Last Update: September 28, 2023
If you’re not caught up with the latest in plant-based meats, you may hear the phrase and think of rubbery fake chicken and dry, spongy veggie burgers. Fortunately, plant-based proteins have come a long way since then.
As consumers become more interested in cutting back on their meat consumption—for health, animal welfare, and environmental reasons—there’s been an explosion of innovation in plant-based proteins. Brands like Beyond Meat®, Daring Foods, and Good Catch® are recreating the flavor and texture of beef, pork, chicken, and seafood using high-quality, non-GMO plant ingredients. Not only do these new plant-based meats taste like the real thing, but they offer potential perks for your health and the planet.
So whether you follow a plant-based diet or are just plant-curious, read on for the scoop on the new guard of plant-based meats you can add to your next Thrive Market order.
It’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like: proteins derived from plants that can take the place of meat on your plate. While plant-based meats are enjoying renewed popularity now, their history goes back further than you might think.
Seitan was arguably the first plant-based meat substitute. Discovered in China as early as the 500s B.C., seitan is a plant-based protein made by removing the starches from wheat flour. Later, tofu followed (also in China), though the exact origins of this soy-based protein are unknown. Both seitan and tofu remain popular today—though, particularly in the case of tofu, not necessarily as meat substitutes. In many Asian cuisines, tofu is a culinary mainstay in its own right, often combined with meat (take the Sichuan dish ma po tofu, which includes ground pork, as an example).
Fast-forward to the late 1800s, when doctor, inventor, and promoter of many dubious health schemes John Harvey Kellogg (yes, as in Kellogg’s cereal) created protose, a less-than-appetizing combination of peanut butter, beans, corn, and seasonings. Touted as a healthy alternative to meat, it’s not hard to imagine why it didn’t stick.
While there’s a long history of swapping in plant-based concoctions for meat, it wasn’t until the 1980s and ’90s that the plant-based meat trend as we know it today really took off. That’s when vegetarian-friendly fare like veggie burgers and other faux meats started appearing more commonly at barbecues and holiday gatherings. However, some of these products were highly processed or still used dairy, eggs, or soy in their recipes, making them unsuitable for vegans and garnering sneers from the wellness-conscious.
Instead of simply replacing the animal protein portion of your dinner plate, the new plant-based meats are attempting to answer your cravings for a flavorful chicken tender or juicy beef burger patty, while also taking a new approach to meeting the global demand for protein. And thanks to brands like Beyond Meat®, Daring Foods, and Good Catch®, they’re doing quite a good job of it.
Progressive Grocer reports that in 2020, sales of plant-based meats—now a $1.4 billion category, second only to plant-based milks—increased 45%, growing twice as fast as the conventional meat category.
If having a tasty plant-based protein to balance your plate encourages you to take up a plant-based diet, then by extension, yes. Eating a diverse array of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and seeds helps you get the gut-healthy fiber and essential micronutrients you need while minimizing cholesterol and saturated fat (too much of which may increase your risk of heart disease and stroke). There’s also a growing body of research suggesting that plant-based diets promote overall good health, and may even lower your disease risk.
Curious about plant-based meat nutrition? Here’s how some of the new plant-based proteins stack up to their animal-based counterparts, in terms of macronutrients:
The carbon footprint of plant-based foods is significantly smaller than that of animal-based foods. It follows that, if more people adopted a diet that favored plants, it would have a positive impact on the planet. According to a 2017 study, replacing beef with legumes could account for 46 to 75% of the greenhouse gas emission reductions required for the United States to meet its goals. And a 2016 study found that if the entire world shifted to a plant-based diet, it could reduce emissions caused by food production by up to 70% by the year 2050.
Let’s be clear on one important point: It’s probably not realistic for the whole world to transition to a 100% plant-based diet. There are major cultural, socioeconomic, and environmental impacts of such a large-scale shift that can’t be ignored. And animal proteins like beef and seafood can be part of a healthy diet without overly burdening the environment when they’re responsibly sourced.
Like so many sustainability efforts, it’s a matter of small actions adding up over time. (Some estimates suggest that if everyone in the U.S. went plant-based for one day, it would save billions of gallons of water, millions of gallons of gas, millions of acres of land, and literal tons of polluting emissions.) If you want to reduce the carbon footprint of your diet, plant-based meats may be a good addition to your grocery list.
Technically, these plant-based proteins are processed, to the extent that many packaged foods you may have in your pantry right now are (say, a low-sugar, grain-free granola or a gluten-free cookie). The truth is, rejecting all processed foods simply isn’t a realistic goal for the average busy person or family. And it’s entirely possible to follow a healthy, balanced diet while judiciously including some processed foods for convenience. It’s all about weighing the trade-offs for yourself personally, and then looking closely at ingredient lists—something the Thrive Market team takes very seriously.
