I dumped meat a few weeks ago, and it was not an easy breakup. Some of my most treasured moments have involved a deck, a beer, and a cheeseburger. But the more I learned, the more I understood that the relationship wasn’t good for either of us. A few things you should never do if you want to eat factory meat in unconflicted bliss: write a story on water scarcity in the American Southwest; Google “How much shit is in my hamburger?”; watch an undercover video of a slaughterhouse in action; and read the 2009 Worldwatch Institute report “Livestock and Climate Change.”
I did them all. And that was that. By then I knew that with every burger I consumed, I was helping to suck America’s rivers dry, munching on a fecal casserole seasoned liberally with E. coli, passively condoning an orgy of torture that would make Hannibal Lecter blanch, and accelerating global warming as surely as if I’d plowed my Hummer into a solar installation. We all needed to kick the meat habit, starting with me.
Yet previous attempts had collapsed in the face of time-sucking whole-food preparation and cardboard-scented tofu products. All the veggie burgers I knew of seemed to come in two flavors of unappealing: the brown-rice, high-carb, nap-inducing mush bomb, and the colon-wrecking gluten chew puck. Soylent? In your pasty dreams. If I couldn’t have meat, I needed something damn close. A high-performance, low-commitment protein recharge, good with Budweiser.
I took long, moody walks on the dirt roads near my Vermont house. I passed my neighbor’s farm. One of his beef cattle stepped up to the fence and gazed at me. My eyes traced his well-marbled flanks and meaty chest. I stared into those bottomless brown eyes. “I can’t quit you,” I whispered to him.
But I did. Not because my willpower suddenly rose beyond its default Lebowski setting, but because a box arrived at my door and made it easy.
Inside were four quarter-pound brown patties. I tossed one on the grill. It hit with a satisfying sizzle. Gobbets of lovely fat began to bubble out. A beefy smell filled the air. I browned a bun. Popped a pilsner. Mustard, ketchup, pickle, onions. I threw it all together with some chips on the side and took a bite. I chewed. I thought. I chewed some more. And then I began to get excited about the future.
It was called the Beast Burger, and it came from a Southern California company called Beyond Meat, located a few blocks from the ocean. At that point, the Beast was still a secret, known only by its code name: the Manhattan Beach Project. I’d had to beg Ethan Brown, the company’s 43-year-old CEO, to send me a sample.
And it was vegan. “More protein than beef,” Brown told me when I rang him up after tasting it. “More omegas than salmon. More calcium than milk. More antioxidants than blueberries. Plus muscle-recovery aids. It’s the ultimate performance burger.”
“How do you make it so meat-like?” I asked.
“It is meat,” he replied enigmatically. “Come on out. We’ll show you our steer.”
Beyond Meat HQ was a brick warehouse located a stone’s throw from Chevron’s massive El Segundo refinery, which hiccuped gray fumes into the clear California sky. “Old economy, new economy,” Brown said as we stepped inside. Two-dozen wholesome millennials tapped away at laptops on temporary tables in the open space, which looked remarkably like a set that had been thrown together that morning for a movie about startups. Bikes and surfboards leaned in the corners. In the test kitchen, the Beyond Meat chef, Dave Anderson—former celebrity chef to the stars and cofounder of vegan-mayo company Hampton Creek—was frying experimental burgers made of beans, quinoa, and cryptic green things.
The “steer” was the only one with its own space. It glinted, steely and unfeeling, in the corner of the lab. It was a twin-screw extruder, the food-industry workhorse that churns out all the pastas and PowerBars of the world. Beyond Meat’s main extruders, as well as its 60 other employees, labor quietly in Missouri, producing the company’s current generation of meat substitutes, but this was the R&D steer. To make a Beast Burger, powdered pea protein, water, sunflower oil, and various nutrients and natural flavors go into a mixer at one end, are cooked and pressurized, get extruded out the back, and are then shaped into patties ready to be reheated on consumers’ grills.
“It’s about the dimensions of a large steer, right?” Brown said to me as we admired it. “And it does the same thing.” By which he meant that plant stuff goes in one end, gets pulled apart, and is then reassembled into fibrous bundles of protein. A steer does this to build muscle. The extruder in the Beyond Meat lab does it to make meat. Not meat-like substances, Brown will tell you. Meat. Meat from plants. Because what is meat but a tasty, toothy hunk of protein? Do we really need animals to assemble it for us, or have we reached a stage of enlightenment where we can build machines to do the dirty work for us?
