Can Beyond Meat Be Called Meat?


Larry Light, Contributor, Forbes

Nov 5, 2019


A coalition for the cattle industry, Center for Consumer Freedom, took full-page ads in U.S. newspapers to let consumers know that plant-based meat substitutes are ultra-processed. Hoping to stem the tidal wave of excitement for eating plant-based meat substitutes, the ad screamed, “What’s hiding in your plant-based meat?”


Over the years, the phrase “processed food” has become a negative descriptor. For example, Velveeta is a branded processed cheese product that tastes like American cheese. According to the FDA, Velveeta cannot be called cheese: its real name is “pasteurized prepared cheese product,” a term for which the FDA does not maintain a standard of identity.


The days when processed food products like Velveeta could pass as real are long gone. Kraft Heinz, Campbell’s and other industrial food companies are feeling the pain wrought by customers who select artisan brands, nondairy brands, nonmeat items and organic, unprocessed foods and beverages.


Fighting about labeling of food and beverage offerings is increasing: Can almond milk be called milk? Can cashews make actual yogurt? Are pretzels really pretzels if made with cauliflower flour? Does a sausage made from pea protein have the right to be called a sausage? Does a peppered deli slice made from soy have the right to be called a deli meat?


This is such a colossal waste of time and particularly demeaning to the American consumer. If the package says plant-based, I am fairly certain that it is made with plants and not a hormone-induced, GMO-corn-eating hen. When the package of cheddar cheese slices says “Plant-based cheese alternative” I am fully aware that a cow was not involved. Telling me that I am confused about these products is tantamount to calling me stupid . . . not a great way to develop a customer.


The dairy lobby is arguing that almond milk should not be allowed. It is not milk. Milk comes from mammals. It is almond juice. The cattlemen lobby is missing the big picture. First, it is simply not credible to believe that a pound of ground chuck in your supermarket has not been processed. When do processes occur? Is the process of animal raising a process? After all, the steer goes to slaughter after it has been raised with hormones and given antibiotics. Those chicken breasts in the freezer case are so big because the chickens were raised using a “scientific” process to make large hens. In its report on “The Future of Food,” the Wall Street Journal’s Jacob Bunge points out that the search for better pigs is now resting on pigs bred with Crispr-Cas9 so that the pigs are virus-resistant. Is genetically modified food “processed” food?


Second, the real battle is not about language but between two different ideas about the future of food. One side of the new food marketplace believes in the role of scientific process/processing as the way to create foods that are not only good to eat, but also safe to eat and a better value. Processed foods that mimic beef, chicken or dairy products may be better for you and may also be good for the planet.


On the other side is the belief that emphasizing the purity and simplicity of the simple, raw ingredients is the better way to the future. This rivalry is abundantly clear in the approaches of Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods both make meat substitutes. But the brands are taking vastly different messages in connecting with consumers.


Beyond Meat’s message is about making protein-based products that are made from simple, non-GMO ingredients with no hormones or antibiotics. The brand stresses the naturalness of its offerings. On the Beyond Meat website the ingredients are listed under, “Our Proteins, Our Fats, Our Minerals, Our Flavors & Colors and Our Carbohydrates.” The screaming meat lobby singles out methylcellulose as a processed ingredient. As Beyond Meat explains under “Our Carbohydrates,” methylcellulose is a plant fiber derivative, which is also used in ice cream, for example.


Beyond Meat plays down the role of laboratory innovation while communicating that the brand’s offerings use the same building blocks that define meat (protein, fat, carbohydrates, minerals and water). Beyond Meat sources from plants to “create delicious, mouth-watering, plant-based meat.” Its proteins come from peas, mung beans, fava beans, brown rice and sunflowers.


Impossible Foods takes a different approach. It emphasizes a scientific, lab-based approach to its offerings. Impossible Foods uses soy and potato as its sources of protein. Impossible Foods also includes methylcellulose. The brand’s signature element is heme—this is what makes the burger “bleed” and taste like beef. As described on the Impossible Foods website, “Heme is what makes meat taste like meat. It’s an essential molecule found in every living plant and animal—most abundantly in animals—and something we’ve been eating and craving since the dawn of humanity. Here at Impossible Foods, our plant-based heme is made via fermentation of genetically engineered yeast, and safety-verified by America’s top food-safety experts and peer-reviewed academic journals.” This statement is followed by a step-by-step journey through the plant-based heme-making laboratory process.


According to Impossible Foods, its meat substitutes are the outcome of significant R&D. In an open letter from its founder, Patrick Brown states: