikes and surfboards leaned in the corners.
In the test kitchen, the Beyond Meat chef,
celebrity chef to the stars and cofounder of vegan-mayo company
Hampton Creek--was frying experimental
burgers made of beans, quinoa, and cryptic green things.
The "steer" was the only one with its own space. It glinted, steely and
unfeeling, in the corner of the lab. It was a twin-screw extruder, the
food-industry workhorse that churns out all the pastas and PowerBars of the
world. Beyond Meat's main extruders, as well as its 60 other employees, labor
quietly in Missouri, producing the company's current generation of meat
substitutes, but this was the R&D steer. To make a Beast Burger, powdered pea
protein, water, sunflower oil, and various nutrients and natural flavors go into
a mixer at one end, are cooked and pressurized, get extruded out the back, and
are then shaped into patties ready to be reheated on consumers' grills.
It's about the dimensions of a large steer, right?" Brown said to me as we
admired it. "And it does the same thing." By which he meant that plant stuff
goes in one end, gets pulled apart, and is then reassembled into fibrous bundles
of protein. A steer does this to build muscle. The extruder in the Beyond Meat
lab does it to make meat. Not meat-like substances, Brown will tell you. Meat.
Meat from plants. Because what is meat but a tasty, toothy hunk of protein? Do
we really need animals to assemble it for us, or have we reached a stage of
enlightenment where we can build machines to do the dirty work for us?
Livestock, in fact, are horribly inefficient at making meat. Only about 3
percent of the plant matter that goes into a steer winds up as muscle. The rest
gets burned for energy, ejected as methane, blown off as excess
heat, shot out
the back of the beast, or repurposed into non-meat-like things such as blood,
bone, and brains. The process buries river systems in manure and requires an
absurd amount of land. Roughly three-fifths of all farmland is used to grow
beef, although it accounts for just 5 percent of our protein. But we love meat,
and with the developing world lining up at the table and sharpening their steak
knives, global protein consumption is expected to double by 2050.
That's what keeps Brown up at night. A six-foot-five, pillar-armed monument to
the power of plant protein, with a voice that makes James Earl Jones sound
effeminate, he became a vegetarian as a teenager growing up in Washington, D.C.,
after his family bought a Maryland dairy farm. "I began feeling very
uncomfortable in my leather basketball shoes," he says. "Because I knew the
cows. I'd pet them all the time."
In his twenties he became a vegan. "It wasn't emotional. It was a question of
fairness," he says. " ‘Why are we treating our dog so well and not the pig?' As
you get older, you try to become more coherent." He was already thinking big. "I
wanted to start a plant-based McDonald's." Instead, he went into the
alternative-energy business, working on fuel cells for Vancouver-based Ballard
Power Systems. "Somehow energy seemed like a more serious thing to do. But the
food idea kept eating at me, until finally I said, ‘You know what, I gotta do
Brown's aha moment came in 2009, when the Worldwatch Institute published
"Livestock and Climate Change," which carefully assessed the full contribution
to greenhouse-gas emissions (GHGs) of the world's cattle, buffalo, sheep, goats,
camels, horses, pigs, and poultry. An earlier report by the United Nations Food
and Agriculture Organization had pegged that contribution at 18 percent, worse
than cars and trucks. That's shocking enough, but the Worldwatch study's
authors, two analysts from the World Bank, found that the FAO hadn't taken into
account the CO2 breathed out by our 22 billion livestock animals, the forests
being felled to make room for pasture and feed crops, or the total impact of the
103 million tons of methane belched into the air by ruminants each year. When
everything was tallied up, Worldwatch estimated, livestock were on the hook for
51 percent of GHGs.
That was all Brown needed to hear to put the plant-based McDonald's back at the
top of his agenda. Forget fuel cells. Forget Priuses. If he could topple
Meatworld, he thought, he could stop climate change cold.
Brown's first breakthrough came when he discovered Fu-Hung Hsieh,
a food scientist at the University of Missouri who had perfected a way to turn
soy protein into strips that chewed like chicken. (Top secret, can't tell you,
but it has to do with heat, kneading, and cool water.) Brown founded Beyond Meat
in 2009, and in 2012, its inaugural product, Beyond Chicken Strips, began wowing
the gatekeepers of the food world.
"Most impressive," said Food Network geek Alton Brown. "It's more like meat than
anything I've ever seen that wasn't meat."
"Fooled me badly," Mark Bittman
admitted in his New York Times food column. It also fooled Twitter cofounder
(and vegan) Biz Stone, so he invested in the company.
So did Bill Gates, whose Gates
Foundation backs potentially world-saving innovations. "I tasted Beyond
Meat's chicken alternative,"
online, "and honestly couldn't tell it from real chicken." Gates quickly
realized the blockbuster potential. "Our approach to food hasn't changed much
over the last 100 years. It's ripe for reinvention. We're just at the beginning
of enormous innovation."