Livestock, in fact, are horribly inefficient at making meat. Only about 3 percent of the plant matter that goes into a steer winds up as muscle. The rest gets burned for energy, ejected as methane, blown off as excess heat, shot out the back of the beast, or repurposed into non-meat-like things such as blood, bone, and brains. The process buries river systems in manure and requires an absurd amount of land. Roughly three-fifths of all farmland is used to grow beef, although it accounts for just 5 percent of our protein. But we love meat, and with the developing world lining up at the table and sharpening their steak knives, global protein consumption is expected to double by 2050.
That’s what keeps Brown up at night. A six-foot-five, pillar-armed monument to the power of plant protein, with a voice that makes James Earl Jones sound effeminate, he became a vegetarian as a teenager growing up in Washington, D.C., after his family bought a Maryland dairy farm. “I began feeling very uncomfortable in my leather basketball shoes,” he says. “Because I knew the cows. I’d pet them all the time.”
In his twenties he became a vegan. “It wasn’t emotional. It was a question of fairness,” he says. “ ‘Why are we treating our dog so well and not the pig?’ As you get older, you try to become more coherent.” He was already thinking big. “I wanted to start a plant-based McDonald’s.” Instead, he went into the alternative-energy business, working on fuel cells for Vancouver-based Ballard Power Systems. “Somehow energy seemed like a more serious thing to do. But the food idea kept eating at me, until finally I said, ‘You know what, I gotta do this.’ ”
Brown’s aha moment came in 2009, when the Worldwatch Institute published “Livestock and Climate Change,” which carefully assessed the full contribution to greenhouse-gas emissions (GHGs) of the world’s cattle, buffalo, sheep, goats, camels, horses, pigs, and poultry. An earlier report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization had pegged that contribution at 18 percent, worse than cars and trucks. That’s shocking enough, but the Worldwatch study’s authors, two analysts from the World Bank, found that the FAO hadn’t taken into account the CO2 breathed out by our 22 billion livestock animals, the forests being felled to make room for pasture and feed crops, or the total impact of the 103 million tons of methane belched into the air by ruminants each year. When everything was tallied up, Worldwatch estimated, livestock were on the hook for 51 percent of GHGs.
That was all Brown needed to hear to put the plant-based McDonald’s back at the top of his agenda. Forget fuel cells. Forget Priuses. If he could topple Meatworld, he thought, he could stop climate change cold.
Brown’s first breakthrough came when he discovered Fu-Hung Hsieh, a food scientist at the University of Missouri who had perfected a way to turn soy protein into strips that chewed like chicken. (Top secret, can’t tell you, but it has to do with heat, kneading, and cool water.) Brown founded Beyond Meat in 2009, and in 2012, its inaugural product, Beyond Chicken Strips, began wowing the gatekeepers of the food world.
“Most impressive,” said Food Network geek Alton Brown. “It’s more like meat than anything I’ve ever seen that wasn’t meat.”
“Fooled me badly,” Mark Bittman admitted in his New York Times food column. It also fooled Twitter cofounder (and vegan) Biz Stone, so he invested in the company.
So did Bill Gates, whose Gates Foundation backs potentially world-saving innovations. “I tasted Beyond Meat’s chicken alternative,” he wrote online, “and honestly couldn’t tell it from real chicken.” Gates quickly realized the blockbuster potential. “Our approach to food hasn’t changed much over the last 100 years. It’s ripe for reinvention. We’re just at the beginning of enormous innovation.”
Gates sat down with Brown in 2012 and gave him some tips, which the entrepreneur took to heart. As Brown recalls, “He said to me, ‘If you get this thing to cost less than meat, and you get international quickly enough, then this is huge.’ ”
The scalability is there: Beyond Meat’s manufacturing process uses a small fraction of the land, water, energy, crops, and time that making real meat does, and it requires no new technology. And the timing is right. Whole Foods has enthusiastically sold Beyond Chicken Strips, which retail for $5.29 for a nine-ounce bag, from the very beginning. And although Brown wouldn’t disclose sales numbers (“Our competitors definitely make use of this type of information,” he says), Beyond Meat expanded from 1,500 to 6,000 stores in 2014, including mainstreamers like Safeway.
