The Champagne of burgers

What I learned this week

1. The burger wars are on

It has been decades since the alcohol industry witnessed unprecedented protectionism and support for trademarking Champagne as a source of origin identifier vs the villainous emerging sparkling wines across the world. In that instance, Champagne became useable only on products produced and connected with the region of Champagne in France.

Fast forward to today, and a debate is raging around the US$1.4 Trillion global meat industry, where the emergence of clean meat (now referred to as cell-based cultured meat) and plant based protein alternatives are emerging to challenge the incumbent meat industry as we know it. And the meat industry isn’t happy about these up and comers using terms like ‘burgers’, ‘sausages’ and ‘meat’ which various lobby groups argue should only be applicable to meat defined by origin (think poultry, pigs and cows).

Much has been published on the emergence of cell-based cultured meat over the years, with scientists trying to develop meat in laboratories rather than through the traditional pastural format. Astronomical price tags of producing consumable quantities have been pointed to as the reason this would remain pure science fiction. However, while originally a burger sized amount would come with an indigestible $300,000 price tag, the price is already approaching US$11 per burger. Clearly the technology is rapidly improving. One company – Memphis Meats – claims Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Cargill and Tyson (the US Meat Producer) as shareholders. Given this is a vegan blog though, I’ve focused more on the plant based alternative companies than the cultured meat companies. Nonetheless, an interesting topic to read up on.

I did a deep dive this week on two of the emerging plant based alternative meat companies, namely Beyond Meats and Impossible Foods. Both of these companies are taking a tech heavy approach to replicating the flavour, look, aroma and texture of meats using plant based alternative ingredients. There are some great articles out there detailing the specific science (and the companies own websites) but one cool component worth calling out is the application of heme (leghemeglobin) a plant root extract which helps replicate the ‘bleeding’ look of a traditional beef burger. Truely amazing what can be accomplished with science. Even the packaging of the Beyond Burger looks just like any other burger in the refrigerator section of your supermarket.

Beyond Burger – can you tell this apart from other burgers in the meat section? Source: Beyond Meat

The burger has been a key focus area for both Beyond Meats and Impossible Foods, which suits me just fine as this is one of the foods I’ve most been craving since going Vegan. Picking these two companies to focus on was also aligned with my skewed sense of humour – both companies have a CEO with the last name of Brown, too good to make up!

Both companies are either in the process of or have raised serious amounts of capital in the last couple of years. Impossible Foods has raised over US$400M in debt and equity since its inception in 2011 (coincidentally Bill Gates is also an investor), and Beyond Meats is aiming to become the first listed plant based protein company through a US$100M IPO.

Some interesting facts about Beyond Meats gleaned from its IPO prospectus (NOTE: none of this is intended as investment advice… just to be clear on this point):

  • Revenues have grown from ~US$9M in CY2015 to ~US$33M in CY2017 and as at end of September 2018 have already reached ~US$56M in CY2018 which continues its solid growth trajectory;
  • Currently distributing across the USA and internationally in Australia, Canada, Europe, Hong Kong, Israel, South Africa, South Korea and parts of the Middle East;
  • Like any good tech company it seems, losses are substantial as headline growth takes precedence over operating margins through various distribution channel discounts and incentives to increase shelf space (losses in CY2018 alone to end of September were ~US$22M);
  • Beyond Meat products are claimed to use 99% less water, produce 90% less greenhouse gas emissions, rely on 93% less land and use 46% less energy than traditionally produced meat products; and
  • Beyond Meat products are being consumed more and more by curious flexitarians rather than strict vegetarians or vegans illustrating shifting consumer habits. A specific insight shared was that 93% of consumers that bought Beyond Burgers through the US supermarket chain Krogers over the period 1 January to 30 June 2018 also purchased traditional meat products in the same transaction.

“If we insist meat be defined by origin – namely poultry, pigs and cows – we face limited choices. But if we define meat by composition and structure – amino acids, lipids, trace minerals, vitamins and water woven together in the familiar assembly of muscle, or meat – we can innovate toward a solution.” Ethan Brown, CEO Beyond Meats

On its website, Impossible Foods claims similarly impressive environmental benefits around its products calling out that a consumer choosing an Impossible Burger rather than a traditional beef burger will save 75 square feet of land, 1 half tub of bathwater, and the equivalent greenhouse gas emissions from driving 18 miles in a car.