Gates sat down with Brown in 2012 and gave him some tips, which the entrepreneur
took to heart. As Brown recalls, "He said to me, ‘If you get this thing to cost
less than meat, and you get international quickly enough, then this is huge.' "
The scalability is there: Beyond Meat's manufacturing process uses a small
fraction of the land, water, energy, crops, and time that making real meat does,
and it requires no new technology. And the timing is right. Whole Foods has
enthusiastically sold Beyond Chicken Strips, which retail for $5.29 for a
nine-ounce bag, from the very beginning. And although Brown wouldn't disclose
sales numbers ("Our competitors definitely make use of this type of
information," he says), Beyond Meat expanded from 1,500 to 6,000 stores in 2014,
including mainstreamers like Safeway.
Even the fast-food industry is coming around. When Chipotle added shredded-tofu
Sofritas to its burrito options at a few California restaurants in 2013, sales
outstripped expectations. Half the Sofritas buyers, Chipotle found, were meat
eaters. Chipotle is now rolling them out across the country, the first new item
it has added in ten years. One rapidly growing restaurant chain, Veggie Grill,
an all-vegan West Coast eatery, offers seemingly familiar fast-food items like
Mondo Nachos and Crispy Chickin' with meat replacements made from soy and
But you can't fix climate change with fake chicken. Although the 21 billion
cluckers around the world consume vast amounts of crops and choke waterways with
their manure, their impact is dwarfed by the 1.5 billion head of cattle. It
takes about 9,000 calories of edible feed to produce 1,000 calories of edible
chicken and 11,000 calories of feed for 1,000 calories of pork--a far cry from
the 36,000 calories required for 1,000 calories of beef. More important, cattle
and their ruminant cousins--sheep, goats, buffalo--produce geysers of methane
during digestion. One molecule of methane traps
25 times as much heat as a
molecule of CO2, so each cow produces the annual GHGs of a car driven about
9,375 miles. Per pound, that's eight times more than chickens and five times
more than pigs.
There are, of course, lots of good arguments for raising cattle sustainably:
it's easier on both the animals and the land. But it's no solution when it comes
to global warming. Grass-fed beef generates significantly more methane and has
nearly twice the carbon footprint of its grain-fed kin.
If Brown was going to tackle climate change, he had to hack beef.
Beef flavor has never been all that difficult to approximate--some salt, some
aroma molecules, and bingo. The juiciness and the chew are the real challenges.
The meat industry acknowledged as much in a 2006 trade publication: "Meat
texture is supremely important. Texturized vegetable protein, something that
could be quite a commercial threat to us … has, so far, made little impact,"
wrote the meat scientist Howard Swatland, author of
Meat Cuts and Muscle Foods. "This is because food technologists so far have
been unable to extrude their plant proteins into anything resembling real meat.
The taste and colour can be faked quite easily, but the texture cannot. In a
way, therefore, it is the texture of meat, and the fact that many of our
customers love to eat it, that keeps us all in business."
Muscle is made up of bundles of long, thin fibers wrapped in tough connective
tissue, like shrink-wrapped logs. Scattered through the fiber packets are tiny
pockets of fat, which the body draws on for energy. A lot of the joy of meat is
the feeling of your teeth punching through these bundles, the fat and juice
squirting as you chomp.
Plant proteins, on the other hand, are not aligned or bundled. They're more like
random piles of sticks. They have none of the tensile strength or
moisture-retention properties of muscle, which is why earlier generations of
veggie burgers fell apart and lacked the release of rich, juicy fats. The only
exception is gluten, the protein found in wheat, which has some amazing
qualities. It forms a spring-like structure that can expand and contract, making
dough stretchy and retaining moisture in its matrix of interlinked proteins. But
those long proteins also like to curl in on themselves like a nest of snakes,
which prevents digestive enzymes from getting at them. When that partially
digested gluten makes it into the gut of someone with celiac disease, the immune
system mistakes the intact proteins for evil microbes, freaks out, and strafes
the intestine with friendly fire. Even those who don't have an adverse response
to wheat often find the concentrated gluten in veggie burgers to be digestively
For Brown, gluten was out. Also becoming less popular with consumers was
phytoestrogen-heavy soy, the other mainstay of both veggie burgers and Beyond
Chicken. But top food scientists had labored for years to come up with palatable
soy- and gluten-free meat substitutes, with no luck. Plants just didn't want to
It was time for a paradigm shift. In the fall of 2013, Brown hired Tim
Geistlinger, a biotech rock star who had been working with the Gates Foundation
to develop antimalarial drugs and a yeast that makes clean jet fuel out of
sugar. Geistlinger fits the Beyond Meat mold: brainiac science geek who bikes on
the beach every night and recently completed his first Tough Mudder. ("I was one
of the only non-meat-eaters on my team," Geistlinger says, "but with access to
compounds like these, it's a no-brainer.")
