A call to clean up the plant-based food industry
This opinion piece was originally published in Vegconomist. Then a week later, it was removed. The Editor only said that multiple people reached out asking that the piece be taken down because of “unfounded claims”. While it is an opinion piece (my opinion!), I think potentially a PR company of one of the below mentioned companies reached out to have the piece taken down and that Vegconomist felt pressured. I’ve decided to republish this piece because I stand by my claims and welcome further conversation on the topic in the comments section.
Methylcellulose, canola oil, soy lecithin, tapioca syrup, vital wheat gluten, xanthan gum, low erucic acid, rapeseed protein, and tapioca maltodextrin. Feeling hungry? Yeah, me neither. And yet, these are just a handful of the unappetizing ingredients you could find in your next plant-based burger or bowl of vegan ice cream.
“Often, overly processed meat and dairy alternatives are loaded with chemicals, damaged fats, and artificial flavor enhancers. And if you don’t know what an ingredient is, the reality is… neither does your body.”
As the founder of AKUA, a regenerative plant-based food company, I believe that the increasing amount of innovation we see today in our sector is mostly a good thing. With the demand for meat and seafood on the rise in a world where our environmental health is on decline, we need smart people working to create solutions to feed people in sustainable ways.
And yet, my very real concern is that in trying to solve one problem, such as animal welfare or environmental health, the industry is creating a new set of problems for itself. By flooding the market with heavily processed, questionably healthy plant-based products that make bold and often unsubstantiated environmental claims, we’re witnessing increasing mistrust from consumers as they question the impacts of these foods on human health, biodiversity, and climate change.
Case in point: “The one criticism I hear from flexitarians about vegan products is that they are so highly processed,” says Miyoko Schinner, CEO & Founder of Miyoko’s, who is one of the most positive driving forces in the sector.
Today, more and more people are questioning if many of the plant-based products on the market are actually healthy, and if they even live up to their environmental claims. As a result, a lot of companies in the plant-based category today will struggle to survive in the years to come and a lot of misplaced investment dollars will be lost. To that end, we are already seeing sales slipping massively in this sector, perhaps as a result of these issues.
Whole Foods founder John Mackey has long been outspoken on this topic. Three years ago, on CNBC, Mackey said, “The [brands] that are extremely popular now that are taking the world by storm, if you look at the ingredients, they are super highly-processed foods.”
So what are the ingredients that consumers are increasingly calling into question? Take methylcellulose: a chemical compound derived from cellulose that is not naturally found in any plant or animal tissue on Earth, and yet, it is found in hundreds of plant-based products because it works really well at binding ingredients together in a patty or sausage. But do a quick Google search on methylcellulose and you’ll find that it’s also a bulk-forming laxative used to treat constipation that can cause severe stomach cramps and rectal bleeding. Yummm.
Brands like Impossible and Beyond are the two most often thrust into the spotlight on this topic like the Coke and Pepsi of the processed “fake meat” world. However, compared to Impossible, Beyond is non-GMO and soy-free, and uses beet extract to “bleed” vs. soy leghemoglobin. (The latter of which is not yet approved for consumption in the UK or EU!) And unfortunately, legacy products from brands like Boca Burger, Field Roast, and Gardein aren’t that much better for you as they contain ingredients like palm oil, vital wheat glutens, and modified celluloses, respectively.
“These products might be better for animals, but they are unequivocally less healthy for humans and some are worse for the Earth too…There is still plenty to do working with nature and farms to improve our food system, human health, and planetary health without resorting to using biotech and creating GMO molecules that have never been ingested in human evolution,” says Jason Karp, Founder and CEO of HumanCo, and Founder and Chairman of Hu in a recent Linkedin conversation on the topic.
