Ethan Brown is giving consumers plant-based meats so tasty he hopes the non-vegan kind will become obsolete.
By Nicole Rivard
Like many children, Ethan Brown was taught not to judge someone by the way they look.
“Where I went to school you’d have these classroom exercises where brown-eyed and blue-eyed people would be separated, and one group would get benefits at the expense of the other,” Brown recalled. “It was intended to show the stupidity and harm of discrimination.”
It never occurred to Brown such an exercise should only apply to humans. So when he would visit his family’s dairy farm, it weighed on him that the cows and pigs were treated differently than the family’s dogs.
“Just because one has a bigger snout doesn’t mean it should be subject to being caged its entire life while the other one lives a life of luxury,” said Brown, who became a vegan 14 years ago.
Last year at age 41, fueled by decades of soul-searching about the treatment of animals, Brown launched Beyond Meat to eliminate animals from our food supply. Beyond Meat replicates animal protein using soy and pea protein to create a vegan meat alternative. The company currently offers chicken strips and beef crumble.
Vegan meat is not an oxymoron to Brown, who set out to reinvent meat and challenge the idea that it has to come from animals versus plants.
Brown admits that when he talks to people about creating meat from plants, there is skepticism. So Beyond Meat has a food truck that travels around to events and to Whole Food stores, where the product launched in 2013, so people can taste it for themselves.
After people try the truck’s vegan beef and chicken tacos, more often than not they run into the store and buy the product, Brown says. In addition to hooking consumers one bite at a time, the company has attracted investors like Bill Gates and Twitter co-founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone.
“I feel so blessed to have the people behind me that I have,” Brown said, adding, there is an obligation I feel, it’s like I just want to make sure this works.”
But it’s an obligation to making sure animals get the justice they deserve and a commitment to the environment that also drives Brown. In interviews, he doesn’t hesitate to point out that 51 percent of greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to animal farming.
Prior to Beyond Meat, Brown worked in the alternative energy sector because he felt strongly about trying to resolve climate change.
Then he started investing in vegan restaurants, where he observed mainstream people consuming plant-based versions of their favorite dishes, like a Philly cheese steak. It struck him how so much effort went into disguising the flavorless products with heavy sauces.
It occurred to him: What if you were able to truly recreate meat texture from plants and its ability to deliver flavor? Wouldn’t someone pick the plant-based version?
“I started to think about what meat is—amino acids, lipids, trace carbohydrates, minerals and water,” Brown said. “If you create a way of assembling those parts with the same architectural structure that animal muscle assembles them, and there’s nothing artificial about it—you just apply heating, cooling and pressure—then why isn’t that meat?”
He believes the texture of Beyond Meat’s vegan meat products and the way they absorb and contribute to the flavor profile is what sets them apart from anything else in the marketplace.
“Meat is a way of delivering flavor. Meat itself doesn’t taste great,” Brown said. “You don’t long for a piece of chicken flesh.
“We’ve focused on texture for years. I started working on this in early 2009,” Brown said. “Before that, Dr. Fu-hung Hsieh and Harold Huff, the scientists of the University of Missouri that we collaborated with and who really invented the approach, had been working on it for 10 years prior to that.”
Brown said he loves crisping up the Beyond Meat chicken strips in a pan with just a little bit of oil and spices—his products don’t need to be disguised with sauces.
“Our beef tacos are delicious,” Brown said. “At six-foot-five, 215 pounds, I can eat an embarrassing number of tacos. But with the pea protein base our beef doesn't make you feel slow or heavy, just full.”
Earlier this year Fast Company named Beyond Meat one of the top 50 most innovative companies of 2014. But Brown said what’s been the most gratifying is talking to kids about his vegan meat products.
“They get it. They say ‘If I can eat this, why would I eat an animal?’ Brown said.
To really affect change with the population at large, Brown hopes Beyond Meat makes its way into fast food chains like McDonald’s, where millions of people eat every day.
“If you think about a Chicken McNugget, it’s really just good tasting crispy breading surrounding white stuff,” Brown said. “Why can’t that white stuff be clean, plant-based protein?