Beyond Meat CEO Ethan Brown discusses the evolution of plant-based burgers, the science of protein, why his company avoids GMOs, and its mission to help create a more sustainable food system.
Here is a lightly edited excerpt of Verge editor-in-chief Nilay Patel and Brown just days before their product upgrade discussing Beyond Meat’s continued efforts to make their meatless burgers taste more like meat in the latest episode of The Vergecast.
Nilay Patel: So right now your Beyond Burger is out. I saw some at the grocery store a couple of weeks ago. You’ve got you’ve got a burger at Carl’s Junior. Do you have different processes for the grocery store versus Carl’s Junior versus Del Taco?
Ethan Brown: One of the most challenging jobs is Beyond Meat isn’t in production and operations. It’s challenging because we aren’t satisfied with our current products. And so as much as I love to hear and to really do that you know you’ve gone out to buy the product. Part of me cringes because I know that I have a product here that’s so much better than that. And I want you as a consumer to have that. And so we have this program here called it Beyond Meat rapid and relentless innovation program and it’s designed to try to make the product that you just bought obsolete as quick as we can because our rate of understanding this is a wonderful discovery process when you bring bright people together and give them a clear goal. They begin to understand things better and they begin to knock down obstacles. So our current burger that we’re gonna be releasing later in the summer I feel is so much better than the one you just had.
We are on this mission to build a perfect piece of meat and that product is imperfect. There are things about it that aren’t exactly like meat and that really bothers us.
Niley Patel: What are those things?
Ethan Brown: This is crazy for me to be saying this… I don’t like the aroma as much as I should. It’s close to animal protein in certain ways. There’s well over a thousand molecules that make meat taste and have that smell that we’re so accustomed to. And what we’re doing is we’re isolating those molecules literally from meat and then we’re characterizing them we’re trying to match them with molecules and plants that will deliver the same experience to our human century system. We’re getting closer but we’re not yet landing right on the target. I think the one that we have today that’s going to be released in the summer is closer.
Second is the way it transitions in color. It’s still too red when it’s been cooked. And that’s one hand that’s consumers get used to and they’re fine with it. But the reason it bothers me is because people take it home for the first time they might try to cook that color out because that’s what they’re used to doing with animal protein. And so we need to make that color transition better. We’ve worked a lot on that.
Lastly, the distribution of fat. I really want the fat to distribute in a way that doesn’t muscle. And we’re still working on that distribution muscle into pockets and it’s sort of interwoven in a way that’s really really nuanced and gives you that burst of fat when you bite into a piece of meat protein. We need to get better at that. And I think the product we’re releasing is getting closer.
Nilay Patel: So this leads to a bigger philosophical question. You are describing how to replace meat. Making it so that your expectations of cooking and eating a Beyond Meat Burger are exactly the same as your expectations of a hamburger patty. Is that the right goal? Is it that people need hamburgers that are exactly like hamburgers of the past or is it we have to change our food supply?
Ethan Brown: My mother asks me that question a lot. She’s like “Why are you so focused on perfectly replicating animal protein? Why don’t you just build a new source of protein for the front of the plate that people get really excited about?” I think we ought to earn that right. We have to prove that we can do this because the only thing that I know with absolute certainty about the consumer is that the consumer loves meat. You know most of us do. Around 94 percent of the population here in United States. And so that’s a really clear target for me. If I start to try to create a new flavor profile a new consistency, that’s really hard. And what I want to do is prove through science that you don’t need the animal to produce a piece of meat and then I have a ton of freedom after that but I feel like we need to pass through that or or else we just become one of many other choices. You know our hope and our dream is that we’ll continue as a species to go on loving and consuming meat. Maybe that’s plant based meat. And if I just offer an alternative to something that everyone loves I think we’ll miss that opportunity.