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BurgerFuel’s Alternative Muscle burger (Photo: Supplied)
BurgerFuel’s Alternative Muscle burger (Photo: Supplied)

KaiNovember 22, 2019

More than meats the eye: The unstoppable rise of alternative protein

BurgerFuel’s Alternative Muscle burger (Photo: Supplied)
BurgerFuel’s Alternative Muscle burger (Photo: Supplied)

Like it or not, plant-based meats are coming to a burger near you. Does this spell the end for animal agriculture, or just a shift in attitudes?

This fake meat business might seem like a hot new trend, but China has been doing it for 1000 years or so. Mock meat, or fanghun, was developed by vegetarian Buddhist monks to cater to monastery visitors who expected the meaty delights they were used to.

What’s new is the technology used to create plant-based products that replicate the experience of eating meat at a whole different level. This new generation of meatless meats is targeted not so much at vegetarians but at omnivores who are keen to eat less meat for environmental, animal rights and/or health reasons.

These products are made by isolating proteins from various plants, which food science advances in recent years have made easier and more successful. Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods led the charge, launching on the American market in 2013 and 2016 respectively. You might remember the Impossible Burger, which is made from soy and potato proteins and sunflower and coconut oils, provoking outrage in some quarters last year when Air New Zealand announced it would be served on certain business class flights. Its secret is the use of heme, a naturally occurring molecule that’s a key factor in how meat behaves. The Silicon Valley startup developed a plant-based version using genetically engineered yeast, which gives its patties that “bloody” taste of real meat, and in January this year launched its 2.0 version, which is now served in 5000 restaurants in the US.

While the plant-based revolution has been fomenting for a few years now, 2019 is when alternative meat well and truly hit the mainstream. After trialling it in St Louis in April, Burger King has now launched its Impossible Whopper, using the aforementioned heme-containing product, across America, following in the footsteps of a string of other burger chains. (McDonald’s, interestingly, is dragging the chain, announcing in September it would trial a burger made with Beyond Meat patties in selected Canadian stores only).

Beyond Meat floated on the stock exchange in May, soaring 163% on its first day of trading. Impossible, meanwhile, remains private but has raised more than US$750 million, attracting celebrity investors including Jay-Z, Serena Williams and Katy Perry. Barclays analysts have predicted alternative meat will be a US$160 billion industry within the next decade. In the US, the big meat companies, the very same the alternative meat industry is said to threaten, have even joined the party.

NZ-made Sunfed chicken-free chicken tandoori kebabs (Photo: Facebook/Sunfed Meats)

Here in New Zealand, we’re well on board the alternative meat train, with local companies like the hugely successful Sunfed and Dunedin’s Craft Meat Co in recent years joining the more traditional vegetarian products of local companies like Tonzu and Bean Supreme. There’s no word of the big American burger chains bringing their overseas alt meat options to their New Zealand branches yet, but homegrown company BurgerFuel is way ahead of them. It’s had vegetarian and vegan options on the menu since the early days, and in May this year launched Beyond Beleaf, a limited-edition meat-free mini beef burger using the famous Beyond patty.

Feedback from customers was that they wanted more. “We identified the need to explore alternative meats and plant-based options further, to bring more options to our customers who were calling out for it,” says BurgerFuel’s food and menu development manager Chris Mills. “Also, there was an overwhelming response that customers wanted another meat-free burger, but on a bigger bun, so we gave it to them and this time using a supplier from across the ditch.”

The result is the Alternative Muscle, a meat-free take on the much-loved American Muscle cheeseburger made with The Alternative Meat Co’s plant-based patty, a “new generation” meatless meat product that has just launched in New Zealand. The company is owned by Life Health Foods, Australasia’s largest vegetarian food manufacturer, and the patty is made with soy, wheat and pea protein, with beetroot juice adding a “meaty” colour. 

Mills says the burger is targeted at flexitarians and “reducetarians”. “We wanted to cater to those who are wanting to limit their meat intake, but just love a good BurgerFuel cheeseburger and our smashed juicy New Zealand beef patties.

“The American Muscle Single is a go-to for a lot of customers and this could mean an easy transition for those who are curious to try a meat-free burger, but don’t want to compromise on the taste or step too far out of their comfort zone,” Mills adds. “Offering the original version with cheddar and free-range BurgerFuel aioli also adds to the familiarity of the experience.” The Alternative Meat patty is cooked alongside other proteins, but a vegan version is also available for a small extra cost – it’s cooked separately and served with vegan aioli and vegan provolone.

The Spinoff's Simon Day, wide-mouthed and preparing to absolutely go to town on BurgerFuel's Alternative Muscle burger.
The Spinoff’s Simon Day tucks into BurgerFuel’s Alternative Muscle burger (Photo: Millicent Austin)

At $16.90, the Alternative Muscle is $5 more than the American Muscle burger that it emulates. “Alternative Meat products are still in the infancy or seeding stage and tend to cost a lot more until the demand grows and they become more mainstream,” says Mills. “We want to present these types of innovative products to the market and to our customers now, when the demand is there. 

“BurgerFuel is incurring the cost and taking a risk with this product. If people get involved and purchase these specials, it means we can continue to push boundaries and bring innovative and trending products to the market.”

If predictions are anything to go by, boundaries will be pushed even further in years to come. Plant-based meats will continue their foray into the mainstream, and technological advances will make them even closer to the real thing. Then there’s what’s known as cell-based, cultured or lab-grown meat – that is meat grown from real animal cells, which is not on the market yet, but has the potential to shake up the US$1.8 trillion global meat industry like never before. 

It’s hard to argue that change isn’t needed. Meat and dairy production uses 83% of the world’s farmland and produces 60% of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions, while providing just 18% of calories and 37% of protein. What’s more, global meat consumption is increasing, which scientists predict will have a devastating environmental impact. In New Zealand, we’re among the world’s biggest meat eaters. Meat consumption has stayed at roughly the same levels over the last 15 years, though people are eating more chicken and pork and less beef and lamb. 

Research suggests attitudes are changing, if not actual behaviour just yet. A recent Colmar Brunton survey commissioned by Life Health Foods showed that one in three New Zealanders were consciously limiting their meat consumption or not eating it at all. More than six in 10 had tried or were interested in trying the new generation of plant-based meat products. 

So will meat eating become the new cigarette smoking, its adherents increasingly ostracised? That might be a bit extreme, but Impossible Foods founder Pat Brown has said he wants to see an end to all animal agriculture by 2035. 

There has been pushback, of course: business-backed politicians lobbying for bans on plant-based products using words like “meat” and “milk”; questions raised over the processed nature and health credentials of meatless meat. But demand for plant-based meats is very real, and – if you trust the mounting and increasingly compelling evidence from the world’s top scientists – very necessary.

This content was created in paid partnership with BurgerFuel. Learn more about our partnerships here.

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