By ANNE MARIE CHAKER
The veggie burger has a new mantra: Be meatier.
Makers of meat substitutes, such as vegetarian turkey and fake sausages, are working to more closely mimic the taste and texture of the real thing. They’re also tinkering with mouth feel, the sensation a food creates when chewed. Their goal is to win over more of the group marketers call “flexitarians”—health-conscious adults, mostly in their 20s and 30s, who share many characteristics of vegetarians, with one big exception: They eat meat sometimes.
A new fake hot dog from Turtle Island Foods Inc., the maker of Tofurky products, has “more bite,” says company president Seth Tibbott. The “all-American flame grilled” veggie burger from Boca Foods, part of Kraft Foods Inc., has a new formulation meant to provide more of a “natural hamburger flavor,” says Tricia White, vice president of research, development and quality for the brand.
Garden Protein International Inc., maker of the Gardein brand of soy-wheat-pea protein meat substitutes, last summer hosted “parties” in major meat-eating cities like Chicago and Atlanta, distributing samples and soliciting visitors to sign up to go “meat-free” once a week. “Cheat on meat” is a new slogan.
Lightlife Foods, a unit of ConAgra Foods Inc. that has long sold tempeh, a form of fermented soy, for vegetarians, next month plans to introduce jazzier-sounding soy-based frozen entrees such as Amaz’n Asian Sesame Chik’n and Olé Santa Fe Chik’n. “These names put a friendly face on these items so they don’t seem scary to meat eaters,” says Phil DeWester, brand director.
The number of U.S. food products making a claim such as “meat free” or “meatless” on the package grew 21% to 1,198 last year from two years earlier, according to Innova Market Insights, based in the Netherlands.
For many consumers, the term “meat substitute” conjures up a prison-issued protein loaf or elastic chicken. But these days, more people are willing to take a second look. Concerns about food safety and the environmental effects of meat and poultry processing play a part. Interest in low-carb eating and the popularity of energy bars have also raised awareness of new sources of protein. “The whole protein thing is huge right now,” says Lu Ann Williams, Innova’s head of research.
Vegetarians—people who never eat meat, seafood or poultry—account for just 5% of the population, according to the Vegetarian Resource Group in Baltimore. But include “semi-vegetarians,” people who consume meat with fewer than half of meals, and the number represents a sizable one in eight U.S. adults, according to Cultivate Research, an Olympia, Wash., market-research company specializing in the vegetarian food industry.
Michael Goose, director of marketing, refrigerated division, for Hain Celestial Group Inc., says its Yves-brand fake cold cuts are now thinner and “shingled” in the package. The salami is “marbled” with a vegetable-based fat, he says, and the imitation ham has a new spice profile to deliver a “smokier” flavor.
Such products appeal to people like David Feder, a Buffalo Grove, Ill.-based nutrition consultant, who was a vegetarian for more than a dozen years but more recently has gone back to eating meat. On days when he wants to keep the calorie count low, he goes with the Hickory BBQ Riblets from Morningstar Farms, a unit of Kellogg Co. “It’s the texture,” he says. “You feel like your teeth are tearing into meat.”
Mr. DeWester, brand manager at Lightlife, says the brand is trying to attract more meat eaters by selling some products outside the refrigerated section. In the coming months it plans to attack the freezer section—a key point of entry for meat eaters who occasionally grill veggie burgers.
Lightlife’s revised “smart dog” is set to launch in May in time for BBQ season. It will grill better, thanks to the addition of pea protein, which will help it “stand up better to high heat,” says Mr. DeWester; the previous version would often melt or blister. There are four new burgers, including the Backyard Grill’n and the Mellow Portobello Mushroom. Packages say “meat free” while displaying big, juicy burgers slathered with toppings.
The bet is that consumers who have cut back on meat still have cravings. Beef consumption has been declining for decades, says Len Steiner, a Manchester, N.H., economic consultant. The average American will consume 10.4% less meat in 2012 than in 2007, according to an analysis of U.S. Agriculture Department data by Mr. Steiner, and beef will show the sharpest drop.
Meanwhile, sales of meat substitutes rose 10% to $276.7 million in 2011 from three years earlier, according to SymphonyIRI Group, a Chicago market-research firm.
For some consumers, meat substitutes represent a healthy convenience food. They usually come in pre-cooked, requiring less prep time than raw meat.
But some worry about their long lists of ingredients and additives. “I have this niggling concern about the fact that they are so heavily processed,” says Shannon Earle, a Takoma Park, Md., mother of three, who uses meat substitutes in meals for her family.
Dawn Jackson Blatner, a Chicago-based dietitian and author of “The Flexitarian Diet,” urges clients to check the first five ingredients on labels. “Are they things like vegetables and beans? Or are they things you’ve never heard of,” she says.
Most meat substitutes are based on soybeans. Food scientists isolate the bean’s protein and concentrate it. Then, in a process called “extrusion,” the proteins are realigned so that the texture “mimics the fibrous nature of the muscle,” which is the part we typically eat, says Phil Kerr, senior director of research and discovery for Solae LLC, a St. Louis developer of soy-based ingredients. The results are molded into what scientists call a “meat analog.”
That can present taste hurdles, says Turtle Island’s Mr. Tibbott. “If I have a complaint in what I see on the market, it’s that ‘lower in fat’ means ‘drier,’ ” says Mr. Tibbott, himself a vegan. In April, Turtle Island is set to launch at Whole Foods stores nationwide an improved Tofurky hot dog. A year in the making, the hot dog includes new ingredients such as pea protein, which helps create a juicier dog.
There’s a lot going on when you bite into a hot dog. The skin provides resistance against the teeth, which must sink in further, creating “a burst of juice and flavor in the mouth,” Mr. Tibbott says. “The dog bites back.”