For the past 50 years, Americans have basically responded to the case against eating animals by eating more animals. The share of Americans who call themselves vegan or vegetarian hasn’t increased in the past 20 years. But a few years ago, I was certain that we were near peak meat, thanks to the rise of plant-based “meat” products—like Impossible Burgers and Beyond Meat sausages. In 2019 and 2020, I looked like a genius, as meat-substitute products surged. But then came the crash. Beyond Meat’s publicly traded stock is down more than 80 percent from its all-time high. Impossible Burger has announced layoffs of more than 20 percent of its staff. So what happened? Today’s guest is Deena Shanker, who wrote a blockbuster story for Bloomberg on this very topic. We talk about the spectacular rise and fall of fake meat—and what it tells us about food, taste, politics, and technology.
In the following excerpt, Derek and Deena Shanker discuss the origins of Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods.
Derek Thompson: So let’s tell this story properly: In 2009, Ethan Brown founds the company Beyond Meat. What does he tell the world he’s trying to accomplish?
Deena Shanker: Ethan had what was at the time a really revolutionary idea. He was going to mimic animal meat using plants. Now, of course, plant-based protein has been around for thousands of years. But the idea that you could make a piece of food that was essentially meat—that looked like meat, smelled like meat, tasted like it, cooked like it, but you were going to make it only with plant materials—was a really new idea at the time.
Thompson: And a few years later another Brown, a Stanford University biochemist named Pat Brown (no relation to Ethan), founds Impossible. This is , and he makes some even grander claims about the future of his company, including in a profile for The New Yorker magazine. He says, “We’re going to take a double-digit portion of the beef market. We’re going to send meat into a death spiral.” What are some of the most important differences between Brown 2 in Impossible and Brown 1 at Beyond?
Shanker: Ethan at Beyond wanted to make his plant-based meat by kind of breaking down plants into their component parts and then reassembling them so that they would match what meat looks like—what he called, sometimes, the core architecture or the blueprint of meat. Pat Brown at Impossible had a different idea. His was that meat got its essential meatiness from something called heme. Heme exists in all plants and meats, but it’s in the highest concentration in beef. And so he said, “I’m going to make heme out of soy and I’m going to use that and I’m going to put it in my meat-like products to make those really meaty.” They were both going after the same goal, but in different ways.
Thompson: He basically finds this … It’s like an iron-based compound, heme, right? H-E-M-E. He finds a way to produce it with genetically modified yeast, and that gives it its sort of bloodiness. I remember when I lived in New York, I lived in the East Village of New York—in like 2012-ish to 2014—and across the street there was a Bareburger. And Bareburger was one of the first companies to sell Impossible Burgers. I remember biting into one and not hating it, and being shocked that I didn’t hate it and feeling like, “This thing, it kind of looks like it’s bleeding.” Is that sort of bleeding effect, does that come from heme itself or is that just a part of the general plant-based magic in these alternative meats?
Shanker: Yes, that does come from heme. And actually Ethan at Beyond also wanted his burgers to bleed, but he did it with beet juice. The idea that the burger would be bloody in the middle was common to both of them, actually.
Thompson: And give me a sense of the kind of promises that the Browns were making—not just to their investors, but also at TED Talks, because what I find so interesting about these kinds of companies is that there are VC-based companies that are raising money, and then there are TED Talk–based institutions that are trying to raise prestige or excitement. And they were really succeeding on both accounts. They were mainstays in these kinds of conferences, and they were raising hundreds of millions of dollars. So what were the promises they were making? How were they doing it?
Shanker: That’s right. They were really taking advantage of this conference circuit and getting their message out in front of these really, I think, educated groups of people that for years have been hearing about and talking about the problems in our food system and the way the problems in our food system were terrible for the environment, terrible for our health. And there was always a question as to how we were going to solve these problems. Now here comes Ethan Brown and he says, “I have a solution. My plant-based meat is going to help solve our health problems.” And he would say on the stage; he would list cancer, diabetes, heart disease—and it would also help our environmental problems, natural resource depletion, climate change. He made this great case for—and, of course, animal welfare, which we also have all learned about how gruesome factory farming can really be.
Ethan was going to solve all three. Pat really focused on the environmental piece more than anything. He talked about the “ongoing wildlife holocaust” that was happening because of humankind’s insatiable demand for beef. It should be said that neither Brown was wrong when they were talking about the way our demand for meat hurts the environment, our health, and animals. These are all real problems. What they were offering was a solution that was really sexy to a lot of people because it didn’t involve changes in policy; it involved a new consumer product.
Host: Derek Thompson
Guest: Deena Shanker
Producer: Devon Manze