Photo: Planted.

When you consider what goes into making plant-based meats, generally the thing that comes to mind is, well, plants. But take a closer look at the ingredient list of most meatless meats, and you’ll typically see a long list of other ingredients, including protein isolates, stabilizers, natural flavors, and other add-ins like dye and minerals.

That lengthy ingredient list is one of skeptics’ biggest beefs (sorry) with the new wave of meatless proteins. But one company trying to address those concerns is Swiss startup Planted, whose realistic meat analogs are completely clean label — no artificial ingredients or synthetic chemicals. They’re starting with chicken.

In a phone conversation this week, Planted co-founder Pascal Bieri told me his company’s products only contain four ingredients: pea protein, pea fiber, sunflower oil, and water. When Bieri first tasted plant-based meat two years ago, he liked it but was confused as to why the ingredient list was so long and confusing. So he and co-founders Lukas Böni and Eric Stirnemann, through a partnership with Swiss university ETH Zurich, began to develop a plant-based chicken analog with the absolute minimum of ingredients.

Planted’s first product is about as pared-down as it gets: a chicken chunk. They currently sell to 17 restaurants in Switzerland and next month will announce a partnership with a local foodservice provider to expand their distribution. The chicken chunks are currently priced below organic chicken, though Bieri pointed out that poultry is actually quite expensive in Switzerland.

No matter how simple the ingredient list, Bieri knew he’d never get people to buy his product if it didn’t taste excellent. With that in mind, Planted focuses less on flavor — the company keeps products intentionally neutral so they can be a blank canvas, sort of like real chicken — but on texture. To do so, Planted uses a special machine to extrude “chicken” pieces that realistically mimic the fibrous texture of real poultry.

Planted still does all its R&D and production at ETH Zurich, which, due to the university’s space limitations, strictly limits their capacity. The Swiss company is currently searching for a separate manufacturing facility around Zurich so they can scale up production and provide to more restaurants and retailers. He said they’ll probably focus on Europe for a while, especially since, as he put it, “Europeans are a little more skeptical when it comes to long ingredient lists.”

I haven’t tasted Bieri’s products yet and likely won’t be able to anytime soon, unless a very odd twist of fate sends me to Switzerland. But I can say that Planted’s choice to focus on chicken is a solid strategy. As we covered in yesterday’s Future Food newsletter (you subscribe, right?), the plant-based chicken space is far less crowded than, say, plant-based burgers or hot dogs.

Bieri is very conscious of the opportunity. “There’s so much room out there,” he said, referencing the alternative chicken market. Now he’s hoping Planted’s realistic texture and clean-label approach can help the company stake their claim before the plant-based chicken space is too pecked-over.

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