Even the fast-food industry is coming around. When Chipotle added shredded-tofu Sofritas to its burrito options at a few California restaurants in 2013, sales outstripped expectations. Half the Sofritas buyers, Chipotle found, were meat eaters. Chipotle is now rolling them out across the country, the first new item it has added in ten years. One rapidly growing restaurant chain, Veggie Grill, an all-vegan West Coast eatery, offers seemingly familiar fast-food items like Mondo Nachos and Crispy Chickin’ with meat replacements made from soy and gluten.
But you can’t fix climate change with fake chicken. Although the 21 billion cluckers around the world consume vast amounts of crops and choke waterways with their manure, their impact is dwarfed by the 1.5 billion head of cattle. It takes about 9,000 calories of edible feed to produce 1,000 calories of edible chicken and 11,000 calories of feed for 1,000 calories of pork—a far cry from the 36,000 calories required for 1,000 calories of beef. More important, cattle and their ruminant cousins—sheep, goats, buffalo—produce geysers of methane during digestion. One molecule of methane traps 25 times as much heat as a molecule of CO2, so each cow produces the annual GHGs of a car driven about 9,375 miles. Per pound, that’s eight times more than chickens and five times more than pigs.
There are, of course, lots of good arguments for raising cattle sustainably: it’s easier on both the animals and the land. But it’s no solution when it comes to global warming. Grass-fed beef generates significantly more methane and has nearly twice the carbon footprint of its grain-fed kin.
If Brown was going to tackle climate change, he had to hack beef.
Beef flavor has never been all that difficult to approximate—some salt, some aroma molecules, and bingo. The juiciness and the chew are the real challenges. The meat industry acknowledged as much in a 2006 trade publication: “Meat texture is supremely important. Texturized vegetable protein, something that could be quite a commercial threat to us … has, so far, made little impact,” wrote the meat scientist Howard Swatland, author of Meat Cuts and Muscle Foods. “This is because food technologists so far have been unable to extrude their plant proteins into anything resembling real meat. The taste and colour can be faked quite easily, but the texture cannot. In a way, therefore, it is the texture of meat, and the fact that many of our customers love to eat it, that keeps us all in business.”
Muscle is made up of bundles of long, thin fibers wrapped in tough connective tissue, like shrink-wrapped logs. Scattered through the fiber packets are tiny pockets of fat, which the body draws on for energy. A lot of the joy of meat is the feeling of your teeth punching through these bundles, the fat and juice squirting as you chomp.
Plant proteins, on the other hand, are not aligned or bundled. They’re more like random piles of sticks. They have none of the tensile strength or moisture-retention properties of muscle, which is why earlier generations of veggie burgers fell apart and lacked the release of rich, juicy fats. The only exception is gluten, the protein found in wheat, which has some amazing qualities. It forms a spring-like structure that can expand and contract, making dough stretchy and retaining moisture in its matrix of interlinked proteins. But those long proteins also like to curl in on themselves like a nest of snakes, which prevents digestive enzymes from getting at them. When that partially digested gluten makes it into the gut of someone with celiac disease, the immune system mistakes the intact proteins for evil microbes, freaks out, and strafes the intestine with friendly fire. Even those who don’t have an adverse response to wheat often find the concentrated gluten in veggie burgers to be digestively challenging.
For Brown, gluten was out. Also becoming less popular with consumers was phytoestrogen-heavy soy, the other mainstay of both veggie burgers and Beyond Chicken. But top food scientists had labored for years to come up with palatable soy- and gluten-free meat substitutes, with no luck. Plants just didn’t want to be meat.
It was time for a paradigm shift. In the fall of 2013, Brown hired Tim Geistlinger, a biotech rock star who had been working with the Gates Foundation to develop antimalarial drugs and a yeast that makes clean jet fuel out of sugar. Geistlinger fits the Beyond Meat mold: brainiac science geek who bikes on the beach every night and recently completed his first Tough Mudder. (“I was one of the only non-meat-eaters on my team,” Geistlinger says, “but with access to compounds like these, it’s a no-brainer.”)
Geistlinger, chef Dave Anderson, and the other Beyond Meat scientists began a series of marathon sessions in the lab, trying to do what cattle do: transform short plant proteins into long, succulent fibers. Their legume of choice was the yellow pea, whose protein is readily available—both to the body and in the marketplace. Pea starch is used by the food industry as a natural thickener for everything from sauces to deli meats. In the past, after the starch was isolated, the protein was discarded. Win-win.
