A Revolutionin the Meat Aisle

New plant-based alternatives are so good they’re passing for the real thing. Here’s
how to plan summer meals around
meatless burgers, sausages and more.

ust five years ago, “alternative meat” meant something entirely different than it does now. Back then, few (if any) nonvegetarians could be tempted by veggie patties studded with peas or hot dogs made from soy.

“Veggie burgers just didn’t taste like you’d expect if you wanted a burger,” said Mike Salisbury, sales manager for meat and seafood at Safeway.

Since then, more people have begun to pay attention to their health and the environmental impact of what they eat. This set the stage for a meat aisle revolution, and a new breed of alternative-meat products designed to look, smell and taste like the real thing started showing up in fast-food restaurants and grocery stores.

Veggie burgers just didn’t taste like you’d expect if you wanted a burger.”
Mike Salisbury, sales manager for meat and seafood at Safeway

About a year ago, according to Salisbury, the popularity of these products exploded as more brands released their versions of plant-based meats. In 2019, grocery sales of plant-based foods grew five times more than overall food sales nationwide, and alternative meat is among the most rapidly expanding categories in Safeway’s beef department.

“It’s still growing, so who knows how far it’s going to go,” Salisbury said.

In 2019, grocery sales of plant-based
foods grew 5x more than overall
food sales nationwide.

Already, grocery stores offer uncannily meat-like plant-based burgers—Safeway even sells meatless Italian-style sausages made with eggplant and fennel. This new generation of meatless products are intuitive to prepare and adaptable to a wide range of cuisines and diets, making them perfect for low-stress summer meals.

“They’re intended to deliver that same cooking and eating experience that consumers are already familiar with,” said Caroline Bushnell of the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit pushing for a more sustainable food system.

The anatomy of plant-based meats

Even those who have never bitten into plant-based meat probably wonder how manufacturers make it look, feel and taste so much like the real thing. According to Bushnell, the formula is fairly simple.

“These next-generation companies are breaking down meat into its component parts, and then just recreating each component from a plant source,” she said.

But it takes a lot of research and development, and a molecular-level understanding of meat, to build a plant-based burger that “bleeds” or sausages that have a satisfying snap. Here’s a look at some of the ingredients and production processes that help brands pull it off.

plant-based burgers
meatless sausages
texture
flavor & aroma
color
texture

Creating plant-based burgers with the juicy texture of conventional beef requires proteins and fats; most brands use pea or soy protein.

Coconut and palm oil are also favored fats because they remain solid at room temperature, then melt and tenderize while cooking, and bits of cocoa butter give plant-based burgers the marbled appearance of real ground beef.

flavor & aroma

Brands are secretive about how they create flavors, but they will admit to using a plant-based version of heme, which is usually found in hemoglobin and gives animal meat its distinct taste.

Researchers discovered that a protein in soybean roots, known as soy leghemoglobin, provides plant-based beef with a similarly “meaty” flavor and aroma while it cooks.

color

A combination of beet and apple extracts give many plant-based burgers their lifelike red (when cold) and brown (when heated) hues.

Other meatless products rely on heme for color. When heated, leghemoglobin releases heme, which in turn releases iron; heat oxidizes iron, changing its color from red to brown.

texture
flavor & aroma
color
texture

Rounded molds are used to give alternative-meat sausages a plump shape. Otherwise, making plant-based sausage is similar to making plant-based beef, where texture is created through fats

To lend the sausages a snappy bite, manufacturers replicate the muscles and tendons of conventional pork through a process in which proteins are stripped of fiber, and then heated, cooled and pressurized.

flavor

It’s heme to the rescue again: The protein that makes meat actually taste and feel “meaty” also comes in plant form.

Soy leghemoglobin, snatched from the roots of soy plants, gives plant-based sausage a pork-like flavor and a scent reminiscent of real sausage while it cooks. Proprietary spice blends are added as well.

color

Beet juice is used to give plant-based sausages their reddish color. These alternative-meat links also brown while cooking, just like the real thing.

