Plant-based meat alternatives are having a moment. The stock for Beyond Meat, the first plant-based meat company to go public, has increased more than 500% since its May IPO to a current market cap of $ 9.4 billion. Privately held Impossible Foods, valued at over $ 2 billion, partnered with Burger King last month to release the Impossible Whopper, and the company will be releasing its first grocery store products on Friday.
Traditional food companies are trying to catch up, giving a needed boost to soybean demand after the U.S. trade war with China caused soybean prices to fall. Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer, launched a line of soy-based meat this past August that includes a burger, sausage, meatballs and ground meat. The food will be available in select grocery stores starting this month.
“We’re historically known as a pork company, but we realized we needed to be in this space,” says Joe Weber, executive vice president of growth and business development at Smithfield Foods, at the Forbes Indianapolis AgTech conference on Thursday.
Smithfield isn’t the only meat giant vying for a spot in the alt-protein space. Tyson Foods, the world’s largest processor of chicken, beef and pork and a previous investor in Beyond Meat, unveiled a new line of plant-based products in June. Nestlé also plans to begin offering a plant-based burger this fall.
Not all meat alternatives are made from soy. Some, like the Nestlé burger and Beyond Meat burger, use pea protein. But soy is favored by many of the other companies, including Impossible Foods and Smithfield, for its ability to take on a variety of textures and flavors.
Yet soy is also controversial. For every expert saying that soy is healthy and a good source of protein, another will describe potential health problems it can cause. “Soy’s got a perception problem,” Weber says.
Soy-based foods can be a good source of protein, vitamins and minerals, especially for vegetarian and vegan consumers. “Soy’s been a part of our diet, if you think about traditional Asian diets, for hundreds of years,” says Michelle Braun, a research scientist and president of the Soy Nutrition Institute. For others, the biggest draw isn’t taste or nutrition but environmental impact. Compared to animal meat, plant-based products produce less greenhouse gas and use less water and less land.
But critics say that soy is a potential allergen, as evidenced by the fact that it is one of the eight allergens that the FDA requires food companies to label on packaging. In addition, because soy includes plant estrogen, concerns have been raised about a relationship between soy and breast cancer despite no evidence to prove this claim.
But there are other, real drawbacks of soy. For one, soy isn’t always cheaper than meat. One of the most common complaints about new plant-based meat products is the price, which is often several times greater than real meat. In addition, though soy itself does have some health benefits, many of the current alt-meat foods are still high in sodium and fat.