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Illustrations by Alison Czinkota

Behind the Rise of Plant-Based Burgers

Awesome Burger is poised to leap into an ever-expanding market.

This advertising content was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and our sponsor, without involvement from Vox Media editorial staff.

When the Awesome Burger patty lands in the hot cast-iron skillet, you’ll immediately hear the sizzle. That’s quickly followed by a rich, savory aroma. Flip the burger, and the underside shows a deep brown crust. And when it’s cooked to medium-rare, served on a bun, and sliced in half, the interior is still an appealing shade of pink.

It’s all very familiar to anyone who’s ever cooked up a burger. The only difference? The Awesome Burger, on grocery store shelves across the country from October 1, is made entirely from plants. With a base of pea protein, coconut oil, wheat gluten, plus fruit and vegetable extracts, it joins an exploding market known, somewhat paradoxically, as “plant-based meat.”

Created by Sweet Earth, a California-based vegetarian food brand acquired by Nestlé in the fall of 2017, the Awesome Burger will leverage the might of the world’s largest food company to immediately become a major player in the plant-based burger market.

“The flavor, the aroma, the cooking process, how it feels when you bite in — Awesome Burger was designed to be as close to meat as possible,” says CEO Kelly Swette, who founded Sweet Earth with her husband, Brian, in 2012. “It’s about the whole experience of eating a burger.”

Plant-based burgers have come a long way from the vegetarian options of years past. Dating to the early 1980s, “veggie burgers” have been staples of cookouts and restaurant menus for decades. Now-familiar labels including Gardenbuger and Boca Burger debuted by the early 1990s.

Generally based on grain and vegetables, most brands never had much appeal to anyone other than vegetarians. These veggie burgers functioned largely as grudging placeholders — something to plop on a bun and smother with condiments. There was nothing meatlike about them.

Nor did they brand themselves as a viable alternative to meat, exactly. Their reputation, deserved or not, was joyless, even ascetic — a compromise for those who abstained from animal products, not tasty burgers in their own right. “When we launched in 2012, most vegetarian products looked almost like hospital food,” says Swette. “Very institutional and unappealing.”

At the time, Sweet Earth first saw an opening for a fresher perspective. Their veggie burgers were sold in the fresh section, not the frozen aisle, and they contained whole chunks of vegetables, which gave them a less processed feel.

“There were very few plant-based foods in the market that were both convenient and tasty,” Swette says. “Our products were flavor-forward; our veggie burgers were fresh, our burritos included interesting elements like butternut squash and quinoa. It seems obvious now, but that’s just not what was available.”

An improvement, to be sure. But Awesome Burger is setting its sights far higher. The central insight behind the brand? Veggie burgers aren’t just for vegetarians anymore.

“The interest in more sustainable plant-based foods has gone beyond young people, gone beyond those who are concerned with animal rights or ecology,” says Swette. “It’s now about your personal health.”

Vegetarians may only make up around 3 percent of the US population, but, according to Sweet Earth, more than 54 percent of American adults are trying to eat less meat and more plant-based foods — whether for health reasons, environmental reasons, or both.

“You’re talking about a huge percentage of the population now,” she says. “There’s an opening way beyond the vegans and vegetarians.”

Even cooking shows, she notes, have shifted how they talk about this kind of food in recent years. “It’s no longer, ‘Start with your meat.’ It’s ‘Start with your protein.’ We no longer assume that meat has to anchor a meal.”

If you’re going to market plant-based burgers to meat eaters — who could just as soon pick up a pack of ground beef as the vegetarian substitute — you’d better make those burgers mimic meat as closely as possible.

“As this kind of plant-based eating becomes more mainstream,” Swette says, “the products need to become more mainstream as well.” To become a truly viable alternative to beef, these plant-based meats should feel familiar. Consumers should feel comfortable handling them, cooking with them, and serving them.

“Particularly for something like a hamburger,” Swette says, “which is a comfort food, you want a seamless transition. These people in the flexitarian camp don’t want to learn a whole new process. They want to cook a burger, the way they know how.”

So the Awesome Burger is sold on shelves next to the beef. It, too, comes in a package of ground “meat” or pre-formed patties. It’s an appealing shade of pink that browns easily. It sizzles in the pan and firms up as it cooks, just as beef does. “If you cook with ground beef,” says Tucker Bunch, executive chef at Sweet Earth who worked closely with the team developing the Awesome Burger, “you can cook with this. Switching between them is a nonissue.”

It’s one thing to envision a meatlike vegetable-based burger; it’s another to create it. Over 18 months of research and development went into the creation of the Awesome Burger, with dozens of iterations before the final formula.

