Plant-based burger battle heats up as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat unveil new products


Jonathan Kauffman, San Francisco Chronicle 

Feb. 7, 2019


The competition between the nation’s two highest-profile plant-based burgers has escalated with the news that Impossible Foods has released a new, gluten-free version of its Impossible Burger, just six weeks after Beyond Meat debuted its newly redesigned Beyond Burger.


Like Apple does with its operating system, Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are replacing their flagship burgers with updates, with every confidence that consumers will approve of the switch. Each company promises that its “version 2.0” — a term both use — tastes even more like real beef.


And as their markets expand, Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are increasingly invading the territory each has claimed. The two companies have flanked one another at every turn for years now, both comparing themselves to software companies rather than food manufacturers, both attracting hundreds of millions of dollars in investment as a result.


First to market was Beyond Meat, which Ethan Brown founded in Southern California in 2009. Since the release of its chicken strips made of pea protein in 2013, it has targeted the freezer and refrigerated shelves of grocery stores. In the summer of 2016, the company put much of its muscle into promoting a new flagship product: the Beyond Burger, which Whole Foods first agreed to sell in the fresh meat case. Safeway followed in May 2017.


Within a month of the Beyond Burger’s first public appearance, Impossible Foods, which former Stanford professor Pat Brown (no relation) started in 2011, released the first Impossible Burger at Nishi, one of David Chang’s New York restaurants. In October, it arrived on the West Coast at Jardiniere and Cockscomb in San Francisco. The embrace of chefs such as Chang, Jardiniere’s Traci Des Jardins and Cockscomb’s Chris Cosentino turned the “veggie burger that bleeds” into a hypebeast, drawing long lines of food obsessives both omnivorous and vegan.


In the fall of 2017, Impossible Foods opened a large production facility in East Oakland capable of producing 4 million pounds of the burger each month, and claims that 5,000 restaurants around the country now sell Impossible Burgers, often at prices higher than their beef burgers. Among these are major chains like Cheesecake Factory and White Castle.


In the meantime, sales of all plant-based meats have exploded. According to Nielsen data commissioned by the Plant-Based Foods Association, from 2017 to 2018 plant-based meats saw a 24 percent growth in grocery sales, compared to just 6 percent between 2016 and 2017. “Overall, we’ve seen a raising of the bar in terms of quality,” said Michele Simon, executive director of the Plant-Based Foods Association, a trade association Beyond Meat belongs to. “No longer does the consumer have to sacrifice to cut back on their animal meat consumption.”


Ethan Brown says Beyond Meat’s 2.0 burger has added mung bean protein to its core ingredients of pea protein and coconut fat for textural variety. But the real innovation is using biomedical equipment to rethink how those proteins, fats, and water are dispersed through throughout the patty. “The texture of meat is complex, and there’s a beauty to how unique it is,” he said. “How do we increase the heterogeneity of a bite so you’re getting the nuances of tendons and fat, fat bursting, different cuts of protein, bits of gristle?”


The Impossible Burger 2.0, which began a trial run at 120 restaurants starting Jan. 15 and be universally available by April, has undergone a more radical change...


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