I was excited when my wife brought home Beyond Burgers the other night, but I was soon crestfallen (don’t tell her this) when I saw that they were the old recipe of Beyond Burgers. That version of Beyond Burgers was fine — enough to get me into the plant-based burgers in the first place, but the new recipe the company released earlier this year, is so. much. better.
Because my wife doesn’t write about food tech for a living, she was probably unaware that there even are multiple versions of Beyond Meat at the market. Why should she be? Food is typically food. You have your list, you go to the grocery store, put your items in the cart without looking at them too carefully, and bring them home.
But 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.
This was fully apparent when I visited the Beyond Meat R&D facility down in Los Angeles last year. Teams of scientists were putting the company’s patties through various machines, simulations and tests, all to find the right combination of ingredients to create the optimal elasticity, flavor, texture and more of meat.
Beyond Meat certainly isn’t alone in its constant state of iteration. Impossible Foods was the belle of the ball at CES this past January as it launched a new recipe for its heme-burger. Like Beyond, Impossible will continue to improve its recipes even after it comes to retail next month. And the recipe tinkering won’t end this year, or with Beyond and Impossible. Nestlé is already revamping its Incredible Burger, Rebellyous is sure to improve upon its fake chicken nuggets, Omnipork will update its plant-pork, and JUST is always exploring new ways to make its mung-bean eggs (let’s not even get into the cultured meat that will make its way to market in a few years).
It’s not hard to see why there is so much recipe tweaking. First, plant-based meat companies like Beyond and Impossible are trying to do something that hadn’t really been done before. Instead of offering a veggie alternative to meat like a black bean burger or portabello mushroom “patty,” they are trying to re-create meat from the ground up. There wasn’t a playbook to go by, and the chances that they would get it perfect right out of the gate were pretty slim.
The new version of Beyond Meat (and the sister product, Beyond Beef ground) is so much better than the first version. At least for meat eaters and flexitarians who were looking for something like meat, but less ethically and environmentally complicated. As Beyond and Impossible spend more on research and development, they will uncover new ingredients, new combinations and new manufacturing techniques to make their products even better and tastier. (For more check out our interview with Impossible CEO Pat Brown.)
The same can’t be said for traditional animal meat. Sure, there will be varying degrees of quality, but beef is going to always taste and feel like beef, chicken like chicken and pork like pork. The cow (or pig or chicken) is not going to become a different animal.
Of course, this is part of the appeal of meat — you pretty much know what you’re going to get, and you will always know how to cook it. The same can’t be said for plant-based proteins, which will undergo constant tweaking. With these new iterations comes the chance that Beyond and Impossible will forget that perfect is the enemy of the good, and they will keep messing with it to create the Windows Me of plant-based meat: a recipe foisted upon the consumer that is just… awful.
But unlike software, there is no “Umami patch” that can be downloaded to the patties on store shelves to correct an off flavor. Think: New Coke, but only much more complicated. Coke, however, only had to deal with flavor, plant-based proteins need to have not just the right flavor but texture and appealing looks as well. A misstep could result in entire production runs being scrapped and new marketing campaigns to bring people back to a brand.
All of this tweaking and recipe improvement also plays into the criticism that plant-based proteins are too processed. It’s not hard to imagine critics already lined up against plant-based proteins to point fingers at scientists in white coats and petrie dishes creating “meat” in sterile lab environments. Animals, on the other hand, are familiar and all natural (well, in theory, I don’t think anyone would argue that factory farming of meat is in any way natural).
Aside from market realities and public perception though, I’m most fascinated by food as software because it represents a whole new way of thinking about food itself. The basic building blocks of our meals can be improved upon, resulting in new flavors and textures that we never even considered.
The natural endpoint for all this goes way beyond, well, Beyond, and the way we think of food now. At some point food will literally become software that is beamed to your 3D food printer, where meals that match you precise flavor and dietary needs are extruded directly onto your plate.
But until that day comes, just pay attention to the label to make sure you are buying the correct, that is, the newest, version of that plant-based burger.