Pea protein is the new darling of the no-soy health-food set, but it has a powdery mouthfeel and no structural integrity, so it has never starred in its own production. “Without fibers you can have something that’s hard and dry or mushy and wet,” Geistlinger says. “They’re fairly mutually exclusive.” Early last year, Beyond Meat released a pea-based product, Beyond Beef Crumble, that approximated the look and feel of cooked ground beef and made a decent taco filling, but it wouldn’t hold together and had no chew. Geistlinger decided he had to create fibers from the material—that is, do something to make them line up and link together to mimic muscle.
For a while the team got nowhere. Geistlinger kept tweaking the chemistry—“taking shots on goal in a constructive way,” as he puts it—and Anderson kept playing around with the results. Nothing. “Early on we thought we were close,” Anderson remembers. “So I brought in an In-N-Out burger. We tried the In-N-Out and it was just chew, chew, chew, and then we tried ours. I was like, ‘Wow, we’re not even close.’ ”
Eventually, Geistlinger suggested trying something radical—the big Beast Burger secret, which involves a certain combination of temperature, pressure, timing, and chemistry that he could tell me about only in veiled terms. “The food scientists had been arguing to go in one direction, because that’s how things had always been done,” he recalls. “And I said, ‘Well, this is a different protein. I think we should push this in the opposite direction.’ They were like, ‘Why would you do that? You can’t do that.’ And I said, ‘Well, let’s just give it a shot.’ And sure enough, boom. It was immediately apparent. We tasted it right when it came out, and we just went, ‘Wow! We’ve never had that before.’ It was awesome. You could see the fibers. You could feel them. And it didn’t get dry in your mouth! All these problems that we’d had just went away. Later that day, we met with our CFO and I said, ‘Here, try this,’ and he said, ‘Holy shit! What is that?’ And I said, ‘That’s the same stuff. We just changed two things.’ It turned out much, much better than we ever thought it was going to be.”
To perfect the nutritional formulation, they worked with Brendan Brazier, a two-time Canadian ultramarathon champion who created the Vega line of vegan performance foods. After playing around with the burger, Brazier became a convert. He liked the taste, but he loved the 24 grams of protein, 4 grams of fiber, and 0 milligrams of cholesterol in every burger, which left beef (19 grams of protein, 0 grams of fiber, and 80 milligrams of cholesterol) far behind.
“It’s so nutrient dense,” Brazier told me. “I plan on using several per week.”
The Beast Burger will have its coming-out party in select Whole Foods in January. Is it as delicious as a quarter-pound of well-marbled, inch-thick USDA Choice? Hell no. Good ground beef, lovingly grilled at home and served piping hot, packs a juicy succulence that this Beast lacks. In flavor and texture, the current Beast reminds me of the Salisbury steak of my youth—not exactly something to celebrate, but not terrible, either. “It’s a different kind of chew,” Anderson admits. “To me it’s a better chew. A beef burger is very gristly.”
The prototype Beast was so packed with micronutrients that it smelled like a Vitamin Shoppe kiosk. Taste testers made it clear that they’d gladly sacrifice a soupçon of supplement for a blast of beefiness. The new iteration is good enough that New York Mets captain David Wright, who stopped eating red meat years ago after noticing that it made him feel sluggish, will endorse it—part of Beyond Meat’s aim to woo red-blooded athletes—and it’s only going to get better.
“Why just look at soy and pea protein?” Brown says. “Why not look at every plant and see what has the best amino acid profiles and what can be produced the most cost-effectively? It turns out there are a lot of things you can get protein from.”
“What’s exciting to me is that we now have a completely different set of proteins that we can tune,” says Geistlinger. “We’re looking at yeasts and algae, which both have amino acid profiles that are superior to beef. We made something that used yeast from the brewery across the street. It came out like bratwurst!”
The issue of Frankenfoods raises its head. When I told Geistlinger that I was skeptical of processed foods, especially ones produced by novel techniques, he pointed out that Beyond Meat uses no artificial ingredients and employs the most time-tested of cooking methods (heat and pressure). “Our process is gentler than making pretzels,” he said. “Getting that browning on a pretzel requires chemically changing the bonds in the molecules. That’s more harsh than what we do.”
Grilling meat also involves chemical changes, of course, but ones that have been tested for many generations. Mark Bittman, for one, is going to stay off the faux-meat bandwagon for now. “I think we have to evaluate each of these products individually,” he told me. “Some fake meats can easily pass for ‘real’ meat, but in many cases that’s because ‘real’ meat has been so degraded by the industrial production of animals. Still: the best direction for most of us is to eat unprocessed food of all types; fake meat hardly qualifies.”
