Normally, you don't want to know how the sausage is made, but what if it wasn't really sausage? Enter Ethan Brown, CEO and founder of Beyond Meat, a Columbia, MO-based startup that claims its meat-free substitutes are as close to the real thing as close can get.
While Beyond Meat doesn't technically have the market on sausage cornered, the company recently released a new line of meat-free chicken products. We sat down with Brown to talk in more detail about the mission behind his company, his vision for the future, and why he thinks meat-free is the way to go.
SHAPE: What's the philosophy behind Beyond Meat?
Ethan Brown (EB): Back in the day, I was an athlete and always played sports. In high school, I became a vegetarian, and when I was looking around for good sources of protein so that I could stay in shape and healthy, I realized I didn't have a lot of options. When I was older, I worked in the clean energy sector and traveled a lot. Again, as I would search for good sources of protein and look around at the meat-free substitutes that were out there, I realized there were no options. So I began looking at restaurants where people were enjoying vegan or vegetarian options and started investing in the ones that were doing the best jobs of providing those meat-free substitutes.
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SHAPE: Who are you hoping will buy your products?
EB: We want to be the Tyson of plant-based products. Americans love meat. Americans love chicken nuggets and we know that when they're eating a fake chicken nugget, they want it to taste like a real one. We also know that we probably don't have the market of vegans or vegetarians who don't like the taste of meat. But there's a market of about 90 million flexitarians in the U.S. who are as happy eating meat as they are to eat something else, and that's who we want.
SHAPE: Since you're trying to attract the meat-eating market, how do you ensure that your products actually taste like the real thing?
EB: We've spent years on the technology trying to find the right structure between the flavor, look, and texture. We wanted it to be perfect, down to the way it shreds between your teeth like real chicken does when you're eating it.
SHAPE: Your meat substitutes contain soy, including soy isolate products. There's a bit of a debate within the healthy living community about whether soy is really healthy for consumers, especially women. There are also those who say that like meat production, soy production is unsustainable because tropical forests are being destroyed in order plant soya crops. What would you say to those critics?
EB: That's a valid question. Well, obviously, I'm in the industry! I have two kids who eat meat, but I feed them Silk soy milk every day. They call it the "purple milk" because of the container it comes in. So obviously, I trust it.
There may be women who need to avoid soy isolate products for health reasons, but my general feeling is that if generally healthy people are willing to eat bread, they should be willing to eat soy. Our products are non-GMO, organic, and antibiotic- and hormone-free. That's the cleanest source of protein you can get.
As far as the sustainability of soya production, soy is a commodity crop. What that means is that more than 50 percent of soy production goes into the animal agricultural system. Basically, it goes to feed the animals. We waste so much soy in other crops that we have to command more space. I think those people who make that complaint are missing the larger point.
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SHAPE: How do you ensure that your product isn't overly processed?
EB: Obviously, there's some processing. For example, we have to do a certain amount to separate the protein from the plant, but there's going to be some degree of processing in everything. Think about what a pound of meat goes through to become meat—antibiotics, hormones, factory farming. That's way more processed than our products!
SHAPE: What's your ultimate goal for Beyond Meat?
EB: I would love for Beyond Meat to be served at every training table in the country. It's a super clean source of protein, it's satiating, it gives you that edge that you need.