Nosh Box: Burgers Don’t Grow on Trees — Yet

Food trends for the year explained, and they’re mostly meatless.


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Impossible Foods’ heart and brains may be in Redwood City, but in 2017 the Stanford bio-chem prof located production facilities on 85th Avenue in the heart of Oakland’s industrial neighborhood.

Sarah Stierch

April is the month when the soil warms, seeds sprout, flowers bloom, and vegetation shoot upwards, increasing our awareness of the presence and importance of plants in our lives.

This story actually starts long before spring, as far back as 2009, but the imprints were all over the recent massive Winter Fancy Food Show that wrapped up at January’s end. Like drinking from a firehose, that conference showcased about 1,500 business that offered 81,000 specialty foods and beverages to sample in three days. But far more than an exercise in gluttony, the event is a study in food-trend spotting.

 

Our Food Horoscope: When the Plants Align

Current consumer focus on wellness, ketogenic eating, and meat-substitute products was reflected everywhere: in breakout session, selections, and displays. Plant-based foods were in abundance like avocado tea; gluten-free breads; vegan, lactose-free butter — with opposition from the dairy industry; and meat-like patties produced from plants and grains — or from our fungus favorite: mushrooms.

 

Another California-Born Trend

It started in the Golden State, where plant-based meat patties broke trail for commercial acceptance.

Impossible Foods: Impossible Foods’ CEO Patrick Brown created the signature product, the Impossible Burger, and Impossible Foods’ heart and brains may be in Redwood City, but in 2017 the Stanford bio-chem prof located production facilities on 85th Avenue in the heart of Oakland’s industrial neighborhood. There it remains today, producing 1-million pounds of substitute ground-meats monthly.

It didn’t take long for the patties to move from the laboratory to fast-food chains to commercial restaurants, and eventually to the supermarket chains supplying residential kitchens. In addition to the ground beef simulant, the firm is also producing ground pork and ground sausage imitations for restaurants and pizzerias. Today, Impossible products may be substituted in any recipe calling for ground meat. Taste one at Grandeur, Vegan Mob, or Town Square Eats in Oakland.

Beyond Meat: Tracing its California roots back to 2009, Beyond Meat offers two main products, the Beyond Chicken and Beyond Meat burger patty. The addition of the Beast Burger and three sausage varieties marked attempts to recover from its also-ran position in the national fast-food arena. Supporting buy-ins from chains like McDonald’s, Carl’s Jr., and KFC stoke the flames of domestic sales, while international distribution goes well in Asia, Germany, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Looking ahead, the company opened a 26,000-square foot R&D lab employing more than 100 workers in El Segundo in 2018.

This is isn’t a fad or blip on the food fashion cycle. According to Eater, “In the next 10 years, the alternative meat industry could be worth $140 billion. We won’t just see chicken nuggets, hot dogs, and hamburgers replaced with plant-based alternatives: Impossible and Beyond want to replicate full cuts of steak and poultry.” Try these substitutes locally at TGI Fridays, Black Bear Diner, or KFC.

 

Aping the 600-Pound Gorillas

Now with the technologies refined, public acceptance established, an experienced work force, and commercial markets burgeoning, pioneer underlings of the initial startups are branching out on their own.

Before the Butcher: Founded by Danny O’Malley in 2019, like his two major predecessors, he headquartered his plant-based meat business in California. He chose the San Diego and set his sights on the markets developed by Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. However, major market penetration remains in Southern California.
The initial product line included three plant-based burgers and meatless breakfast sausages. One objective was to reduce the cost of plant-based protein, while touting the health benefits of a meat-free diet. They claim to be gluten free, GMO free, and totally vegan. While not certified organic, the main source of protein is non-GMO soy.

Eclipse Foods: This is yet another chapter in the plant-based foods market with a California origin that takes a dairy-product focus: ice cream. Founded in Berkeley in 2019 by Aylon Steinhart, CEO, and Chief Technology Officer Thomas Bowman, yhe product line includes a liquid soft-serve base and frozen tubs of chocolate and vanilla. The brand name is Eclipse Ice Cream, which the compnay describe as “… cowlessly creamy.” While not widely distributed, you can taste the flavors at Milkbomb Ice Cream in Berkeley and Mitchell’s Ice Cream in SF.

 

What the Next Step Might Be

But public acceptance and success doesn’t mean universal approval. Dissidents complain that this new food genre is highly processed and over-engineered. They respond with competitive entries stressing, qualities like “organic,” “natural,” and “whole-food” ingredients.

For another approach, according to an NPR story on “KQED Food,” Memphis Meats, a Berkeley startup, is “… one step closer to bringing cell-based meat to consumers’ mouths.” The process starts with selecting specific animal cells that can grow to become meat using a cultivator — analogous to how brewers grow yeast cells to produce beer.

But the firm faces three major hurdles in bringing cell-based meats to market: high production costs; joint labeling, regulation, and inspection by both USDA and US Food & Drug Administraiton; and 27 existing cell-based meat and seafood competitors around the globe.

Meanwhile across the bay in Dogpatch, Endless West is concocting alcoholic wine and spirits by combining their molecular components, absent processes of fermentation and distillation. And farewell to the long, slow, natural way.

Will these molecular trends catch hold? If their popularity progresses as fast as the plant-based products, maybe we’ll measure the impact of both at next January’s Fancy Food Show.