“We know that not all plant-based foods are created equal and can have some not-so-great ingredients,” says Jason Bidart, Senior Director of Merchandising for the Food category at Thrive Market. “We specifically have chosen to partner with Beyond Meat®, Daring Foods, and Good Catch® due to their focus on using non-GMO, whole-food ingredients. These brands share the same commitment to quality as Thrive Market and they continue to improve their ingredients and supply chains, which we value greatly when choosing products to offer our members.” Bidart notes that, as with all the food products that go through Thrive Market’s rigorous screening process, the plant-based proteins available on our digital shelves are free of GMOs, artificial colors, artificial flavors, and artificial preservatives.
Jeremiah McElwee, Thrive Market’s Chief Merchandising Officer (as well as a longtime vegan and 30-year veteran of the natural foods industry), says something that stood out to him about the plant-based protein brands Thrive Market chose to carry is their shared commitment to improvement. “We’re really zeroed in on the brands that are trying to raise the bar,” he says. “We’re trying to go to the next place with [plant-based meats], where they’re healthy, sustainable, clean, minimally processed, and a helpful solution for our members.”
Now that we’ve answered some common questions about plant-based proteins, let’s get to know a few of the best plant-based meat brands we think you should know about.
Beyond Meat® makes plant-based meat products that deliver the taste and texture of animal-based meat using simple, non-GMO, non-bioengineered ingredients like peas and brown rice. Founded by Ethan Brown in 2009, Beyond Meat®’s mission is to address four key global issues—human health, climate change, constraints on natural resources, and animal welfare—through shifting the protein at the center of consumers’ plates to plant-based meat.
By partnering with Thrive Market, the brand says, Beyond Meat® is aiming to make plant-based meat more accessible, so that people don’t have to compromise when it comes to taste, health, or sustainability.
Factory-farmed beef is a major contributor to climate change; in fact, it has the largest carbon footprint of all animal proteins, with cattle accounting for 65% of the livestock sector’s emissions. Beyond Meat® partnered with the University of Michigan’s Center for Sustainable Systems to examine how their products stack up when it comes to the environment. Their research found that producing a Beyond Meat® burger generates 90% less greenhouse gas emissions, uses 46% less energy, has greater than 99% less impact on water scarcity, and 93% less impact on land use than a quarter-pound of beef farmed in the U.S.
So how do they do it? Beyond Meat®’s protein is sourced from high-quality ingredients like peas, faba beans, and brown rice. Added to that is a combination of plant-based fats (cocoa butter, coconut oil, and canola oil that’s expeller-pressed using zero chemical solvents), an array of minerals for nutrients and flavor, potato starch and methylcellulose to bind and boost texture, and a combination of beet juice extract, apple extract, and natural flavors for taste and color.
Because Beyond Meat® is made from plants, it contains zero cholesterol. According to the brand, the latest iteration of the Beyond Burger contains 35% less total and saturated fat and fewer calories than 80/20 beef, along with B vitamins and minerals comparable to the micronutrient profile of beef. It’s also free of the antibiotics and hormones that are often used to treat factory-farmed beef and other livestock.
Adding to the well-documented benefits of eating more plant foods and fewer animal products, one clinical study conducted at Stanford University and published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition turned up some interesting and compelling results. In it, researchers evaluated the impact of replacing animal-based meat with Beyond Meat®’s plant-based meats during an 8-week period and found:
No—in fact, Beyond Meat®’s products are Non-GMO Project Verified. The company believes nature already provides everything required to make meat. By using a simple process of heating, cooling, and pressure, they’re able to give their plant-based burgers, meatballs, sausages, and ground “crumbles” convincing flavor and texture. That’s it: no genetic trickery, just simple, plant ingredients used in innovative ways to help support a food system that balances nutrition and sustainability.
Make wholesome and satisfying plant-based meals using Beyond Meat®’s non-GMO proteins or try one of our convenient frozen or ready-to-eat entrees.
From a hearty lasagna to a flavorful enchilada, get comfort-food classics on the table in nearly no time with our plant-based frozen entrees, exclusively at Thrive Market.
All the richness of a slow-simmered chili, ready in under two minutes. Our flavorful, plant-based chili—which comes in three varieties, all made with Beyond Meat® crumbles—is packaged in a shelf-stable pouch that’s ideal for camping trips and quick deskside lunches alike.
Please everyone at your next cookout with juicy, flavorful Beyond Burgers and brat-style Beyond Sausage links.
Daring Foods is a Los Angeles company on a mission to get chicken out of the food system, and they’re doing it by making a very convincing stand-in protein (and with a little help from rapper Drake, who recently invested in the company’s Series B round of funding). “We’re chicken lovers,” says Ross Mackay, Co-Founder and CEO of Daring Foods. “The truth is, the chicken industry is mired in harsh realities. It’s unsustainable, unethical and unjust, yet…it has enjoyed uninterrupted growth for decades.”
