June 14, 2012 -- In San Francisco, where so many food trends start, fake chicken is flying out the door. At Whole Foods in the Haight-Ashbury, a week's supply of the new meat-substitute, called Beyond Meat, sold out in two days. Nor was that an isolated case. Other Whole Foods in the city are reporting the same phenomenon.
"We're a little taken aback," says the chain's Northern California coordinator for prepared foods, Mathew Mestemacher. "The response is overwhelming."
In Los Angeles, Ashley Wilson calls the fake fowl amazing. The 27-year old video editor says she has been eating vegan for three years and knows every meat substitute on the market. Complains she, "I've eaten a lot of fake meats, and you can always taste the science." This new one is different. "It's clean; there's no weird, processed taste." The texture, too, is correct: pulled apart, it's stringy—like chicken. She intends to recommend it to her meat-eating friends.
Ethan Brown, founder the company that makes the pseudo-chicken (both company and product are named Beyond Meat) says his technology can fabricate beef or pork or fish. "Chicken just happened to be our first product." He hopes his chicken will be the breakout product in a sleepy niche--meat alternatives. The $340 million market, according to research firm Mintel, is growing at 3 percent and 5 percent a year.
Brown is gunning for meat-lovers who want a healthier alternative. His "chicken" has no animal fat, no steroids, no hormones, no antibiotics. It's gluten-free. All it has is vegetable protein. A mixture consisting of mostly soy and pea powder, carrot fiber and gluten-free flour is subjected to heat, cold and pressure, then extruded into strips. The process, says Brown, "takes plant proteins and re-aligns them to mimic the appearance and the mouth-feel of animal proteins." Two professors at the University of Missouri worked on it for 10 years. Brown has an exclusive license.
So convincing is the faux chicken that it fooled Mark Bittman, food columnist for the New York Times.
Bittman, in a March 11 column, recounted how Brown's product fooled him "badly" in a blind tasting. Slice some up and put it in a burrito, wrote Bittman, and you wouldn't know the difference: "I didn't, at least, and this is the kind of thing I do for a living."
Moreover, it's cheap. According to Bittman, some fake meats sell for upwards of $12 a pound. Beyond Meat can sell for less than that and less than chicken. Says Brown, "Our goal is to have the price be at the lower end of other meat-substitutes and below the price of meat."
Whole Foods is still fiddling with price, but for now is selling chicken salads made with Beyond Meat at $12 to $14 a pound. In coming weeks, they intend to sell the product on its own, like chicken breasts, probably priced the same as chicken.
Neither Whole Foods nor Brown nor Bittman claims the product's taste is indistinguishable from the real thing.
Eaten plain (rather than as part of a prepared dish), Beyond Meat's flavor isn't much, writes Bittman. But, he goes on to argue, today the taste of real white meant chicken isn't much, either, so, "That's hardly a problem." He pronounces Brown's version a "better-than-adequate" substitute in wraps, salads and sauces.
At the moment, the only places you can buy Beyond Meat are at Whole Foods' northern California stores and at Roots Market in western Maryland. How soon other Whole Foods will carry it, says Mestemacher, depends on demand: It could be two months, it could be six. "But if we continue to see this kind of excitement," he says, "We're not going to wait two months to roll it out. It could be two weeks."
Come fall, says Brown, he hopes to have a second product ready: fake beef.