In the late 2010s, Beyond Meat ushered in the next generation of plant-based meat products, winning over consumers with its new-and-improved take on the veggie burger. Then it wowed Wall Street in 2019 when it had the most successful stock market debut in over a decade.
But 2022 hasn’t been as kind to the plant-based meat giant: Amid declining sales, Beyond Meat recently announced it will lay off 19 percent of its staff by the end of the year. Its stock price has tumbled, and it recently told shareholders it expects to bring in less revenue this year than originally forecasted, citing increased competition and high inflation.
In response, Beyond Meat is doing what all food companies do when they’re at risk of losing market share — they’re pushing out something new: plant-based steak.
It’s not a rib-eye or T-bone, but steak “tips” — the kind of meaty chunks meant to be used, say, in a taco, stir-fry, or sandwich. Though a number of small startups have steak-like products on the market, this is the first one that will be widely available and one of the rare products employing “whole muscle” technology (more on this later).
Last week, a few Vox colleagues and myself — a mix of vegetarians and omnivores — got an early chance to try it in the form of a plant-based Philly cheesesteak (with dairy-free cheese), prepared by a DC-area chef. The verdict: delicious with some varying opinions on texture and just how close it comes to tasting like steak from a cow.
“This is uncanny,” said Libby Nelson, Vox’s policy editor. “My parents are from Nebraska, where they have a lot of beef, and I have a pretty high bar. Steak feels like the one thing I would never want to go artificial on … but my initial thoughts are very pro — they’ve done a good job with this.” She said that if she hadn’t been told it was meat-free, she might have assumed it was real beef.
Li Zhou, a politics reporter, was squishy on the texture: “I feel like there’s a little toughness that’s missing that you would get from steak.” Keren Landman, a health and science reporter, agreed, though she did like the “little fibers” in each bite.
Christian Paz, a politics reporter, added, “I also like that there was a sensation that there were little pockets of fat distributed in it, which is something that I really enjoy in a regular meat sandwich — the sense that it’s not all lean meat, that there is some textural difference within it as you’re biting a piece.”
Jonquilyn Hill, a podcast producer, said it wasn’t good enough to fool her into thinking it was real beef: “It is very good, but as a person who eats meat, it’s very obviously not meat. I think it’s the texture. When I think of steak, I always think of sitting down and using a knife and fork. … It’s more like the meat that’s used for Philly cheesesteaks that you’d get from the freezer section.”
The reactions reminded me of how much expectation can change what we think of food. Cooked alone, does plant-based meat taste exactly like the animal meat they’re intended to replicate? Almost never. But when used in a dish with oil, spices, and vegetables, and put on a bed of rice or in between two pieces of bread, it’s much harder to tell whether it’s plant- or animal-based, hence Nelson’s “uncanny” comment.
So much of our perceptions around food are based on how we expect it to taste, which is why people — even professional chefs — can be easily fooled into thinking they’re eating animal meat when it’s really plant-based meat. The perceived inferiority of plant-based meat might be a bigger barrier to its growth than how it actually tastes. (That, and price — on Instacart, a 10-ounce package of Beyond Meat steak tips costs $7.99, or 80 cents per ounce, compared to 69 cents per ounce for real, low-cost steak tips — a 16 percent cost difference.)
Starting today, the Beyond Meat steak tips will be available nationwide in more than 5,000 Kroger and Walmart locations as well as some Albertsons (Safeway, Vons, Jewel-Osco) and Ahold (Giant, Stop & Shop) stores. It’s also available to food distributors, so it could start showing up on restaurant menus soon.
Since beef is far and away the most carbon-intensive food, any market share Beyond Meat steak tips can seize will represent a win for the environment — and a steak made of faba bean protein and wheat gluten is clearly an animal welfare win. When it comes to nutrition, there’s a longstanding debate as to whether or not plant-based meat is healthier than animal meat, but Beyond Meat steak tips provide comparable nutrition to the real thing. Beyond Meat scores a point for having zero cholesterol but loses a point for the high sodium content: 300 milligrams to the 55 milligrams of sodium in a 3-ounce serving of Steak-Umm sliced steaks.
What separates the steak tips from most plant-based meat offerings is that it’s made with “whole muscle” technology, what some in the field call the “holy grail” of plant-based meat. Most of the plant-based meat you’ve tried is made using “chop and form” technology — essentially taking a bunch of ingredients and mashing them together, which is why most products in the sector mimic ground meat in burgers or nuggets. Whole muscle, on the other hand, is meant to imitate whole cuts of meat like steak, which gives it the more fibrous texture some of my colleagues noticed.
