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The plant-based Beyond Burger has broken through to mainstream success, partly through a partnership with A&W.Beyond Meat

The amazing success of the Beyond Burger is evidenced in the fact that you probably heard of it through a non-vegetarian friend. Some time in the last year, a friend has proselytized the product, a plant-based, disc-shaped protein, designed to look, cook, smell, taste and even “bleed” like beef, thanks to Beyond Meat’s partnership with A&W.

After decades lurking on the sidelines of menus, through endless permutations of beans, grains and vegetables attempting to emulate the satisfaction of a hamburger, the Beyond Burger (and its main competitor, the Impossible Burger, available at Burger King in the United States but not Canada) has broken through to mainstream appeal. Last year, the Beyond Burger reached consumer mouths in Canada, via the menu at A&W and a handful of other restaurants. Die-hard meat eaters were quickly transformed into buzz marketers, asking if you’d tried it “yet.” Leapfrogging that success, last month, Beyond Meat launched its burgers in Canadian grocery stores Sobeys, Loblaws, Metro and Longo’s.

At last, science has caught up with market demand. And that demand is growing. In 2018, a Nielsen Study reported 30-per-cent growth in the U.S. market (where these products have been available for a few years) for plant-based meat alternatives. Consumers have been swayed, not by a detailed understanding of the chemistry involved – the use of pea protein or heme to mimic animal meat – but by taste. Now that we’ve seen the type of texture and flavour that can be created in a lab, along with a consumer willingness to embrace these products (which was still in question a couple of years ago), it’s a rush to see what other plant-based foods will begin to replace the ethically dubious, environmentally unsustainable animal products we currently gobble up.

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Consumers have been drawn to the latest wave of meat alternatives not by understanding the chemistry involved but by the taste.Beyond Meat

If our consumption habits are any indication of what’s coming, seafood is next. "We just eat a ton of shrimp,” says Michelle Wolf, co-founder of New Wave Foods. Canada imports 56 million kilograms of shrimp a year. The U.S. market is 10 times that.

In 2015, Wolf and her partner Dominique Barnes examined the United States’ favourite seafood through the lens of their educations in biomedical engineering and marine biodiversity. The duo developed a plant-based shrimp product made from soy and algae, then followed the route of the plant-burger purveyors, drumming up interest through hospitality partnerships. Sold in burritos at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the plant-shrimp was a hit with vegetarians. But Wolf wasn’t satisfied.

“With that product, it was getting a lot of attention,” Wolf says, “but we hadn’t quite cut it with the mainstream market in the way that Impossible and Beyond has.”

Meeting with a chef at the Culinary Institute of America, they tasted seven of the best shrimp varieties, examining how the product performs: taste, bite, how shrimp breaks down in the mouth, the way it works in recipes. “We graded that day what the gold standard was,” New Wave Foods CEO Mary McGovern says. “And if we couldn’t hit it, then we didn’t have what we needed.”

Going back to the lab, they rebooted the product. McGovern says she now believes they have a substitute shrimp analogue of the Impossible and Beyond Burgers. New Wave plans to be in production this summer, with U.S. sales through restaurants in the fall. As for what they’ve changed, or how they’ve achieved the improved texture, they won’t say. “We’re treating this like Coca-Cola syrup,” says McGovern. “High secrecy.” Sophie’s Kitchen is also making plant-based shrimp and got its product to market much earlier, in 2011 in the U.S. and the following year in Canada. Sophie’s makes a variety of simulated seafoods – crab cakes, fish, shrimp, scallops, lobster, salmon and “toona.”

In Beyond Meat’s analytical lab, scientists work to identify the signature aroma molecules of meat, and then source those same molecules from plant-based ingredients.Beyond Meat

While Wolf says that texture was harder to master than flavour, Sophie’s founder Eugene Wang felt it was the other way around. “Creating animal flavour from 100-per-cent natural and plant-based ingredients is absolutely impossible,” Wang says. “You will have to use some synthetic flavouring and put it in that basket called ‘natural flavouring,’ something we are reluctant to do but probably will have to in the near future. Because as more and more people embrace plant-based options, the No. 1 thing they ask is to have the identical animal flavour in that alternative.”

In the U.S., and in Quebec, cattle-ranching associations are staging legal opposition to Beyond’s use of the word meat, so New Wave is likely to face a similar obstacle to calling their product shrimp. But so far, the major challenge for any of these companies is standing out from the pack enough to create demand. And they all seem to believe that the quality of their products will be what pushes them past the others.

While shrimp is popular in the seafood category, pork is the most consumed meat in the world. So it’s a prime candidate for innovators to replicate. In 2018, Hong Kong grocery-store chain Green Common started carrying Omnipork, a mix of pea protein, mushroom and rice. While Beyond Meat produces burgers and “crumble” as two separate products, Omnipork is intended to be used with the same versatility of ground pork – steaming, frying, deep-frying, stuffing into dumplings.

Without any such product yet available in Canada, entrepreneur Adrian Pascu, who founded The Alternative Butcher, an Ontario startup, has an advantage. “We’re not trying to emulate any animal protein,” he says. “We’re not aiming for that. We just want to get as much protein as possible per 100 grams of serving. We are, however, trying to replicate as close as possible some of the texture and smells.” Pascu says his still-unnamed product, which has been in research and development for 19 months, most closely resembles pulled pork.

For now, it’s an open race to corner the market on plant-based shrimp or pork. With its arrival on supermarket shelves, Beyond Meat has gained what’s known as first-mover advantage. That means the Beyond Burger will gobble market share of veggie burgers and possibly bite into sales of beef burgers, while also establishing a standard as the product to beat in the growing plant-based meat category. And while Beyond Meat has made some smart marketing moves, its success is impossible without taste. The burger tastes like a burger. Can these other companies create something that tastes good enough to dominate their categories?

“At the end of the day,” says Wolf of New Wave’s plant-based shrimp, “If it doesn’t taste good, we don’t have a business.”

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