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Greetings! I’m writing this week’s newsletter from the Good Food Conference — the place where all the cool kids in the alternative protein space gather to network, listen to panels on plant- and cell-based meat, dairy, and eggs and sample all the latest alt-protein treats. It’s a madcap ride fueled by plant-based breakfast burritos (verdict: amazing) and lots of coffee.

I attended the first Good Food Conference last year, when it was a relatively intimate gathering of folks in the plant-based and cell-based meat space — a lot of startups and academics. Stepping into the event this year, I was blown away by how quickly it has grown. In terms of audience and venue size, sure — but also in terms of legitimacy. Here are a few things I noticed:

Playing with the big boys

Last year’s attendees and speakers consisted mostly startups and a few investors. This year, however, representatives from Big Food companies JBS, Perdue, and ADM all took the stage to talk about why they were interested in getting in on the alt-meat revolution.

“We are the biggest protein company and will remain the biggest protein company,” said Christy Lebor, the Global Innovation Lead for JBS, on the conference stage. “If plant-based is what it takes then we’ll do that.”

When I asked Bruce Friedrich, co-founder and executive director of the event’s organizer the Good Food Institute, why he thought there was all this new interest. He pointed to Beyond’s success on the stock market and the popularity of the Impossible Whopper as reasons why major food companies — and specifically meat companies — are waking up to the value of participating in a conference so blatantly focused on their disruption.

Friedrich welcomes these companies to join the conversation. “I don’t think anything is more exciting than getting Big Meat and Big Food to invest in plant-based proteins and cultivated meat,” he told me. After all, in order for meat alternatives to go mainstream big companies have to get involved: they have the power to manufacture plant-based meats on a massive scale, distribute them widely, and sell them at a low price point.

Next year he expects Big Meat to have an even larger presence. “I feel like we will make more inroads into the meat industry,” Friedrich said. “They’ll feel like they should have been here this year and they’ll want to be on the dais next year.”

Growth mindset

Eclipse’s plant-based softserve.

The alternative protein companies themselves are also growing and improving rapidly. Since last year’s event, both Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have come out with versions 2.0 of their plant-based burgers, which we all agree are massive improvements.

At the event I tasted Eclipse’s plant-based soft serve, which I thought was a significant step up from the last time I tried their ice cream just a few months ago. JUST’s new animal-free egg, which they launched this spring, was also much improved. Next up, a team member told me they’re going to add more sulfur in a play to appeal to Asian consumers, who apparently like the taste.

Sampling these new-and-improved products made me think about a concept my colleague Chris Albrecht wrote about last week:

Plant-based foods, especially those that aim to re-create the look and feel of animal meat, are ushering in a new era, one where new versions of the product are constantly being tweaked, updated, and released. In short, we are entering an era where food is becoming more like software.

Based on what I’ve seen at the conference that certainly seems to be the case. And it’s not just about taste — health is also becoming more and more of a priority for meat alternatives, especially since they’ve been getting serious flack lately by critics who say that their high levels of fat, calories, and sodium make them unhealthy.

As they iterate, scientists will likely be able to find ways to cut down on the sodium, saturated fat, and other health concerns in meatless burgers and more. Heck, they could theoretically tweak fake meat’s entire nutritional profile to make it actually good for you and still taste delicious. After all, plant-based meat can constantly be improved — the cow can not.

Who will be the next Beyond Meat?

Atlast Food Co.’s mycelium scaffolding for meat alternatives

One of the most exciting parts of the entire conference was the startup pitch sessions. We heard from a company making actually delicious plant-based bacon, mushroom root scaffolding for cultured meat, 3D printed vegan steak, vegan chicken nuggets and a jackfruit-based meat alternative.

Some of the ideas seemed a little far out. But as the moderator, Brian Cooley from CNET, noted, it’s the out-there startups that are the ones that are the next Impossible Foods and Beyond Meats.

In fact, the success of those two companies is what’s really behind a lot of the growth and energy at the Good Food Conference. Everyone is hungry to make the next meat alternative to hit it big — or to invest in it.

While the high levels of interest certainly make for an exciting event, it also makes me wonder if we’ll soon hit a point of market saturation. Okay, there’s not a really good plant-based bacon option out there right now. Or a company 3D printing steak. So there’s definitely room for new products and innovative production methods.

But what about next year? As more startups and Big Food companies try to cash in on the popularity of meat alternatives, the space could become so crowded that it’ll be nearly impossible (ha!) for new players to enter the plant-based space at all. Certainly it’ll become incredibly difficult to strike gold the way that Beyond did.

Then again, consumer interest in the alt-meat space shows no signs of waning. And as cell-based meat heads onto the scene we’ll see a whole new vertical ripe for innovation.

You can bet I’ll be there next year to report on it.

Photo: Integriculture

Protein ’round the web

That’s it from me this week! I’m off to go see what kind of plant-based snacks are hanging around the conference — here’s hoping.

Eat well,

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