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This blog is based on my recent meeting with Seth Goldman, Chair of Beyond Meat for my Big Table podcast, which you can download here.

New Generation Burger Helps Redefine Protein

Joanna relishes a Beyond Burger in London

Downtown Decatur, Georgia, USA and the late summer heat was quick-drying puddles on streets rain-lashed by the tail of Hurricane Harvey. White marquees popped up all around as cop cars behind road-blocks had blue lights flicking like the movies. There was a real sense of drama yet no cause for alarm. The city was being taken over: by the United States’ biggest independent literary festival. I was there as guest author. However, at that moment, my excitement was less about making my speech and more about what I was about to eat. I was heading for my much-anticipated first taste of a new burger taking America by storm: Beyond Meat.

Decatur just happens to be where Compassion in World Farming has its US headquarters and our executive director there, Leah Garcés and husband, Ben, were busy preparing Beyond Meat burgers on the barbeque. Adults were popping cider as children ran around playing excitedly.

The centrepiece of the occasion came vacuum-packed from Whole Foods Market with cappuccino-coloured cardboard sleeves. I’d heard so much about these burger patties; entirely plant-based with no soya, gluten or GMOs. Made from pea protein, canola, coconut oil and yeast extract, uncooked, they looked salmon-pink and distinctly like meat.

Out in their leafy suburban garden, Ben was busy squashing the burgers with a spatula on the griddle. They responded by dripping and sizzling, flames flickering furiously. They bore no resemblance to the more obvious veggie-burgers that often look diminutive, apologetic, speckled with tiny chunks of vegetables; standing out at a barbeque meat-feast like a sore thumb. No, these were imposing, glistening, now striped with charred barbeque gullies. Smelling every bit as meaty as they looked.

So, what did I make of my first Beyond Meat burger? Full flavoured, juicy, rich without being overpowering. Strong and consistent. There’s no ambiguity about the taste: big and meaty. One bite and I was sold. Although it took a while to get used to the ‘gristly’ bits, designed to give a reassuring texture to regular meat-eaters.

Did I finish it? I had three.

Joanna Lumley bites

Just weeks later, I was thrilled to host London’s first tasting of Beyond Meat with Compassion’s treasured patron, Joanna Lumley. We held a celebration of new food technologies as part of our landmark ‘Extinction and Livestock’ conference. Experts from more than 30 countries gathered to explore the driving role of factory farming and runaway meat production in wildlife declines.

“I’m very excited to be one of the first people in the UK to taste the Beyond Burger,” said Joanna as she devoured a burger theatrically for the cameras. “And it’s wonderful to see so many innovative plant-based products being developed which are kind to animals, the planet, and our health.”

Joanna and I were joined on the event stage by leaders of this new food revolution, including founder of Tofurky, Seth Tibbot, CEO of Quorn, Kevin Brennan and Tesco’s new director of plant-based innovation, Derek Sarno.

That was how I first met Seth Goldman, executive chair of Beyond Meat. A Harvard and Yale-educated American businessman, he’s the face of the Los Angeles-based company making headlines worldwide for its plant-based burgers that ‘bleed’.

More recently, I had the great pleasure to catch up for dinner in London with Seth and his wife, Julie, on the eve of their big announcement that Beyond Meat is coming to Britain.

Getting Better

Seth Goldman, Chair of Beyond Meat with Joanna Lumley at the landmark ‘Extinction and Livestock’ Conference

“The burger just gets better and better,” Goldman told me as he explained how 50 of his company’s 300 staff are scientists, constantly improving the taste and texture in likeness to meat. The goal is for the product to be indistinguishable from meat and without the down-sides in terms of health, environment and animal welfare.

Most veggie-burgers of yesteryear start by mushing vegetables together and calling it an alternative to meat. Beyond Meat started with the MRI of a hamburger; breaking it down into its constituent parts and working out how to replicate them. But the secret of this new plant-based product goes beyond simple ingredients.

“What’s really the magic of meat is the way the fats and the proteins are stitched together and we can use heat and water and pressure and cooling to bring them together in such a way that they replicate the sensory experience of meat,” Goldman said.

The other big difference is that you won’t find Beyond Meat in the vegetarian section.

“We want to reach the much larger audience. The 95% of people who don’t self-identify as vegan and vegetarian. And we know that these people don’t buy their protein in the freezer section, so we’ve got to bring our product to the meat counter.”

And it’s a strategy which is working, at least in the US where one west coast chain stocking Beyond Burger is reporting it as the top selling packaged burger in the meat section. “Not the top selling plant-based burger, but the top selling burger,” he says proudly.

Efficient protein

The need for more efficient sources of protein was underscored by a recent scientific study which found that 83% of all agricultural land worldwide is used to produce livestock, yet contributes little more than a third of humanity’s protein supply. Much of the rest comes from plants.

In the coming world of greater demand (more people) and shrinking resources, one of society’s greatest challenges is how to find more efficient proteins?

“The cow is a very inefficient processor of protein. So you just think about how much plant material has to pass through a cow to end up with a pound of protein and instead, what if you just took those plants and converted them directly into a burger?”

Seth Goldman, Executive Chair of Beyond Meat

Goldman sees Beyond Meat as the “seamless replacement” for animal-based protein. “With no cholesterol and half the saturated fat of a [meat] burger, there is a great health impact… On top of that there’s a transformational environmental impact as well. Our product can use so much less land, so much less water than it takes to feed and nourish a cow.”

I was pleased to be invited to the exclusive launch event, held in the north London restaurant of fast-food chain, Honest Burgers. Crowded into a bustling basement, with influencers and well-known faces like Tesco’s Derek Sarno and actress, Evanna Lynch, the burgers were served on trays with beer, fries and the trimmings.

Then the moment of truth: with a constantly evolving recipe, were they as good as the ones I tried last summer in America? Even better.

Beyond Meat launches in Britain through restaurant chain, Honest Burgers from 9th July, and 350 Tesco stores and cafes starting in August.

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