The plant-based ‘meat’ of the matter

The Beyond Burger

I’m guessing the race is on in the U.S. for a retailer to come up with its own brand of a plant-based meat product that’s similar to Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. That’s because there’s a genuine fervor surrounding these companies’ “bleeding” veggie burgers.

Beyond Meat with its famous Beyond Burger and Impossible Foods with its Impossible Burger are the current darlings of the entire food industry. They are the summer’s rock stars — the Rolling Stones on tour. But will they fade like so many of those one-hit wonder bands from the 1990s?

The two companies certainly didn’t receive a vote of confidence from Whole Foods Market Founder and CEO John Mackey who told CNBC recently that “the [brands] who are capturing the imagination of people — and I’m not going to name these brands because I’m afraid I will be associated with the critique of it … but some of these that are extremely popular now that are taking the world by storm, if you look at the ingredients, they are super, highly processed foods.”

You just know Mackey is talking about Beyond Burger and Impossible Foods. But he does bring up a good point.

While consumers are demanding more plant-based foods, they also want foods that are less processed and free from undesirable ingredients. While Beyond Burger and Impossible Foods make their fake beef burgers with healthy ingredients, some ingredients have been deemed not-so healthy.

In July, Alissa Rumsey, a registered dietitian, told CNBC that the fake beef burgers “are not necessarily healthier than beef burgers.” She also said they are “totally fine to eat, but there’s no need to replace your beef burger if you don’t enjoy these.” Rumsey also pointed out that both plant-based burgers and traditional beef burgers have the same amount of sodium and saturated fat.

Mackey told CNBC that eating highly processed foods is not healthy, and that people “thrive on eating whole foods.”

Interestingly, Whole Foods Market was the first major retailer to begin selling Beyond Meat’s products in 2013. So it’s interesting that Mackey has a beef (pun intended) with Beyond Burger’s ingredients. But that’s another story.

One thing is for certain and most everyone will agree that Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger offer products that are better for the environment in that their processing requires a lot less energy and generates a lot less greenhouse gas, among other things. So the companies offer very sustainable products, of which consumers also want more.

But another drawback for Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger is cost — their products are expensive, much more than organic ground beef let alone conventional ground beef. Beyond Meat Founder Ethan Brown said that 93% of people who purchase the company’s products in grocery stores are meat eaters. But I just don’t see these carnivores continuing to pay $6 for two patties that weigh 4 ounces each. And most all consumers won’t pay that much of a price to be sustainable, even if they say they will.

I guess we’ll find out from consumers soon enough if they’re willing to look the other way in regard to Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger offering products that are considered highly processed. I’m not saying that fresh ground beef is health food, but it’s not processed.

Clearly, the plant-based product movement is real and relevant. But here’s the thing: A lot of consumers might think these products are healthier than they really are, from plant-based salty snacks to plant-based dairy products to plant-based meats. That’s definitely not a given.

When consumers catch on, then what?

If retailers are indeed racing to create their own brand of veggie burgers like those from Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger, perhaps they should consider innovations that are less processed, if that’s possible. That would be taking this darling of a category to another and exclusive level.

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