Chicken is a wildly popular protein in the United States: Vox reports that Americans collectively eat 8 billion chickens a year. Yet the poultry industry is plagued with sustainability, animal welfare, and human rights issues. Though raising chickens produces less greenhouse gas than cattle, the toxic byproducts of chicken farming wreak havoc on the water supply. Additionally, a large portion of farmland—land that could theoretically be used to grow food for humans—is required to grow chicken feed.
For the average factory-farmed chicken, life is short and miserable. They spend most of their time packed into dark, crowded warehouses without room to move, which can result in numerous painful health complications. Workers in the poultry industry, many of whom are immigrants and people of color, face terrible conditions as well.
“We asked, what if we could make chicken better?” Mackay says. “What if we could give people everything they love about chicken—the flavor, the texture, the experience—without the chicken? Daring is our answer to that question.” The company’s plant-based alternative to chicken is made using simple ingredients like non-GMO soy, sunflower oil, spices, and water.
“We knew getting the taste, texture, and experience just right was critical,” Mackay says. “But just as critical was making it a healthier alternative.” Daring Foods reports their product is made with fewer ingredients than other offerings in the category. It’s also got a comparable amount of protein to actual chicken, while being free of cholesterol and low in fat.
Unlike the wheat-based chicken substitutes like seitan that you may have tried in the past, Daring Foods is also gluten-free, making it suitable for paleo and gluten-free diets. “It’s as clean as it is delicious,” Mackay adds.
No. Daring Foods products are made using non-GMO soy that’s sourced locally in Europe, where Daring Foods products are produced. Mackay adds that the company is actively seeking ways to improve the sustainability of their supply chain, including sourcing regeneratively farmed ingredients.
“The beauty of Daring is its ease of preparation and versatility,” says Mackay. “You can saute it, bake it, shallow-fry it, deep-fry it, air-fry it or grill it. It takes sauces and seasonings like a champ. And it works in virtually any dish that calls for chicken.” Sound good? Stock your freezer and get cooking (and eating).
Available in four varieties to please every palate—Original, Original Breaded, Cajun, and Lemon & Herb—Daring Foods’ plant-based chicken pieces are a wholesome and convenient shortcut for healthy lunches, easy dinners, and foolproof meal prep.
Good Catch® calls their fish sticks, fish-free tuna, cakes, burger patties, and fillets “the best seafood made on land.” Their plant-based proteins are made using a six-legume blend of peas, chickpeas, lentils, soy, fava beans, and navy beans.
The company was founded by a pair of brothers, Chad and Derek Sarno, both chefs. “We saw an opportunity to disrupt by blending [our] culinary skills with food innovation to produce products that recreate crave-worthy, rich flavors and textures of seafood without risking the health of our oceans,” Chad Sarno says.
Seafood has the reputation for being the healthier, more sustainable animal protein choice (and it is possible to ensure your seafood is sourced responsibly, such as by choosing MSC-Certified options). Still, it has its drawbacks. “The commercial fishing industry is depleting fish stocks, affecting our delicate ocean ecosystems, and threatening biodiversity,” Sarno explains. Not only is overfishing disrupting the natural balance of the seas, but workers are suffering too. Because the jurisdiction of the world’s oceans is often murky, criminal behavior and human rights abuses abound. Around the globe, workers on fishing boats (many of them children) are enslaved, abused, and subjected to deplorable working and living conditions. “The only truly sustainable seafood is seafood that allows fish and sea creatures to remain in the ocean,” Sarno states.
“We think the combination of food and technology is key in producing food for the future,” Sarno says, “and our goal is to produce it [using] the most sustainable methods we can.” He shares that Good Catch® spent close to two years laser-focused on nailing the protein profile of their products, resulting in plant-based seafood that is comparable to the real thing in terms of nutrition, as well as taste and texture.
Just as important as what goes into their recipe is what doesn’t. Good Catch® is committed to never using palm oil, artificial flavors, hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats, or synthetic colors in their plant-based proteins.
No. While Good Catch® products are made with soy proteins to attain the ideal flaky texture, Sarno says the company takes great care with ingredient sourcing; most of their ingredients come from North America and Europe and all are from non-GMO sources.
“We currently source all of our legumes from reputable supply partners that have robust supply chains and thorough monitoring and verification programs to ensure product integrity and safety,” Sarno says.
Stock your pantry and freezer with plant-based proteins from Good Catch® for quick, easy, and wholesome seafood-inspired meals.
Available in three flavor varieties—Mediterranean, Oil & Herbs, and “Naked,” i.e. plain—these convenient plant-based packets make for a mess-free, high-protein lunch when served with salad greens or crackers.
One of the best parts about Good Catch®’s frozen plant-based New England Style Crab Cakes, Thai Style Fish Cakes and Classic Fish Burgers is that they can go straight from the freezer to the pan—no thawing time required. Think happy hour-worthy crab cake sliders, fish burgers piled high with avocado, and Thai-inspired lettuce wraps served with sweet chili dipping sauce.
*This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before changing your diet or healthcare regimen, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.
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