The same issues are also happening in the “fake dairy” industry. I recently tried the well-funded Silicon Valley startup Eclipse’s ice cream, which boasts a “proprietary dessert blend” of: modified food starches, rapeseed protein, and tapioca maltodextrin. Compare that to the clean labels of plant-based ice cream startups like Sunscoop and Holiscoops (two deliciously creamy vegan ice creams), and we need to ask why investors continue to back these overly processed products vs. cleaner-label (albeit just as delicious!) plant-based options?
When AKUA began developing our Kelp Burger, we worked with multiple food scientists who kept encouraging us to use methylcellulose to firm up our patty. Unfortunately, I knew this would alienate our existing consumer base, however small, and that adding this ingredient would go against the core reasons we I started AKUA in the first place (one of which is to support human health!). I repeatedly said, “No thanks! I don’t want the word METH on my ingredient label.”
AKUA is one of dozens of emerging startups bucking the trend of creating “fake meat” in favor of putting plants back onto the ingredient line-up of plant-based foods. And this movement is anything but a return to the early black bean and soy days of vegan foods but a third wave that puts a diversified array of vegetables, legumes, fungi, and algae at the center of the plant-based movement. Unfortunately, getting investors on board for this cleaner, healthier future hasn’t always been straightforward.
“So, you’re creating products for vegans,” said dozens of high-profile investors when I told them about our product goals. Time and time again, I would defend my position that in moving beyond the highly processed meat alternative trend, we were creating products for a much larger market. In fact, today only 17% of AKUA’s customers identify as strictly vegan or plant-based. The majority of our community describe themselves as omnivores who “are trying to eat more plant-based foods”. What draws them to AKUA is that we’re introducing new ingredients like ocean-farmed kelp, various microalgae, water lentils, and a variety of mushrooms that taste delicious and promote both human and environmental health.
Mike Galbo, the son of a Boar’s Head Meat salesman and the founder of Plant Provisions — delicious deli meats that use veggies as their star ingredients — is one of dozens of CEOs who has shared a similar fundraising experience to mine over these past few years.
“A lot of investors just don’t seem to think we’re mimicking meat enough to fit into their thesis,” said Galbo. “They see our ingredients like chickpeas, carrots, beets, and parsnips and think we’re not as investable because our formulations don’t come off like they’ve been created in a high-tech Silicon Valley lab.”
Today, companies like Beyond and Oatly are bleeding market share and many believe this is because there are simply more options on shelf now and consumers are looking for healthier ingredient labels amid those options. Beyond Meat has seen its stock price fall by more than two-thirds since last July while Oatly has fallen by 72% since its IPO nearly a year ago [at the time this article was originally published]. While these plummeting stocks shake some investors — for others, this shift in consumer preferences comes as no surprise.
When I first met AKUA’s now lead investor and board member Jarret Christie, founder of Vibrant Ventures he was just launching his first fund. He sent me his deck and I remember feeling refreshed and reassured reading a slide on the “3rd wave of plant-based foods”, describing the swing from the tofu and bean vegan era to the “fake meat” world we were living in, and then to the future — the third wave! — of plant-based products incorporating proteins and nutrients from newly re-discovered ingredients like oyster mushrooms and macroalgae based on trends in consumer preferences.
“In the past year, I’ve seen 20+ companies chasing the Beyond Meat product playbook (replicating meat — often poorly — with highly processed ingredients), while BYND stock is in a death spiral due to lack of product demand. And as a result, the investor graveyard will also be massive,” says Jarret Christie, the founder of Vibrant Ventures, which has invested in companies such as AKUA, Sunscoop, Multiverse (makers of Supermush), MOKU, and more.
Despite fake meat not being the answer that investors or consumers were looking for, products like the Impossible Burger certainly have their place in history. We — as startup brands — are only standing on the shoulders of the giants who come before us. If it weren’t for the Impossible or the Boca Burger that came before it, team AKUA may never have worked so hard to swing our pendulum so fast in a new direction — to make a meatier, plant-based burger without compromising on nutrition, sustainability, animal welfare, or taste.