But what about the taste? While my homeland of Australia offers many great foods, Impossible Burgers and Beyond Burgers are not pervasive yet on menus. We are on holidays on the North Shore of Oahu in Hawaii at the moment though (hence the delay in posting this blog sorry), so I have been on the look out. And I found a Beyond Burger on offer at The Point Restaurant at the Turtle Bay Resort (yes the same resort that Lost, Blue Crush and Forgetting Sarah Marshall amongst other films and TV shows were filmed). This burger was truly amazing. I was sure that a mistake had been made and the burger served up was actually a beef burger. Not so. I give this burger 5/5. The ambience and Sierra Nevada beer may have also impacted my judgment resulting in such a generous rating, but the truth is I can’t recall meat or plant based burgers bettering this one (and I’ve lived in Texas!). Maybe credit goes as much to the chef as the Beyond Burger itself, as we’ve all had great burgers turned into charred beyond belief garbage by a forgetful backyard grill master. Either way, I am seriously impressed and if taste is anything to go by the burger industry disruption is just getting started. The meat industry thinks so too it would appear, as companies such as US meat manufacturer Tyson are investing in this space as Tyson holds a steak (sorry couldn’t resist the pun) in Beyond Meat.

Beyond Burger served deconstructed for the carb conscious to avoid the bun – not me…

Beyond Burger assembled and ready for eating

Beyond Burger even captures the pinkish hues of a medium-rare beef burger…

2. Veganuary observations

Today (at least in Australian time) marks the end of Veganuary for those embarking on a 31 day vegan lifestyle challenge to herald in 2019. A big congratulations to those of you that participated!! Would love to hear your observations on how you found the experience.

Below are some takeaways from my first month living a vegan lifestyle:

  • Vegan doesn’t have to be a dirty word: A diet choice doesn’t automatically change your political or religious views, bathing schedule, footwear choices or sporting pursuits (hacky sack still ain’t my thing). Lots of people I spoke with this month said they were similarly keen to try changing their diet but were worried about the social stigma. I was worried about this too, but have been overwhelmed by the supportive messages from friends and those that have read the blog. So long as you make it a personal change and don’t try to force the change on everyone else around you, I think people are a lot more understanding;
  • There is plenty of vegan junk food out there: Moving to a vegan diet doesn’t guarantee your cholesterol will drop and the extra baggage you’ve accumulated over the years will suddenly disappear. Be careful with your dietary choices. French fries are vegan, doesn’t mean you should eat them with every meal;
  • You will have cravings: Changing eating habits takes time. Cutting everything out at once likely will make it that much harder on yourself. If possible, slowly transition in and take out components of diet gradually (for example you could consider starting with meat, then fish, then dairy and eggs). In some instances you may want to find vegan friendly alternatives (e.g. vegan chocolate), but for other favourite foods sometimes it is a matter of replacing it entirely with a new experience as you may never truly be able to replicate it. My experience with tofu scramble comes to mind here;
  • Turning vegan won’t automatically make you a super athlete: While it was inspiring reading Rich Roll and Scott Jurek’s biographies this month given their amazing athletic successes on a plant based diet, they still train at unfathomable levels. Diet may help, but you still need to train. No short cuts there. Cuddling a screaming 5 month old at 4 am doesn’t unfortunately count as a fartlek session (will stop there before my toilet humour kicks in). My runs still felt as tough as ever… That said, unless you go crazy on vegan junk food, you will lose weight. Less weight means you will have a bit more of a spring in your step in your workouts;
  • Cut yourself some slack: If you try eating out, odds are that no matter how diligent you are in asking that dishes are vegan, you may inadvertently consume some animal product. Butter in particular is used by so many commercial cooks to perk up vegetable dishes that I am sure along the way I probably consumed some. Short of never eating out, not a lot you can do to 100% guarantee this (specifically stated vegan dishes or eating at vegan restaurants can help though); and
  • One month isn’t long enough to gauge how your body adapts: A number of you are keen to understand the physiological differences I’ve experienced in shifting from an omnivore to vegan diet. At the end of next month I’ll probably be in a better position to answer this question.

Things I ate this week (other than burgers…)

Given we are on holiday, there were no opportunities to cook various vegan recipes this week. Being on holidays though provided a good test for how difficult it is to eat out on a vegan diet.

There were some big wins, and fails, but all in all it proved that in the majority of instances there are either ready to eat vegan dishes on a lot of menus or with a few subtractions/additions to standard menu items you can Macgiver up tasty options.

The biggest fail I had was at a buffet. In hindsight understandable, but was amazed to see that even the salad bar options were booby trapped either with egg, feta, spam, honey, enough mayo to feed an army or other non vegan items. A selection of the biggest wins are shown below. Biggest unexpected win (the vegetable tacos) was from a food truck near Banzai Pipeline which headlined itself as the best fish tacos in Hawaii, but the emergence of a vegan friendly option shows how veganism is infiltrating the surfing community.

Superfood bowl containing taro, edamame, avocado, broccolini, chickpeas, quinoa and vegan mayo
Garden salad with avocado, corn chips, seaweed strips and sesame soy sauce

Vegetable tacos with guacamole, black beans and brown rice

Maple roasted Brussels Sprouts with roasted macadamia nuts and watercress
Pan fried tofu with hamakua mushrooms, sweet chilli, garlic and soy sauce

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