Finding “fake” meat isn’t a problem these days. Grocery stores are packed with the stuff. The bodega around the block sells it. Hell, even Ikea introduced a vegan Swedish meatball in response to customer feedback about healthier café food.
Trouble is, most of these options are poor substitutes for the real deal, and they’re not doing much to persuade the everyman to go vegetarian or vegan.
Which brings us to Leonardo DiCaprio.
This week, the Hollywood star and active environmentalist announced his involvement as an investor in Beyond Meat, a startup that’s using pea protein to create burger patties. Bill Gates is also an investor, and the move makes sense for Leo, whose list of environmentally focused causes and companies keeps growing. He’s already an investor in LoveTheWild, a sustainable seafood company, as well as plant-based snack maker Hippeas. And there’s his own foundation, too. “Shifting from animal meat to the plant-based meats developed by Beyond Meat is one of the most powerful measures someone can take to reduce their impact on our climate,” he said in a statement.
He’s actually been giving Beyond Meat feedback on their products since the company’s earliest days. But the financial backing should help Beyond as it moves to get its products into more locations and convince the general populace that alternative-meat can maintain taste as well as your reputation at the tailgate party.
To that end, company website claims their burger, “looks, cooks, and satisfies so much like beef that it’s in the meat section of grocery stores.” One reporter went as far as to document her experience cooking and eating a Beyond burger, and had mostly pleasing results.
Where a lot of meat alternatives use grain, soy, or seitan for their products, Beyond, along with a few other companies, looks to provide an option that’s still rich in things like iron and protein, and, most important, mimics the taste and texture of real beef.
That latter fact could prove to be a really big differentiator as the food industry continues to search for ways of making the most iconic American dish more sustainable. There’s overwhelming evidence that beef production is irrevocably hurting the environment. The EWG estimates that beef (along with lamb) puts out 10 to 40 times as many greenhouse gas emissions as grains and vegetables. Meanwhile, methane from cattle generates 20 percent of all U.S. methane emissions.
Despite all that, beef remains in high-demand. And that’s what makes companies like Beyond Meat potentially so exciting. They’re not just producing another version of the veggie patty; they’re trying to stay sustainable and satisfy public tastes at the same time. Their products are an actual alternative, rather than a mediocre substitute. Even TGI Fridays thinks so.
Impossible Foods is another company experimenting with plant-based beef substitutes. Their mission is similar to Beyond’s: provide a more sustainable way for people to enjoy meat. They also announced $75 million in funding earlier this year.
Impossible is currently focused on getting into more restaurants, which leaves the retail sector mostly to Beyond. The Beyond Meat burger is the first of the company’s products to sit alongside actual meat at the grocery store, which is another big step towards convincing skeptical consumers that meatless, er, meat is an enticing alternative.
And that’s probably going to be the biggest challenge for companies building a business model on alternative-meat. Until consumers can be motivated to change their outlook and behavior, meat substitutes, whether plant-based or made in a lab, will get bypassed by more consumers than not.
Of course, history is full of technologies and innovations that were initially met with skepticism and are now all the rage. (Hi, Tesla.) The same may prove true for startups like Beyond Meat. And getting high-profile celebrities like Leo involved is definitely a start when it comes to influencing consumer choices.