A new breed of meatless proteins

After tofu gained a U.S. foothold in the 1960s, alternative proteins evolved fairly quickly, from seitan burgers in the 1970s to frozen veggie patties in the 1990s. During the last few years, ballooning demand for food that’s both healthy and environmentally sustainable pushed veganism into the mainstream. But the meatless protein market had yet to transform: It still targeted vegans and vegetarians, and products looked and tasted nothing like actual meat.

“Up until quite recently, when consumers thought of a ‘veggie food,’ a bland veggie patty might’ve been what came to mind,” Bushnell said.

That changed when alternative meats engineered to closely resemble actual beef, pork or chicken—right down to how their color changes during cooking—reached grocery store shelves. Rather than appealing to specific lifestyles, like veganism or flexitarianism (those who occasionally eat meat or fish), brands have pivoted to competing with actual meat on taste, which is the top driver of consumer choice, according to Bushnell. And they’re pulling it off: About 30 percent of people in the U.S. are both eliminating meat from their diet and shifting to plant-based meat alternatives.

Up until quite recently, when consumers thought of a ‘veggie food,’ a bland veggie patty might’ve been what came to mind.”
Caroline Bushnell, The Good Food Institute

Another key driver behind the popularity of plant-based foods is people’s complex views on meat processing. An Oklahoma State University poll found that about two-thirds of consumers are uncomfortable with how animals are used by our food system—yet more than 90 percent of them eat it anyway.

“People eat conventional meat despite how it’s produced, not because of how it’s produced,” Bushnell said.

Now, people are recognizing that they can get what Salisbury calls “the burger experience” from a plant-based item. Interest in these alternatives spiked significantly when fast-food restaurants began heavily advertising their plant-based burgers, which prompted grocery stores like Safeway to ramp up their selection of meatless items. And this interest isn’t fleeting; according to Salisbury, an “unheard of” 32 percent of first-time buyers of plant-based meat become repeat purchasers, compared to about 11 percent across all food and beverage categories.

About 30% of people in the U.S. are both
eliminating meat from their diet and shifting
to plant-based meat alternatives.

Safeway has also been expanding the variety of vegan and vegetarian items available near the produce section, according to Ricardo Dimarzio, produce sales manager at Safeway Eastern. The product range has expanded to nearly 80 items today, including butters and cheeses made from nuts and plant-derived fats, as well as innovative fruit-based products, like jackfruit that has the appearance and texture of barbecued pork.

And plant-based products are especially relevant during the summer months, when families gear up for outdoor meals and look for options that are lighter and easier to prepare in hot weather.

Plant-based summer cooking

Fruits and vegetables are easy additions to meatless summer barbecues, and health-conscious home cooks have been learning to experiment with items beyond fixtures like portobello mushrooms and eggplant, according to Dimarzio.

“It used to be that pineapple would be the only fruit they would grill,” he said. Now, people are learning to grill mangoes, for example, as well as cauliflower steaks.

As with produce, alternative meat burgers, meatless sausages and faux-chicken strips are also very grill-friendly—though because of their fat content and protein structure, some alternative meat products respond to heat a bit differently than actual beef, pork or chicken. To keep meatless burgers juicy, experts advise forming thicker patties and cooking them only to medium-rare, to prevent fat from escaping. And don’t shy away from flavorful toppings, like onions or barbecue sauce.

The push is, ‘Let’s get more plant foods on the plate, because we know that they’re better for you.”
Joan Salge Blake, Boston University nutritionist and restaurant consultant

Most plant-based meat products also include preparation instructions on the package, unlike actual meat. And because alternative meats are designed to cook up similarly to how traditional beef and pork items do, people can largely trust their instincts and relax while cooking for family and friends this summer.

At the same time, they’ll be getting a healthy boost by filling up on plants, which are loaded with fiber, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals.

“The push is, ‘Let’s get more plant foods, such as fruits and vegetables, on the plate, because we know that they’re healthy for you,’” said Boston University nutrition professor Joan Salge Blake.

32% of first-time buyers of plant-based meat
become repeat purchasers, compared to about
11% across all food and beverage categories.

With the slew of new meatless products available, even a Fourth of July celebration can revolve around plant-based foods, or at least include an alternative meat option. Salisbury encourages people to “mix it up” during this year’s cookouts.

“When my family has a barbecue, we’ll have plant-based along with [beef] burgers for people to choose from,” he said.