Geistlinger, chef Dave Anderson, and the other Beyond Meat scientists began a
series of marathon sessions in the lab, trying to do what cattle do: transform
short plant proteins into long, succulent fibers. Their legume of choice was the
yellow pea, whose protein is readily available--both to the body and in the
marketplace. Pea starch is used by the food industry as a natural thickener for
everything from sauces to deli meats. In the past, after the starch was
isolated, the protein was discarded. Win-win.
Pea protein is the new darling of the no-soy health-food set, but it has a
powdery mouthfeel and no structural integrity, so it has never starred in its
own production. "Without fibers you can have something that's hard and dry or
mushy and wet," Geistlinger says. "They're fairly mutually exclusive." Early
last year, Beyond Meat released a pea-based product, Beyond Beef Crumble, that
approximated the look and feel of cooked ground beef and made a decent taco
filling, but it wouldn't hold together and had no chew. Geistlinger decided he
had to create fibers from the material--that is, do something to make them line
up and link together to mimic muscle.
For a while the team got nowhere. Geistlinger kept tweaking the
chemistry--"taking shots on goal in a constructive way," as he puts it--and
Anderson kept playing around with the results. Nothing. "Early on we thought we
were close," Anderson remembers. "So I brought in an In-N-Out burger. We tried
the In-N-Out and it was just chew, chew, chew, and then we tried ours. I was
like, ‘Wow, we're not even close.' "
Eventually, Geistlinger suggested trying something radical--the big Beast Burger
secret, which involves a certain combination of temperature, pressure, timing,
and chemistry that he could tell me about only in veiled terms. "The food
scientists had been arguing to go in one direction, because that's how things
had always been done," he recalls. "And I said, ‘Well, this is a different
protein. I think we should push this in the opposite direction.' They were like,
‘Why would you do that? You can't do that.' And I said, ‘Well, let's just give
it a shot.' And sure enough, boom. It was immediately apparent. We tasted it
right when it came out, and we just went, ‘Wow! We've never had that before.' It
was awesome. You could see the fibers. You could feel them. And it didn't get
dry in your mouth! All these problems that we'd had just went away. Later that
day, we met with our CFO and I said, ‘Here, try this,' and he said, ‘Holy shit!
What is that?' And I said, ‘That's the same stuff. We just changed two things.'
It turned out much, much better than we ever thought it was going to be."
To perfect the nutritional formulation, they worked with Brendan Brazier, a two-time
Canadian ultramarathon champion who created the Vega line of vegan performance
foods. After playing around with the burger, Brazier became a convert. He liked
the taste, but he loved the 24 grams of protein, 4 grams of fiber, and 0
milligrams of cholesterol in every burger, which left beef (19 grams of protein,
0 grams of fiber, and 80 milligrams of cholesterol) far behind.
"It's so nutrient dense," Brazier told me. "I plan on using several per week."
The Beast Burger will have its coming-out party in select Whole Foods in
January. Is it as delicious as a quarter-pound of well-marbled, inch-thick USDA
Choice? Hell no. Good ground beef, lovingly grilled at home and served piping
hot, packs a juicy succulence that this Beast lacks. In flavor and texture, the
current Beast reminds me of the Salisbury steak of my youth--not exactly
something to celebrate, but not terrible, either. "It's a different kind of
chew," Anderson admits. "To me it's a better chew. A beef burger is very
The prototype Beast was so packed with micronutrients that it smelled like a
Vitamin Shoppe kiosk. Taste testers made it clear that they'd gladly sacrifice a
soupçon of supplement for a blast of beefiness. The new iteration is good enough
that New York Mets captain David Wright, who stopped eating red meat years ago
after noticing that it made him feel sluggish, will endorse it--part of Beyond
Meat's aim to woo red-blooded athletes--and it's only going to get better.
"Why just look at soy and pea protein?" Brown says. "Why not look at every plant
and see what has the best amino acid profiles and what can be produced the most
cost-effectively? It turns out there are a lot of things you can get protein
"What's exciting to me is that we now have a completely different set of
proteins that we can tune," says Geistlinger. "We're looking at yeasts and
algae, which both have amino acid profiles that are superior to beef. We made
something that used yeast from the brewery across the street. It came out like
The issue of Frankenfoods raises its head. When I told Geistlinger that I was
skeptical of processed foods, especially ones produced by novel techniques, he
pointed out that Beyond Meat uses no artificial ingredients and employs the most
time-tested of cooking methods (heat and pressure). "Our process is gentler than
making pretzels," he said. "Getting that browning on a pretzel requires
chemically changing the bonds in the molecules. That's more harsh than what we
Grilling meat also involves chemical changes, of course, but ones that have been
tested for many generations. Mark Bittman, for one, is going to stay off the
faux-meat bandwagon for now. "I think we have to evaluate each of these products
individually," he told me. "Some fake meats can easily pass for ‘real' meat, but
in many cases that's because ‘real' meat has been so degraded by the industrial
production of animals. Still: the best direction for most of us is to eat
unprocessed food of all types; fake meat hardly qualifies."
