V For Veg: It's not meat - it's Beyond Meat

Posted: November 02, 2012

A COUPLE OF weeks ago, I stood beside chef David Silver as he handed out samples of a new product at the Callowhill Whole Foods Market.

"What is it?" one gray-haired fellow inquired, taking a bite.

"It's Beyond Meat," said Silver, seeming to allow the guy another chew or two before adding, "It's a vegan meat."

Rather than responding with a comical spit-take, the man nodded cheerily and said, "Well, I don't like 'vegan' - but I like this!"

Silver has heard that a lot, traveling around the region training staff and whipping up recipes to showcase the new product, one that aspires to compete with meat on its own terms. He's aware that meat-eaters can have a knee-jerk aversion to the v-word. He's also aware that context - his flavorful sauces replicating those of favorite meat dishes - plays a big role in food tasting. And he believes this is no ordinary meat substitute.

Beyond Meat has been called "the game changer" in vegan and vegetarian diets. It has fooled some - including New York Times columnist Mark Bittman - into thinking they were eating actual meat. It's high in protein, low in fat and it's gluten- and cholesterol-free.

And it's launching in greater Philadelphia today, which happens to be World Vegan Day. In Whole Foods stores throughout our area (and a few natural-foods stores here and there), you can now get Beyond Meat in the prepared-foods section. By next weekend, this will be the case across the mid-Atlantic region.

So what is it exactly? Mostly soy protein, pea protein and carrot fiber. But what gives Beyond Meat its edge is the careful way the components are mixed, heated, cooled and shaped in a form that has much of the flavor and texture of meat - a process licensed from the University of Missouri by Ethan Brown.

"People always say, 'Why are you imitating meat?' " Brown remarked by phone. " 'I thought you'd want nothing to do with meat.' But I say, why throw out all those hundreds of years of culinary development? The key is to take the animal protein out and provide the same nutritional benefits without the downsides."

Brown grew up on a farm in Maryland and spent a couple of his teenage years in the Philly suburbs. "I was a Bucks County all-star in basketball," he said. A decade ago he went vegan and began looking for a way to develop "clean, eco-friendly, high-value nutrition that takes animal welfare into account."

He's also taking the realities of the marketplace into account.

"We have a two-pronged strategy," he said of the company that makes Beyond Meat - Savage River Inc., based in El Segundo, Calif. "One, to perfectly replicate the taste and experience of eating meat, and two, to drive the retail price lower than that of meat."

Compared with raising and killing a chicken, the numbers are favorable: "It basically takes us two hours to do what takes our competition six weeks."

Now, "fake meats" are already available in stores, and they've been around for centuries, but this one has attracted a huge amount of buzz. Dan Murphy, a pro-beef columnist for cattlenetwork.com, warned his colleagues that it's "so good that even industry insiders could be fooled in a blind taste test."

Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, a vegan himself, was impressed enough to invest in the company and join the board.

Stone's Obvious Corp. seeks out new systems to make the world better, and he found that while a new kind of food was not an, um, obvious candidate at first, it wound up being a perfect fit.

"What attracted me," he told me earlier this week, "was the combination of ambition and science they had for this. It's fundamentally more than [creating] a novelty food. They want to compete directly with the meat industry."

By putting "meat" in the name, the company is throwing down the gauntlet, challenging consumers to throw out preconceptions about plant-based eating, and Stone talks about it the way some do about veganism itself.

"The goal is not to give anything up," he said. "It's to gain something. You're getting more nutrition, better health, and you're gaining efficiency."

Livestock production, of course, is a famously wasteful and inefficient way to process water and plant protein into edible food. When you look at what you're getting instead of what you're avoiding, he said, "that's a big perspective change."

Stone is confident that cruelty-free, healthy foods will continue to be a trending topic. "The general populace can do their own research, and as consumers become more aware of what's going on, that's going to make them trend toward the most humane choices," he said.

It's no secret that the case for animal-free food is getting stronger, and not just for the obvious environmental and disease-fighting benefits. This summer, leading scientists from around the world signed a "Declaration of Consciousness" for nonhuman animals, recognizing that humans' capacity for consciousness is not unique and urging the public to recognize animals' sentience. The scientist who organized the signing has since gone vegan.

Stone is looking down the road. In the long term, he said, "it's not going to work for the world to keep eating animals. There needs to be some kind of advancement."

Ethan Brown, similarly, compares the move toward plant-based "meat" to the change "from the horse-drawn carriage to the automobile." That change didn't happen overnight. But looking back now, it seems, well, obvious.

Even a half-century ago, our culture didn't grasp nutrition, environmental impacts or animal sentience the way we do now.

Who knows? Over the course of history humans have advanced beyond a lot of unsavory attitudes.

Maybe now is the time to get beyond meat.

Vance Lehmkuhl is a cartoonist, writer, musician and 12-year vegan. "V for Veg" chronicles the growing trend of plant-based eating in and around Philadelphia. Send your veg tips to VforVeg@phillynews.com and follow @V4Veg on Twitter.

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