Health aside, some of my friends were just weirded out. Why turn plant proteins into burgers and dogs? Why not just eat them as peas and soybeans and seeds? To which I say: taco, chimichanga, empanada, crepe, pierogi, wonton, gyoza, stuffed roti, pupusa, pastie, pig in a blanket, croque monsieur, pastrami on rye. Culture is a lump of flesh wrapped in dough. If you want to save the world, you’d better make it convenient.
You’re still wondering about that shit-burger, aren’t you? Here’s what I know. Every year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention teams up with the FDA to check for antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the meat sold in American retail outlets. In 2010, the most recent year for which data has been released, they purchased 5,280 samples across 11 states and tested four states’ for fecal bacteria. They found it in 90 percent of ground beef and ground turkey, 88 percent of pork chops, and 95 percent of chicken breasts.
If this shocks you, then clearly you haven’t been watching YouTube videos of slaughterhouses in action, where the high-speed slicing and dicing of 300 to 400 head of cattle an hour saturates the air with a fine fecal mist. Really, the amazing thing is that 10 percent of our ground beef—even the organic stuff, which is largely processed in the same manner—manages to escape contamination, and that anyone eats it at all.
The part that really terrifies Meatworld? Millennials are already bailing on beef.
Every generation skews toward vegetarianism in high school and college, only to regress as life gets more complicated. But the newest graduates aren’t coming back. “We’ve definitely seen interest in vegetarian as well as vegan food rising steadily on college and corporate campuses, but so has interest in eating less meat in general,” says Maisie Ganzler, VP of strategy for Bon Appétit Management Company, which provides food services to many top universities and corporations, including Duke, Johns Hopkins, Yahoo, and Google. If you want to know what America’s next generation of thinkers is eating, just ask Bon Appétit. “For us, vegan isn’t about niche appeal,” Ganzler says. “We try to offer a lot of vegan options in the cafés for our high-tech clients. Millennials are more meat conscious, and vegan appeals to a variety of growing populations.”
As vegetarianism goes mainstream, factory meat’s one advantage—that it’s cheap—disappears. “There aren’t any obstacles to us underpricing beef as we scale up,” Brown says. “The industry is large and established, yet it’s facing huge cost challenges. The price slope for beef since 2010 has been pretty steep. We’re already competitive with certain grades.”
There’s no reason that Beyond Meat can’t have extruders all over the world churning out affordable protein patties and even a plant-based “raw” ground beef that’s red, pliable, and designed for cooking. Once that happens, Brown won’t let U.S. supermarkets slot him into the hippie aisle anymore. “As soon as we have our ground beef ready, they need to put it next to the animal protein.”
He’ll have to catch Impossible Foods, founded by Stanford University biochemist Patrick Brown and also backed by Bill Gates, which in October revealed a raw “ground beef” featuring bioengineered “plant blood” designed to approximate hemoglobin. The patty turns brown and savory as it cooks. Although the costs are not yet competitive and the flavor is a work in progress, Impossible Foods expects to have its meat going head-to-head with ground beef next year. “Livestock is an outdated technology,” says Patrick Brown.
Considering the speed of change, the money and smarts being thrown at the problem, and the desperate need, it seems likely that sometime in the next decade, Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods or another rival will perfect vegetarian beef, chicken, and pork that is tastier, healthier, and cheaper than the fast-food versions of the real thing. It will be a textbook case of disruptive technology: overnight, meat will become the coal of 2025—dirty, uncompetitive, outcast. Our grandchildren will look back on our practice of using caged animals to assemble proteins with the same incredulousness that we apply to our ancestors’ habit of slaughtering whales to light their homes.
I was thinking about that on the kind of crackling fall day when absolutely anything feels possible, back at my neighbor’s farm, eyeing my four-legged friend. The leaves on the Vermont hills were a shimmering metallic curtain of bronze and rust, the sky limitless, the pasture speckled with goldenrod. A week of daily Beast Burgers had left me wildly energized and clearheaded, and I liked the feeling. “I don’t know what I ever saw in you,” I told him. He blinked back at me and uncorked a fragrant burp.
Contributing editor Rowan Jacobsen (@rowanjacobsen) wrote about the Colorado River in July 2014.