Beyond Meat’s recent IPO may have been one of the most successful in history, proving the public–and maybe even more so, investors–have an incredible appetite for the latest and greatest technologies to produce faux meat. But while startups Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat have been capturing the world’s attention through food science-based products designed to make you think you’re eating real meat, there’s still an enormous market for traditional meat alternatives, like soy, tempeh, and seitan.
Lightlife, founded in 1979, is one of the old guard of meat replacements. It sold to Maple Leaf foods in 2017 for $140 million, or only about 1/10th of Beyond Meat’s current stock value. Now, Lightlife wants to modernize to compete. Maple Leaf Foods invested $300 million to build the largest plant-based protein factory in North America. Meanwhile, Lightlife has been formulating its next generation of hamburger patties, Italian sausages, and bratwursts–rolling out to store shelves through July–with the goal of bridging the gap between time-honored plant-based proteins and the modern meat-as-facsimile movement.
You’ve probably seen Lightlife products without realizing it. It manufactures more than 30 products, but its soy Smartdogs are the quintessential vegan hot dog on sale in grocery stores nationwide, and the number-one-selling plant-based hot dog in America. The jumbo SmartDog in particular is a reasonable, if ever slightly too rubbery, placeholder for the real thing, that will take nice char lines and even give you a skin that will snap off the grill. Slide a Smartdog onto a poppy seed bun, and layer it with a small salad’s worth of Chicago-style toppings, and it takes a discerning meat eater to swap the switch. For any vegetarian or vegan who still craves a hot dog now and again–no judgment here, bring on the fake meat so long as it’s delicious–the SmartDog line is a small miracle.
But about two years ago, Lightlife realized the world of artificial meat was leaving it behind. “We took a step back and said, ‘What do we need to do to be successful moving forward? Because everything is changing by the day,'” recounts VP of marketing Mike Lenahan. “Obviously with our competitors Beyond and Impossible, burgers are just going wild. We thought, we need a burger, and we need some more stuff, too.”
While Impossible Foods has spent the last eight years, and raised hundreds of millions of dollars in funding, to build its burger of today, the Lightlife development team was given a deadline of just six months to develop their alternative. And along the way, they’d develop brats, Italian sausages, and a ground beef product, too. “The goal was simple,” says Jitendra Sagili, VP of research, development, and technology at Lightlife, to “create the best tasting plant-based burger with the least ingredients as possible, with a process that’s straightforward and repeatable.”
Those insights were the result of careful market research. As Lenahan explains, Lightlife saw its lane, not in destroying the beef, but in giving flexitarian consumers a product with a label they could read, something that felt like a minimally processed food instead of the peak of technology to emulate beef. They also heard complaints from consumers about the high levels of saturated fats in modern veggie burgers–the result of lots of coconut oil to create that glistening fat feeling as you bite in. But of course, taste and texture were the most important considerations–and what consumers reported being the most important thing about eating a veggie burger.
So why make a meat-looking burger in the first place if the goal was also to make a whole food-feeling natural burger? Lenahan readily admits the strange contradiction they’ve heard from flexitarian consumers. They want to eat less meat, but they want it to look like meat–but maybe not too much meat? In other words, most people haven’t necessarily made up their minds on what a meat alternative should look like, but for now it should lean toward meaty. “Think about where we were three years ago, it’s very different right now. Three years from now, consumers will be further down to more plant-based, and they’ll want things further from more traditional meat,” says Lenahan. “And at that point we’ll need to pivot again. The perfect vegan burger is a moving target.”