“You guys, I could cry,” a TikToker named Natasha tells the camera in a video uploaded to the social media platform in July. She’s sitting in a car, digging into what she reveals is a takeaway container of Beyond The Original Orange Chicken from Panda Express. The vegan-ified version of the chain’s famous sticky-sweet orange chicken, which features Beyond Meat’s plant-based poultry, debuted last summer at a handful of locations in New York City and Southern California and has since popped up in stores across the country. Natasha has been vegan since she was 14 years old, she explains with emotion, and Panda Express’s Original Orange Chicken was her favorite food before nixing animal products.
“It tastes exactly like Original Orange Chicken, like exactly,” she says, her voice wavering. “Try this. Like immediately. Like run.”
There’s a lot to unpack here. A major fast food chain’s embrace of plant-based meat is, in of itself, striking. There’s also the impressive degree to which the dish seemingly mimics real meat. But the video’s greatest significance, perhaps, is this: For the first time in plant-based meat’s modern history, a boom in technology has dovetailed with its broad acceptance. In other words, plant-based meat products are arguably the best they’ve ever been, just in time for a public ready to embrace them.
Where, then, does plant-based meat go from here? Are we on the precipice of a major turning point in American meat consumption? Will technology continue to improve, and plant-based meats gobble up even more of traditional meat’s market share? Or will the trend shrivel on the vine, and despite so many leaps forward, be remembered as little more than a culinary parlor trick? Here’s what we found out.
Alternative protein sources crowd the horizon
Some of the most popular plant-based meat products on the market right now are made with legumes (Beyond Meat largely derives its protein from peas) and soy (hello, Impossible Burger). But there’s constant chatter around the potential of other protein sources. Colorado-based company ECS Brands, for instance, is currently developing a hemp-based protein. Further along is AKUA, which specializes in kelp-based products like jerky. Last month it raked in $3.2 million to scale up its new kelp-based burger.
Yet another promising protein source? Mycoprotein, a single-cell protein derived from fungi. Sure, fungi aren’t technically plants—they’re members of an entirely separate kingdom—but let’s brush aside that technicality. Nor is their use as a meat substitute especially new: One of the major players in this space, Quorn, which produces an eponymous fungi-based meat substitute, was founded back in 1985. (The company currently sells products in the U.S. and the U.K.; the actress Drew Barrymore appears on its website as the “Chief Mom Officer.”) But a lot has changed in the nearly four decades since Quorn’s emergence, both on the tech and public perception fronts.
“Everything old is new again,” said Eben Bayer, the co-founder of MyForest Foods. The company’s fungi-based products are made with a technology Bayer himself developed in the 2010s, which harnesses the power of mycelium, a dense network of fungal threads.
“These are mushrooms from the forest we’ve eaten for thousands of years,” Bayer said. “Our indoor factories just grow them in a super efficient manner in large slabs… You're getting something that's got real depth to it, like two or three inches thick, like a pork belly.”
MyForest Foods’ first product, MyBacon, has a characteristically smoky aroma and sizzles when cooked. It also boasts, Bayer said, a characteristically umami-rich flavor thanks to its mushroom base of Pleurotus ostreatus, or oyster mushroom. For now, MyBacon is available in only one location—a single food cooperative in Albany, N.Y.—but in 2021 the company raised $40 million to scale up and reach grocery stores nationwide. Bayer sees products such as MyBacon, which has just six ingredients and is minimally processed, as an alternative to products like those made by Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, which have been called out for being heavily processed and having long ingredient lists.
“We're building a giant new farm to expand production,” Eben said excitedly, noting that MyBacon generally sells out within an hour or two each time it’s delivered to the Albany food co-op. “We hope that [being the first place to sell the product] has some historical significance for them in the future. Next fall, we're planning to be in a ton of locations.”
Tofu of the sea? Plant-based tech dives into seafood
Leaps and bounds made in the field of plant-based meat have producers looking out to sea for inspiration. If 2021 was the year of faux chicken, 2022 might be time to shine for everything from plant-based fish sticks to vegan sushi-grade fish.
“I think it’s been much more complicated to deliver on texture, and it’s largely why there aren’t any acceptable seafood alternatives on the market yet,” said Anne Palermo, CEO of Aqua Cultured Foods, which is developing a line of whole-muscle cut seafood alternatives using microbial fermentation. The exact nature of Aqua’s methods is secret, but on first glance, the company’s products—fermented, fungi-based imitations of sea bass, tuna, calamari, and shrimp—look mightily convincing with a slick, translucent sheen reminiscent of raw seafood.
