Why chicken is taking over plant-based meat

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The chicken sandwich wars were last year’s news. In 2021, the poultry battle royale is over plant-based chicken.

The two leading plant-based meat companies, Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, both said this month that they are launching new chicken products. Beyond Chicken Tenders were launched at about 400 restaurants nationwide on July 8. And the next week, Impossible Foods told Bloomberg it would be debuting chicken nuggets this fall.

Beyond Meat had been working on improving its chicken product for years, Chief Innovation Officer Dariush Ajami said in an interview. The company first introduced plant-based chicken strips in grocery stores in 2012, but quietly discontinued them in 2019 and concentrated on its ground meat and sausages. 

After nearly a decade of R&D, Beyond Meat is making another run at chicken tenders. The strips, which use fava bean protein as their base, have consistently ranked on par with actual chicken by consumers, Ajami said. There was a lot of work behind the scenes to bring the chicken up to Beyond Meat’s current standards, he noted, with about 200 scientists developing the product.

“They have access to advanced technology in our innovation center,” Ajami said. “They use imaging — scanning electron microscopy, confocal laser microscopy — to look at the microstructure of texturized plant protein, … compare it to the muscle tissue of chicken, and try to match that texture. The same goes for flavor.” He went on to describe high-tech electronic “noses” and “mouths” that can compare the smell, composition, texture, chew and mouthfeel of the plant-based chicken products. 

Impossible Foods declined to answer Food Dive’s questions about its planned chicken launch. Company President Dennis Woodside didn’t share R&D details behind its chicken product for the Bloomberg story, but said the company has been working on chicken “for some time.” Impossible’s chicken nugget base is made of soy with sunflower oil to give it juiciness, and has none of its signature plant-based heme — a copy of the molecule that imparts a signature meat-like taste.

Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are two of the latest entrants to a category that has been showing enormous growth in recent years — and is sure to continue to climb. According to statistics from market analysis provider SPINS, plant-based chicken is growing at a rate of 18%. This is lower than the average for the whole plant-based meat category, but more than four times higher than chicken from animals, which has grown at a rate of 4%.

analog chicken products

Beyond Chicken Tenders

Courtesy of Beyond Meat

 

So far this year, there have been several high-profile plant-based chicken launches, as well as huge funding rounds for startups and plans for international manufacturers to expand to the U.S. This makes sense when looking at the numbers. Jeff Crumpton, a SPINS retail business consultant, said chicken analogs are the second most consumed plant-based meat product category today, after beef-like burgers.

With chicken making up 45% of meat consumed, plant-based options are an exciting alternative to consumers, said Emma Ignaszewski, corporate engagement project manager for The Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that promotes alternative proteins. The large dollar and volume opportunities make it an exciting space for manufacturers.

“Having a tasty, affordable plant-based chicken option has the potential to deeply transform our food system,” she said.

Consumers chicken out

Poultry — especially chicken — has slowly taken over as U.S. consumers’ preferred meat product.

Fifty years ago, the average consumer ate more than twice as much beef compared to chicken — or 83.9 pounds of the red meat compared to 40.1 pounds of the poultry, according to USDA stats cited by the National Chicken Council. In 2020, the average American ate 97.6 pounds of chicken. Chicken consumption is rapidly expanding worldwide, leading the projected worldwide meat market growth through 2030, according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Through the years, chicken edged out beef and pork because it started being considered a healthier meat, and mass production drove consumer prices down while keeping a high rate of availability. Crumpton said this type of understanding has influenced consumer choices. During the pandemic, some consumers started to consider plant-based meat as an even healthier alternative.

“We see that continue to kind of migrate from something like a chicken, turkey sausage into a plant-based chicken sausage,” he said.

All types of plant-based meat saw sales increase in the last year

Sales figures from all retail channels from SPINS

The plant-based chicken product that had seen the most growth recently is the nugget, according to SPINS statistics. Between mid-May 2020 and mid-May this year, nugget sales were up 48.4%, though there were more sales across the board for all plant-based and analog chicken products.

Sam Terris, co-founder and chief operating officer of plant-based chicken company Simulate, said that chicken nuggets are ubiquitous in the United States — a big part of the reason his company decided to start with that product.

“It’s very low barrier to entry,” Terris said. “I think you can kind of convince anyone to eat a plant-based chicken nugget. … It doesn’t take a huge leap of faith to try something a little bit different, whereas if you’re trying to simulate filet mignon, people have these kind of extremely high expectations.”

The Good Food Institute’s Ignaszewski said plant-based meat as a whole seems to be doing a good job of attracting omnivores.


“Chicken is clearly just a huge part of the American diet, and a huge opportunity for these companies to provide sustainable, healthy alternatives.”

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Michael Robbins

Head of policy and communications, Plant-Based Foods Association


“There’s definitely a perception gap where the products are actually outperforming consumer expectations in a lot of ways,” she said. “Having those high-fidelity products that match the taste, texture and appearance of animal-based meat, companies are really making advances in that mimicry. And plant-based chicken products that do compete with animal-based products on taste and texture will continue to drive the category growth.”

Michael Robbins, who is in charge of policy and communications for the Plant-Based Foods Association, said there is definitely room on shelves for products other than plant-based burgers.

“It does make sense that as the plant-based beef market continues to have success that companies are going to look for other areas as well to grow,” Robbins said. “Chicken is clearly just a huge part of the American diet, and a huge opportunity for these companies to provide sustainable, healthy alternatives.”

New ideas bring new opportunity

Plant-based chicken is a diverse category.

At an average grocery store, consumers can find nuggets, tenders, patties, non-breaded strips and prepared products containing plant-based chicken shreds or chunks as an ingredient. Some of these products are in kid-friendly shapes, like nuggets that look like cartoon characters. Some have a striated texture that is more like cuts of meat. Some are made of pea protein, while others are mainly soy or fava bean.

PBFA’s Robbins said this is a good thing for the segment. It shows that there is diversity in offerings, formulations — and potential consumers. Different plant proteins have varied taste and nutritional profiles.

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Incogmeato Chik’n Tenders

Courtesy of Kellogg

 

There is also no one major technological advancement that is central to the growth of plant-based chicken. Extrusion — which uses heat and motion to change the shape of proteins — is an important technique. Some companies are working with more specialized high-moisture extrusion processes to enhance juiciness, taste and mouthfeel.



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