Health aside, some of my friends were just weirded out. Why turn plant proteins
into burgers and dogs? Why not just eat them as peas and soybeans and seeds? To
which I say: taco, chimichanga, empanada, crepe, pierogi, wonton, gyoza, stuffed
roti, pupusa, pastie, pig in a blanket, croque monsieur, pastrami on rye.
Culture is a lump of flesh wrapped in dough. If you want to save the world,
you'd better make it convenient.
You're still wondering about that shit-burger, aren't you? Here's what I know.
Every year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention teams up with the FDA
to check for antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the meat sold in American retail
outlets. In 2010, the most recent year for which data has been released, they
purchased 5,280 samples across 11 states and
tested four states' for fecal bacteria. They found it in 90 percent of
ground beef and ground turkey, 88 percent of pork chops, and 95 percent of
If this shocks you, then clearly you haven't been watching YouTube videos of
slaughterhouses in action, where the high-speed slicing and dicing of 300 to 400
head of cattle an hour saturates the air with a fine fecal mist. Really, the
amazing thing is that 10 percent of our ground beef--even the organic stuff,
which is largely processed in the same manner--manages to escape contamination,
and that anyone eats it at all.
The part that really terrifies Meatworld? Millennials are already bailing on
Every generation skews toward vegetarianism in high school and college, only to
regress as life gets more complicated. But the newest graduates aren't coming
back. "We've definitely seen interest in vegetarian as well as vegan food rising
steadily on college and corporate campuses, but so has interest in eating less
meat in general," says Maisie Ganzler, VP of strategy for Bon Appétit Management
Company, which provides food services to many top universities and corporations,
including Duke, Johns Hopkins, Yahoo, and Google. If you want to know what
America's next generation of thinkers is eating, just ask Bon Appétit. "For us,
vegan isn't about niche appeal," Ganzler says. "We try to offer a lot of vegan
options in the cafés for our high-tech clients. Millennials are more meat
conscious, and vegan appeals to a variety of growing populations."
As vegetarianism goes mainstream, factory meat's one advantage--that it's
cheap--disappears. "There aren't any obstacles to us underpricing beef as we
scale up," Brown says. "The industry is large and established, yet it's facing
huge cost challenges. The price slope for beef since 2010 has been pretty steep.
We're already competitive with certain grades."
There's no reason that Beyond Meat can't have extruders all over the world
churning out affordable protein patties and even a plant-based "raw" ground beef
that's red, pliable, and designed for cooking. Once that happens, Brown won't
let U.S. supermarkets slot him into the hippie aisle anymore. "As soon as we
have our ground beef ready, they need to put it next to the animal protein."
He'll have to catch Impossible Foods,
founded by Stanford University biochemist Patrick Brown and also backed by Bill
Gates, which in October revealed a raw "ground beef" featuring bioengineered
"plant blood" designed to approximate hemoglobin. The patty turns brown and
savory as it cooks. Although the costs are not yet competitive and the flavor is
a work in progress, Impossible Foods expects to have its meat going head-to-head
with ground beef next year. "Livestock is an outdated technology," says Patrick
Considering the speed of change, the money and smarts being thrown at the
problem, and the desperate need, it seems likely that sometime in the next
decade, Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods or another rival will perfect vegetarian
beef, chicken, and pork that is tastier, healthier, and cheaper than the
fast-food versions of the real thing. It will be a textbook case of disruptive
technology: overnight, meat will become the coal of 2025--dirty, uncompetitive,
outcast. Our grandchildren will look back on our practice of using caged animals
to assemble proteins with the same incredulousness that we apply to our
ancestors' habit of slaughtering whales to light their homes.
I was thinking about that on the kind of crackling fall day when absolutely
anything feels possible, back at my neighbor's farm, eyeing my four-legged
friend. The leaves on the Vermont hills were a shimmering metallic curtain of
bronze and rust, the sky limitless, the pasture speckled with goldenrod. A week
of daily Beast Burgers had left me wildly energized and clearheaded, and I liked
the feeling. "I don't know what I ever saw in you," I told him. He blinked back
at me and uncorked a fragrant burp.
Contributing editor Rowan Jacobsen (@rowanjacobsen)
wrote about the Colorado River in July 2014.