Alt-Meat Moves Beyond Beef

Photo: Abbots Butcher;Graphic; Well+Good Creative
It started with the alt-burgers. Meat eaters—who make up 70 percent of the people buying products from Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods—couldn’t believe the “bleeding” patties they were biting into were made from plants. While you can expect the burgers to continue to make headlines in 2020 (look for more fast food chains jumping on board), don’t expect the alt-meat conversation to end with beef. Consumers want variety in their plant-based proteins—and brands are innovating in never-done-before ways to meet the demand.

In 2020, get ready to see plant-based chicken and fish alternatives reach alt-burger status. Established vegan brands, like Gardein, have changed their formulas to rely less heavily on soy, and new brands, like plant-based seafood company Good Catch, are joining the fray. Even restaurants are getting in on the trend. This month, vegan cult-favorite By Chloe launched “chicky,” plant-based chicken made from tempeh, which they added to the menu in the form of chicken nuggets, a crispy chicken salad, and chicken parm. Fast-casual chain Tender Greens has also introduced a soy-free vegan chicken (comprising only pea protein and wheat protein, plus spices) sourced from Abbot’s Butcher, and Chipotle investing in vegan seafood brand Sophie’s Kitchen, a hopeful hint of what’s to come.

“When people are looking to go plant-based or meatless, they want more than just burgers,” says Tara Rozalowsky, the vice president and general manager of Gardein’s parent company Conagra Brands, of why the trend is taking off. “Chicken is the number-one protein eaten at home and in restaurants, and fish has incredibly broad popularity.” And with consumers demanding more from plant-based foods—both in terms of nutritional value and taste—it shouldn’t be surprising that the latest products coming out aren’t sodium bombs full of fillers.

“When people are looking to go plant-based or meatless, they want more than just burgers,” Tara Rozalowsky, Conagra Brands vice president and general manager

Chicken’s plant-based makeover has nothing to do with the ubiquitous soy nuggets you may know. Colorado-based vegan startup Emergy Foods (launching in 2020) will use mycelium, the fast-growing root structure of mushrooms, to create sustainable-forward, plant-based chicken breasts. The vegan chicken that recently landed on the menu permanently at Tender Greens is made with wheat protein and pea protein. “The popularity of the meatless chicken has exceeded our expectations,” Tender Greens CMO Jack Oh says, adding that he believes the demand for alt-chicken will continue to grow. “Consumers are simply becoming more aware across the board. Whether it’s driven by nutrition and health or concern around our environment, we believe one thing that will remain constant will be demand for products that taste great and deliver the best quality.”

Creating a sustainable, nutrient-rich fish substitute isn’t easy. Chad Sarno, Good Catch’s co-founding chef, says it took two years to perfect the brand’s plant-based tuna product. They landed on using six different protein sources (pea, soy, chickpea, lentil, faba, and navy bean), along with algal oil to supply the omega-3s and oceany flavor you expect from real fish. “Our six-legume blend provides 14 grams of protein per serving,” says Sarno. Another reason they use six different protein sources, Sarno says, is to avoid monocropping, which can be detrimental to farmland long-term.

Other players in the vegan fish space to keep an eye on in 2020: Ocean Hugger Foods (which makes a tomato-based tuna), Gardein (which makes a crabless crabcake and fishless filets infused with omega-3s), and Atlantic National Foods (which makes a tuna alternative out of soy).

If going full vegan isn’t for you, consider another way the alt-meat space is innovating. Blended meat products—offerings that include protein from both plant and animal sources—are popping up, too. From Misfit Foods’ blended chicken sausages to Tyson and Perdue, which both launched blended chicken products in 2019, it’s a trend-within-a-trend to watch.

It’s worth noting that, while the vegan meat space is as innovative as ever, Joan Salge Blake, a registered dietitian, Boston University associate professor, and nutrition textbook writer, says ethically sourced, grass-fed meat and fish are rich in nutrients, and she raises a skeptical eyebrow at the imitators entering the market. But as sustainability continues to be an increasingly important factor in consumers’ shopping decisions, alt-meat may gain favor as a way to decrease the reliance on factory farming. And as the trend grows in 2020 and beyond, you can be sure healthy eating experts will be carefully watching and weighing in on which new innovations are actually good for you—and which ones aren’t.

Whether you want to tip-toe into alt-chicken and fish with blended products or go all-out with something 100-percent vegan, there’s no shortage of choices. When offered the choice of chicken or fish, the go-to reply of 2020 is sure to be, “What’s it made of?”

But wait, there's more! Click here to read the rest of our 2020 Wellness Trends predictions.

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