Beyond buzz — flexitarians are powering the growth in plant-based meat alternatives

Beyond buzz — flexitarians powering the growth in plant-based meat alternatives

By Kathy Kerr

Investment and innovation are sizzling in the plant-based burger and meat analogue sector.

At recent plant-based foods summits held in Saskatoon and Calgary, there was plenty of buzz about meat analogues, plant-protein products that more and more closely mimic the taste, texture and form of meat.

The stakes are high. Beyond Meat’s recent initial public offering stunned the investment community as stock prices rose from the initial $25 offering price to more than $100 a share within days. In May, Impossible Foods raised $300 million in a round of private funding.

Beena Goldenberg, CEO of Hain Celestial Canada, speaking at Plant Protein Summit in Calgary 2019

Beena Goldenberg

Speakers at the summits, organized by Netherlands’ networking firm Bridge2Foods in May and June, represented leaders in the meat-alternative business, including Beyond Meat, Quorn and Hain Celestial. They reported their market is not limited to vegetarians and vegans, but powered by the growing flexitarian market — consumers who want to eat less meat.

Beyond Meat reports that 93 per cent of grocery store customers buying its products are also buying meat. The meat-alternative market is growing by 27 per cent, according to Beena Goldenberg, CEO of Hain Celestial Canada, a leader in the meat-alternative market.

Sustaining the current double-digit market growth all depends on taste, industry players agree.

At Beyond Meat new products, or improvements on products, are launched about every six months, and that takes a steady stream of new research and innovation. Ihab Leheta, the firm’s director of international sales, said the company employs about 50 researchers, half of them PhDs, in its Los Angeles lab.

“We have a woman who just worries about the sizzle. How does it cook on the barbecue? That’s her job 24/7,” Leheta said.

Early meat analogues mostly used soy as their protein source, but research is underway on diversifying to other plant sources with various functionalities in foods.

Beyond Meat is using pea protein in its burgers.

“We’re interested in future emerging proteins. We want protein manufacturers to help us get access to new sources of proteins such as oat and hemp and so on,” said chief innovation officer Dariush Ajami.

He said the research team at Beyond Meat continues to innovate on taste, texture, mouthfeel and aroma.

“We know this could be much better. We know it’s not 100 per cent there.”

Ihab Leheta, Beyond Meat director of international sales, speaking at Calgary Plant Protein Summit 2019

Ihab Leheta

Research on meat analogues, particularly in getting texture and mouth feel as close to meat as possible, is accelerating in private and public labs.

Jurriaan Mes, a researcher at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, outlined research into plant-protein production with industry partners on producing plant-based meat with extrusion and shear cell technology and, ultimately, 3-D printing.

Mes stressed there isn’t a product yet. But 3-D printing, which would allow innovations such as a harder or crispier exterior and a softer gel interior, could lead to steak-like mouth feel experiences.

“You have to chew to release the flavours,” Mes told the Saskatoon summit.

Meat alternatives are taking off as a category now, but Canadians began embracing the sector more than two decades ago.

B.C. entrepreneur Yves Potvin launched Yves Veggie Cuisine in the 1980s as a means to produce a cholesterol-free, healthy product. Yves veggie hot dogs took off quickly. The firm grew by 50 per cent each year for 13 years, Potvin told the Calgary summit.

He sold Yves in 2001 to Hain Celestial, and then went back into the business with Gardein in 2003, producing such products as meatless meatballs, crispy tenders and beefless ground. The firm received coverage from celebrities, including Oprah and Ellen DeGeneres.

“Gardein was the pioneer in this category, and Yves Veggie Cuisine,” said Potvin.

Firms like Beyond Meat and Impossible are the settlers, benefiting from his earlier businesses, he added. Potvin retired from Gardein and is now president of Vancouver’s Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts.

Potvin said the key for Yves was creating a product that looks like what consumers were used to eating. The firm never used the word vegan in its marketing brochures.

But while all meat-alternative firms are chasing the wider retail audience, a debate is raging on where in the grocery store these products should be offered.

Potvin falls on the side of the produce aisle.

B.C. entrepreneur Yves Potvin speaking at 2019 Plant Protein Foods Summit in Calgary

Yves Potvin

“We tried selling it in the meat department originally. But we realized a lot of the guys working in the meat department are butchers and they’re very proud of what they sell. So they would make sure our product wouldn’t sell. They would put Schneider’s and all the other product on top of our product, so we decided to switch to the produce department.”

Beyond Meat is adamant with retailers that its products must be carried in the meat section. Leheta describes his company’s products as “meat from plants.”

Yves Veggie Cuisine, the No. 1 meat alternative product line in Canada, is still sold in the produce section.

“You want to keep it in the produce section because that’s really your key consumer right now,” said Goldenberg, of Hain Celestial Canada.

But she agreed the flexitarian category is the opportunity for growth.

“You don’t want to alienate your core as you build your flexitarian opportunity.”

So Goldenberg suggested signage in the stores to help flexitarians find the alternatives to meat, as well as dual placement in the store or in store flyers.

In some stores, such as Sainsburys in the UK and Kroger’s in the U.S., there are sections which encompass meat alternatives, non-dairy drinks and cheese alternatives, for consumers who want plant-based options, she said.

The meat analogue industry has had some major successes in Canada and some major barriers.

In Canada, the rollout of the Beyond Burger in A&W restaurants, followed by a mass retail release in 3,000 grocery stores in one day in April this year, has led to a significant boost for the brand, said Leheta. Household recognition of the brand is higher in Canada than in the U.S., he said.

But companies have also been faced with Canadian regulations which have been an impediment. Quorn, for instance, a meat-alternative product based on fungus protein which is the best seller in the U.K., hasn’t even entered the Canadian market yet.

In Canada, a product which is called a burger must have mineral and vitamin content matching that of animal meat, said Goldenberg, which requires fortification. The rule doesn’t apply if the product is called a patty.

And plant-based burgers require a “simulated-meat” label, she said.

Numerous speakers called for an updating of Health Canada regulations that still protect consumers but better reflect current industry and marketplace practices.

Posted June 17, 2019


Kathy Kerr, a freelance journalist, covered the protein summits in Saskatoon and Calgary.

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Sylvain Charlebois at Plant Protein IngredientsSummitPlant Protein Alliance of Alberta