Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have found success with realistic plant-based burgers. Now, they hope to replicate that in the rapidly growing but crowded market for plant-based chicken nuggets.
Beyond Meat announced Monday that its new bean-based offerings will go on sale in U.S. grocery stores in October. Walmart, Jewel-Osco and Harris Teeter will be among the first to offer them.
Impossible Foods began selling its soy-based nuggets this month at Walmart, Kroger, Albertsons and other grocery stores. They will be in 10,000 stores by the end of the year.
Rival startups, both based in California, helped redefine what plant-based burgers could be. Beyond burgers were the first to hit grocery store aisles alongside conventional meat in 2016; Impossible burgers joined them a few years later.
But this time, Beyond and Impossible will be stacked in freezers already packed with plant-based chicken options. More than 50 brands of plant-based nuggets, fillets and chops are already on sale in U.S. stores, according to the Good Food Institute, which tracks plant-based brands.
Some, like Morningstar Farms and Quorn, have been making plant-based meat for decades. But Beyond and Impossible have also spawned a host of imitators making realistic products marketed to omnivores, not just vegans and vegetarians. Fifteen percent of those 50 brands were new to the U.S. market in 2020, such as Nuggs, from New York-based startup Simulate, and Daring Foods from California.
They are all trying to grab a share of the plant-based market, which is still eclipsed by the conventional meat market but is growing rapidly. U.S. sales of frozen plant-based chicken fillets and nuggets jumped 29% to $ 112 million in the 52 weeks ending Aug. 28, according to Nielsen IQ. Sales of conventional frozen fillets and nuggets increased 17% to $ 1.1 billion during the same period.
Globally, retail sales of meat substitutes are expected to increase by 2% to 4.6 million metric tonnes between 2021 and 2022, according to market research firm Euromonitor. Sales of processed animal meat are expected to remain stable over the same period at 18.9 million metric tonnes.
Tom Rees, an industry manager at Euromonitor, said sales of plant-based meat were already increasing before the coronavirus hit. In Euromonitor surveys, nearly a quarter of consumers around the world say they limit their meat consumption for health reasons.
But the pandemic gave plant-based meat a boost as consumers searched for new things to cook at home. Rees said meat shortages and coronavirus outbreaks at meat production facilities have also made consumers think twice about the animal meat market.
Meat or no meat, breaded nuggets aren’t exactly a healthy food. One serving of Beyond Chicken Fillets contains 12 grams of fat, 450 milligrams of sodium, 11 grams of protein and 210 calories. Impossible Nuggets contain 10 grams of fat, 320 milligrams of sodium, 10 grams of protein and 200 calories. In comparison, a similar-sized serving of Pilgrim’s Chicken Nuggets contains 14 grams of fat, 10 grams of protein, 460 milligrams of sodium, and 220 calories.
Impossible Foods vice president of product innovation Celeste Holz-Schietinger said it was important to start with plant-based burgers because beef production contributes more to climate change. But Impossible has spent the last year expanding the herbal offerings with the aim of replacing all animal agriculture with more sustainable alternatives by 2035.
Beyond Meat has been experimenting with chicken for even longer. The California-based El Segundo company launched chicken strips in 2012. But it pulled them off the market in 2019, citing the need to devote more manufacturing capacity to its burgers.
Unlike the new bean-based offerings, Beyond’s burgers are made with pea protein. Beyond President and CEO Ethan Brown said the company had spent more than a decade researching various protein sources and their attributes and didn’t want to limit themselves to just one.
Dariush Ajami, Beyond’s chief innovation officer, said imitating the fibrous texture and fat distribution in chicken was the biggest challenge with the new tenders. The company is still a long way from perfecting a plant-based chicken breast or marbled steak, but 200 scientists and engineers are working on it, he said.
“The aim is to reduce this gap between our product and animal meat,” he said.
There is also a price difference. Beyond Meat’s suggested retail price for an 8-ounce pack is $ 4.99, while Impossible’s 13.5-ounce pack costs $ 7.99. Tyson Foods sells a 2-pound bag of chicken nuggets at Walmart for $ 5.76.
But it is clear that many people are eager to try plant-based foods. In July, Panda Express quickly sold Beyond Meat orange chicken during a trial run at locations in Los Angeles and New York. Panda Express says it is exploring a wider rollout of the product, which has been specially developed for the brand.
Jasmine Alkire recently tried Beyond Meat Orange Chicken on a Panda Express in Los Angeles. Alkire went vegetarian seven years ago, but Beyond chicken tasted similar to the orange chicken she ate growing up.
“It was tasty and didn’t have a weird aftertaste or off-putting texture,” she said.
For now, Beyond Meat has several advantages. It has partnerships with big brands like KFC and McDonald’s and has already opened its first manufacturing facility in China, where Impossible products are yet to be sold.
Impossible is still waiting for regulatory approval to sell its burgers in Europe and China because they contain genetically modified ingredients. But Impossible’s Chicken doesn’t contain those same ingredients. Both companies plan to sell their chicken overseas.
Impossible is convinced that consumers will be drawn to its nuggets. In company taste tests, it was found that most consumers preferred its product to real chicken.
“It’s better for you, it’s better for the environment, and it’s better than animals,” said Dennis Woodside, President of Impossible Foods. “So we think that’s a pretty strong value proposition.”
Other brands insist that they will defend their territory. Morningstar Farms, the current market leader in plant-based poultry in the United States, launched a separate brand called Incogmeato in 2019 with products that closely mimic meat.
Sara Young, general manager of plant protein at Kellogg Co., owner of Morningstar, said the brand has the largest product portfolio and the highest repeat buyer rate in the plant-based category.
“We’ve been on this for a long time,” she said.
Terence Chea contributed from Redwood City, California.