Last May, Whole Foods recalled two types of curried chicken salad that had been sold in some of its stores in the Northeast.
The retailer’s kitchens had accidentally confused a batch of “chick’n” salad made with a plant protein substitute with one made from real chicken, and reversed the labels.
Consumers buying the version labeled as having been made from actual chicken were instead eating vegetarian chicken salad — and thus inadvertently were exposed to soy and eggs, allergens that must be identified on labels under federal regulations.
“None of the customers apparently noticed the difference,” said Ethan Brown, founder and chief executive of Beyond Meat, which made the substitute in the product that was recalled.
The error demonstrates just how far “fake” meat — producers hate the term but have not come up with a catchy alternative to “plant-based protein” — has come from the days when desiccated and flavorless veggie burgers were virtually the only option for noncarnivores.
Demand for meat alternatives is growing, fueled by trends as varied as increased vegetarianism and concerns over the impact of industrial-scale animal husbandry on the environment. The trend has also attracted a host of unlikely investors, including Biz Stone and Evan Williams of Twitter, Bill Gates and, most recently, Li Ka-shing, the Hong Kong magnate.
“I’ve tasted a few,” Mr. Gates wrote in a multimedia piece on the Beyond Meat investment that was posted to his blog, “and they’re very convincing.”
Mr. Brown said that one of the big agricultural commodities businesses that trades in meat also has a tiny stake in Beyond Meat, though he declined to name it.
Some investors look at the development of viable meat alternatives as a sustainability issue.
“Frankly, we’ve never said we’re interested in food,” said Randy Komisar, a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caulfield Byers, a venture capital firm that has backed Google and Facebook — and Beyond Meat. “What we’re interested in is big problems needing solutions, because they represent big potential markets and strong opportunities for building great returns.”
Among the problems he listed that his firm’s investment in Beyond Meat are intended to address are land and water use, stress on global supply chains and the world’s growing population. “These are venture-scale problems with venture-scale returns,” Mr. Komisar said.
Or as Josh Tetrick, a founder of a company that makes “eggs” from plant proteins, said: “We didn’t start Hampton Creek to get into mayo or because we were thinking about making muffins and cookies. More than anything we’re trying to reverse what we see as a problem, which is cheap and convenient food that is always going to win in China, win in India and win with my father, but isn’t good for the body or animals or the environment.”
Andrew Loucks, president of the United States frozen foods business at the Kellogg Company, said in an email that the company, which owns the MorningStar Farms brand of vegetarian products, was seeing growing consumer demand for less fat, cholesterol and calories, which often translates into a desire to eat less meat.
MorningStar offers a variety of products, including veggie dogs, a line of ground meat substitute called Crumbles and burgers made from things like black beans and chickpeas.
For whatever reason, the desire to replace meat proteins with proteins derived from plants is spreading, although the market is still minuscule. Mintel, a market research firm, reports that sales of meat alternatives grew 8 percent from 2010 to 2012, when sales hit $553 million.
“Not that long ago, electrical cars were considered nonperformers, and when Prius came out, a lot of people didn’t think there was a market for it,” said Yves Potvin, founder and chief executive of Gardein Protein International, which makes the Gardein line of meatless products. “Now people are willing to pay $70,000 for a Tesla, and more than one million Prius cars are sold each year.”
MorningStar Farms accounts for more than 60 percent of the market, according to Mintel, while new competitors like Beyond Meat and Hampton Creek have sprung up in the last five years. Gardein, founded a little more than five years ago, is the granddaddy of new companies making meat substitutes. Its products, sold by conventional retailers like H-E-B and Target as well as specialty groceries, include “chicken” wings, “fish” fillets, “beef” tips and breakfast patties.
“The category was stuck between the bun for many years,” Mr. Potvin said. “We came along and developed a new process that creates fibers that are very meaty from a plant base, and now we’re in 20,000 supermarkets and responsible for 75 percent of the category growth year over year.”
Creating from plant proteins something that will pass as meat is complicated. Companies must first identify the right plant and extract its proteins, then figure out how to reassemble them to taste like meat and develop the technology to do it.
Hampton Creek Foods, a start-up working to develop egg substitutes from plant proteins, tested thousands of varieties of Canadian yellow peas before it identified what would mimic the functions of eggs, including emulsification.
The goal? A mayonnaise that was nutritionally equivalent to one made with eggs.
The company tested 2,200 prototypes before landing on Just Mayo, the plant-based protein now sold in some 70 Whole Foods stores and arriving in Safeway and Costco stores.
Beyond Meat’s proteins come from yellow peas, mustard seeds and camelina, among other plants, and yeast. The company had a three-year setback when it decided to remove an artificial sulfide and had to find a natural substitute.
Mr. Brown said he did not expect Beyond Meat to replace a porterhouse from Lobel’s butcher shop, but the bulk of beef consumed was ground and turned into things like patties and chili. A chili made from the company’s imitation-beef Crumbles, studded with beans and garnished with cilantro and scallions, that he brought for a reporter to sample tasted no different from one made with ground chuck.
A 55-gram serving of Beyond Meat’s “beef” Crumbles contains 4.5 grams of total fat and no saturated fat, in contrast to the same amount of 80 percent lean ground beef, which has 11 grams of total fat, 4 of which are saturated fat. The Beyond Meat product contains the same amount of protein as the ground beef.
Mr. Brown is most proud of Beyond Meat’s “chicken breast” products, which are sold in strips that look like real chicken and can be pulled into shreds for chicken salad. “That was kind of the holy grail,” he said.
He knows, however, that his meat substitutes and others must gain acceptance from mainstream consumers.
“It has to be just as good as, just as convenient as and maybe even cheaper than ground beef or chicken,” Mr. Brown said. “Our business is to create something better than meat; otherwise we are not going to move the needle.”