Aqua Cultured Foods is hardly alone in the vegan seafood space. Plant-based seafood may have only done $12 million in U.S. sales in 2020, but just one year later the sector raked in roughly $150 million in investment capital. There are now 87 companies producing alternative seafood products around the globe. Big names include New Wave Foods, which makes faux shrimp with seaweed- and mung bean-based ingredients; Good Catch, whose plant-based seafood products range from fish sticks to crab cakes and rely on a mix of pea, soy, chickpea, lentil, fava bean, navy bean protein; and Ocean Hugger, which specializes in tomato-based “tuna” and eggplant-based “eel.”
Who would choose faux sushi over the real deal? People with moral concerns about eating fish, of course, but also those worried about overfishing and plastic contamination in traditional seafood. Plus, “interest in seafood alternatives in Asia and Europe is off the charts,” Palermo said. Why shouldn’t America be a boomtown for faux seafood, too?
Meat alternatives head to the lab
The future of alternative meats may not, in fact, involve plants. Cell-based meat—a.k.a. meat grown in a lab setting with real-deal meat cells—isn’t strictly speaking plant-based, but it undoubtedly belongs in the same conversation. After all, if a major goal of plant-based meat is to produce a protein-rich product that bypasses the environmental downsides of traditional agriculture, then cell-based meat fulfills the brief.
“We hope and believe that we're going to be a significant fraction of the market, but also understand that it's going to take time to get there,” said Eric Schultz, the vice president of Product and Regulation at Upside Foods, which claims itself as the world’s first cultivated meat company. Founded in 2015, the company has successfully produced cell-based meatballs, chicken, and duck—although none are yet available for sale. Schultz hopes that will change soon. In 2020, Upside Foods raised $186 million in investments from Whole Foods, SoftBank, Cargill, and others, and in late 2021, the company opened EPIC, its first commercial production facility. Upside Foods is currently undergoing a voluntary consultation process with both the FDA and USDA to ensure the safety of its products. Schultz can’t pin down an exact timeline for when the process will be complete—or when, for that matter, the average consumer might be able to buy Upside products at the grocery store—but he said the consultation is “going exceedingly well.”
So what is cell-based meat, exactly? Upside’s methodology involves taking a rice grain-sized sample of living cells from an animal—including muscle, connective tissue, fat—and growing those cells in a lab environment. Once grown to a certain volume, the cells are transferred to proprietary tanks and grow into the shape of that vessel. “They turn into muscle tissue, then they're harvested as muscle, and then they're processed into meat food products—the processing is exactly the same as traditional conventional meat,” Schultz said.
Upside’s cell-based meat, he said, is largely indistinguishable from traditional meat in flavor and texture.“Not that there's anything wrong with [plant-based meat products], they're wonderful,” he said. But “people love meat… [and] we're producing actual animal meat.”
The combined approach
What if the future of meat consumption in this country isn’t entirely plant-based or cell-based, but a combination of the two? What if traditional meat still has a role to play?
“The all-or-nothing approach really never works,” said Cara Nicoletti, a fourth-generation butcher and the founder of Seemore Meats & Veggies, a sausage company whose products are roughly two thirds meat and one third vegetable. In contrast, most other traditional sausages contain about 2 percent vegetables, Nicoletti said.
“When I first started making these sausages 12 years ago, it was because I tried to sell my customers veggie burgers from the meat case and they wanted nothing to do with them,” she explained. Much has changed since then, but Nicoletti still believes that a certain segment of the population will never be swayed by pure plant protein. “Meat is here to stay,” she said. “We can either try to steer consumers away from meat entirely—which we know doesn't work—or offer them more balanced options that might actually turn the dial.”
Meanwhile, MyForest Foods' co-founder Eben Bayer envisions a future of hybrid foods that combine plant- and cell-based technologies. “Like growing a little bit of bacon fat in the lab and adding that to MyBacon to get a really super realistic pork flavor,” he said. “We've got this whole zeitgeist world we live in, which tends to have this all or nothing vibe to it,” Bayer continued. A combined approach might go a lot farther, he believes.
Only time will tell which technologies—and which schools of thought—will prevail in the plant-based meat industry’s battle to win hearts and minds. But one thing is for sure: We’ve come a long way from Tofurky and Boca Burgers. Plant-based protein’s next act has the potential to completely reshape America’s relationship with traditional meat.