Can the plant-based category catch fire again?
In many corners of the media, the excitement over the dawn of plant-based meat has curdled into predictions of its demise — or at least it remaining a niche.
There’s no doubt that plant-based meat has been struggling at the drive-thru. Many trials of plant-based meats at fast food franchises and chain restaurants have flopped, including some from Beyond Meat. And some of the world’s largest traditional meat companies have lost faith: JBS is closing its plant-based manufacturing facility in Colorado, while Maple Leaf Foods is downsizing its vegetarian operations.
But there are bright spots as well. Gardein’s and Impossible Foods’ retail sales are up, and food conglomerates Nestlé and ADM are as bullish as ever on plant-based food, saying that consumer demand and growth potential remain strong. While a test run of the Beyond Meat McPlant sandwich earlier this year ended as planned, according to the company, analysts who spoke to McDonald’s franchisees reported lackluster demand for the product, which was ultimately not launched nationwide. Impossible Foods’ sausage topping at Little Caesars ran into similar challenges. But the industry still believes in its promise: Taco Bell is testing a carne asada product with Beyond Meat, while Burger King is testing an Impossible chicken sandwich.
The real concern centers on grocery store sales data. US supermarket sales of plant-based meat are indeed stagnant, with no sales growth in 2021 and a slight decline from September 2021 to September 2022, according to an analysis of IRI data by the market research firm 210 Analytics. Number of units sold is down 11 percent during that time period.
But the context is critical: Plant-based meat grocery sales jumped a whopping 45 percent in 2020 as consumers panic-bought groceries and cooked a whole lot more than normal. The 2021 and 2022 slowdown isn’t necessarily stagnation — it just wasn’t possible to sustain that 45 percent growth. Taking a longer view, plant-based meat grocery sales went up 19 percent from 2019 to 2021.
Beyond Meat, in particular, blames its performance on increased competition. When it launched, it had much of the plant-based meat aisle to itself; that’s no longer the case. High inflation is another culprit, which may be causing consumers to cut costs by switching back to animal meat. It tends to be cheaper than plant-based meat due, in large part, to the simple fact that the price of real meat is artificially low because of a lack of labor, environmental, and animal welfare regulations.
Anne-Marie Roerink of 210 Analytics told me over email that lack of repeat purchases may be an even bigger pain point for the plant-meat industry: “[T]he willingness to try plant-based meat has been very high for years, yet we’re not seeing much of a second or especially third purchase rate. And that’s where most of the pressure comes from.”
If the stagnation continues, the sector will be in trouble, but year-to-year sales data for one sliver of the market, especially amid a pandemic, can only tell us so much about the long-term health of a burgeoning industry.
And the US isn’t the center of the meat-free universe. While the McPlant (made with Beyond Meat) didn’t stick on menus in the US, McDonald’s says it is “delighted” with customer demand for the McPlant in Ireland, where it’s a permanent menu item (as well as at McDonald’s in the UK, Austria, and the Netherlands). Beyond Meat also has permanent menu items with Pizza Hut in Canada, Europe, and Latin America.
According to Innova Market Insights, a market research firm, plant-based meat sales are expected to grow 10 to 15 percent in the UK, Germany, China, and the Netherlands from 2021 to 2023.
Beyond Meat will be able to own a niche in the meat-free category since it’ll have the only widely available plant-based steak product, but it may soon have serious competition, as Impossible Foods says a plant-based filet mignon is on the way.
While the Beyond Meat steak tips won’t fulfill cravings for a full-on hunk of steak, a Beyond Meat rib-eye or T-bone may be in the works. “From the beginning, we said if you walk into a butcher shop or if you go to the meat aisle in retail, anything that you see there, [we have] projects that we’re either working on or plan to work on,” says Dariush Ajami, chief innovation officer of Beyond Meat.
Roerink says such innovation will be key in maintaining and growing market share: “I think we are much too early in the innovation cycle of plant-based meat to declare them over like I see in many headlines. There are still lots of new players, products, and ingredients entering this space and, importantly, [there’s a] realization that the current items need to deliver better on a cleaner ingredient list and better taste. That means these companies will continue to innovate.”
And given the endless hunger of American consumers for novelty at the grocery aisle and the fast food joint, they had better.
Clarification, 4:50 pm ET: Updated to clarify the aims of the Beyond Meat McPlant sandwich test at McDonald’s.