Beef burgers without cows? It sounds like some genetic scientist’s futuristic fever dream.
But get your grill at the ready—the future of beef has already arrived in the fresh meat case. Meet the Beyond Burger: burger patties that look, cook and taste nearly identical to their beef counterparts but are made entirely from plants. The all-natural burgers are a serious departure from previous mock meat contenders because the patties char, sizzle and “bleed” just like beef, resulting in juicy, browned burgers with pink middles and a surprisingly beefy taste that could fool most carnivores (including this one).
The man behind this miraculous “meat” is Ethan Brown, who founded Beyond Meat in 2009 and began a challenging seven-year journey to develop the burger (and other products, including mock chicken) from concept to retail. Brown had worked at a fuel-cell development company, exploring alternatives to the traditional combustion engine for a decade when he realized that no matter how much technology could reduce emissions from transportation, the pace would not be fast enough to stem global warming unless emissions from livestock were also addressed.
A longtime vegan, Brown was also concerned with animal welfare and the health risks posed by red meat consumption. He was all too familiar with veggie burger alternatives but, at the time, couldn’t imagine existing products ever being enticing enough to convert carnivores en masse. “Given the ubiquitous nature of animal protein throughout our culture,” Brown says, “it was hard for me to envision a wholesale change away from meat.”
But then Brown had a light-bulb moment. To make meat, he wondered, “Why couldn’t we just bypass the animal?”
Brown’s idea had nothing to do with cloning or genetic acrobatics. “What I wanted to do was fundamentally understand the composition of meat and then try to rebuild it from plant material,” says Brown. “If you look at the constituent parts of meat, it’s basically protein, fat and water. None of those things is exclusive to the animal. They’re all present in plants.”
Due to apprehension about “consumer reactions to wheat protein and soy protein,” his team of developers settled upon pea protein combined with coconut and canola oils. Initially, “Stitching the proteins together to resemble the fibrous texture of animal muscle was successful,” says Brown, but “the rest of it was not.”
The Beyond Meat team—which has grown to include 17 university scientists from disciplines as diverse as chemistry, biophysics and material science—also had to replicate beef’s distribution of fat, the aroma and the transition from a fresh to cooked product, including how beef “bleeds” along the way. (Beet juice ultimately achieved that effect.) They were committed to using nothing artificial or genetically modified, which made the project that much tougher.
Finding partners who believed in the Beyond Burger also posed challenges; meat from plants “was sort of a strange business to be investing in,” says Brown. The company gained an early vote of confidence from Tom Rich, Whole Foods’s Regional Vice President of Purchasing and Distribution in the Rocky Mountains. “He got it right away,” says Brown. Whole Foods served as the Beyond Burger’s first retail launching pad.
Later, high-profile investors like Bill Gates came on board, attracted by the potential to address what Brown calls “the four horsemen of change”: improving human health, positively impacting climate change, addressing global resource constraints and improving animal welfare. “You can effect change at a global level by changing out the amino acid at the center of your plate,” notes Brown.
Although the Beyond Burger has now hit stores, Brown says his team’s work is far from over. As closely as the current product resembles beef, they won’t stop making improvements until the Beyond Burger is identical and could be crumbled or shaped into meatballs.
Placement in stores is also an ongoing challenge. “We made a decision that we wouldn’t sell it to retailers that don’t put it in the meat case because we think it’s that important” to present Beyond Burger as an equivalent option to beef, says Brown.
Brown is optimistic that the Beyond Burger will satisfy its potential. “I think when you’re working on something that has such a positive outcome,” he says, “good things happen.”
Beyond Burger, by the numbers
- Zero GMOs, soy or gluten
- 20 g plant protein per serving
- 7+ years spent perfecting its look and taste
- 100% vegan
PHOTOS BY Beyond Burger