Protein is central to a plant-based burger, and Sweet Earth chose to work with peas as a source. “One of our core values is sustainability,” says Swette, “and an important tenet of sustainability is diversity in your food supply.” Working extensively with wheat and chickpeas in other products, they chose to go another direction, building the burger from a base of pea protein. “We started there, and began working on textures, flavors, coloring, and seasoning.”

Fat is essential to a burger, to the way it sizzles in the pan and stays juicy even when cooked; Sweet Earth uses coconut oil to contribute much of that fat. Nailing the texture — slightly crumbly, firming up when cooked, with a distinct bite — was a matter of getting the ratio right and choosing the best supplier for what they were after. “It didn’t happen the first time,” laughs Swette.

Fruit and vegetable extracts turn the raw Awesome Burger a shade of pink that not only retains its color over a 21-day shelf life, but transforms in the pan, acquiring a brown char and retaining its pink interior. Swette points out that, in an Instagramming world, the visual matters more than ever. “Visual excitement is part of enhancing the eating experience,” says Swette. “Food has to be beautiful, today. I think that’s the cost of entry.”

While of course familiar with their competitors in the plant-based meat space, Sweet Earth didn’t model their product after them; in every arena, their benchmark was always ground beef. “The taste, the bite, the aroma, the nutrition — we’re always evaluating against meat,” Swette says. “Beefy flavor, whether grilled or seared. That umami flavor. A long, savory finish.”

“The transformation in the pan is convincing and effective. The burger firms up. It develops a crust through the Maillard reaction as the protein and sugars heat.”

And while Sweet Earth developed the product around taste and texture, nutrition is far from an afterthought. Many consumers, of course, turn to plant-based foods for health reasons. At 26 grams, an Awesome Burger has more protein than a beef burger of the equivalent size. With no animal elements, there’s no cholesterol in their product. Beef burgers have no fiber; an Awesome Burger has six grams. There are no concerns with antibiotics or hormones. And that’s all before getting into matters of animal welfare and the environmental tolls of meat production that have many Americans striving to reduce the amount of meat they consume, even if they’re not prepared to give it up altogether.

What would it mean for plant-based burgers to go fully mainstream? According to SPINS, a data technology company in the natural food space, grocery sales of plant-based foods intended to replace animal products have grown 31 percent in the past two years, to reach $4.5 billion. Dollar sales of refrigerated plant-based meat — exactly in Awesome Burger’s model — have grown 85 percent from 2017 to 2019, and is now an $801 million market.

“These products are succeeding in the marketplace precisely because they are not looking to expand the vegetarian food market,” says Matt Ball, senior communications specialist at the Good Food Institute. These companies are looking to produce meat for meat eaters, but doing so more efficiently and humanely by taking the animal out of the equation, he says.

Plant-based milks, like soy and hemp milk, serve as a useful comparison. These products now account for a full 13 percent of US milk dollar sales, with $1.8 billion in 2019. (If plant-based meat attained market share parity, it would become a $9 billion market.) Cow milk may still be dominant, but virtually every coffee shop and grocery store in America has some sort of alternative, be it soy, almond, or, increasingly, oat. And it’s not only the vegans or lactose-intolerant who prefer it.

How could plant-based meats follow a similar path? They need to be functionally similar to the “real thing.” They need to become familiar to consumers. And they need to be ubiquitous.

“Convenience is as big a factor as anything else,” says Swette. It’s important that products like Awesome Burger are right next to the ground beef on the shelf. And, of course, these plant-based proteins need to be available. Supply issues have dogged their competitors. “In some ways, the most complicated part of the entire process is ensuring supply and capacity,” Swette says. While Sweet Earth developed the Awesome Burger, Nestlé has been instrumental in scaling up production.

From avocado toast to green juice, vegans and vegetarians are often early adopters of food trends. And with more and more Americans looking to cut down on meat, better options are hitting the market to appeal to these new de facto flexitarians. “Half of Americans consider themselves ‘foodies,’” says Swette. “But veggie burgers had really been missing something: appealing to anyone with a love of food.”

That’s no longer the case. Plant-based meats are generating tremendous excitement. Even the American fast food market has embraced the movement in a major way. “The success of [plant-based meat] products at a wide variety of chains — the Impossible Whopper, KFC’s Beyond nuggets and wings — indicates to me that this market is just getting started,” says Matt Ball.

While Sweet Earth is poised to grow that market even more, they know that it happens one meal at a time — whenever a shopper walks through the grocery store and decides to give the Awesome Burger a try. The real test, they believe, is in the kitchen and on the table. “You want your family to walk into the kitchen, get a whiff of the aroma and say, Great, we’re having burgers tonight,’” says executive chef Tucker Bunch. And every time that’s a plant-based burger, it’s one more step to a healthier world.

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