Dan Murphy: Legacy Products Losing Their Luster?

More than 30 years ago, the first wave of “veggie burgers” came onto the market. ( Healthy Recipes )

Those once-trendy first-gen veggie patties have been eclipsed by the newer alt-meat products eagerly lionized on social media. But predictions of the old school’s demise are highly exaggerated.

More than 30 years ago, the first wave of “veggie burgers” came onto the market.

These formulated, processed products were basically extruded patties of soy protein, gums, binders and flavorings, along with various vegetable pieces and parts that were sold as frozen hockey pucks and aimed at that thin slice of the consuming public who’d turned its collective back on animal foods.

At industry conferences and seminars back then, the marketing gurus and self-anointed “futurists” who typically headlined such events predicted that this collection of pricey products would barely make a dent in the ready-to-cook burger category.

Other than animal activists and born-again believers in veganism, who’d prefer those manufactured slabs of inferior protein to real-deal fresh ground beef, they asked?

As it turned out, plenty of people.

Not only did the leading manufacturers in the category rapidly improve quality and slowly mitigate price points, but Big Food’s major players soon scooped up the top brands, which they could now back with substantial advertising dollars and distribution leverage.

By the dawn of the new millennium, prospective purchasers had a plethora of choices, a variety of formulations and the consumer confidence that comes from major media coverage of the health benefits of vegetarian products positioned as “better than burgers” yet engineered to resemble as closely as possible the meat products they aimed to replace.

Regaining their relevance

As is so often the case, the gurus who make a living predicting consumer trends got it wrong.

Not only has the veggie burger and veggie entrée category gone mainstream — to the extent that most people’s traditional backyard barbecues now routinely include a couple veggie burgers on the grill for guests eager to announce they “no longer eat meat” — but with the ever-increasing price of beef, cost comparisons are no longer much of an issue.

Ah, but the good times rarely continue unabated, do they?

As a recent analysis published in Crain’s Chicago Business noted, these “legacy veggie burgers,” as the magazine rather harshly labeled them, are fighting “to stay relevant in the age of Beyond Meat.”

The newer wave of plant-based patties that more closely mimic meat is one of today’s “buzziest food trends,” according to the story. In fact, the investment analysts at Barclays are predicting that the plant-based “meat” market will be worth $140 billion by 2030.

Supposedly, the high-flying introductions by such entrepreneurs as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are leaving old-school frozen veggie patties out in the cold.

Bob Nolan, senior vice president of demand sciences at Conagra Brands Inc., told the magazine that “conventional” veggie patties “just don’t offer the quality” of the new generation of analogs.

According to data from Euromonitor International, sales of alt-meat analogs increased 56% over the last five years, while their “legacy” predecessors have suffered.

Kellogg Co.’s MorningStar Farms brand has lost about half of its market share since 2013, the research firm stated.

Other leading brands, such as Boca (Kraft Heinz) and Gardein (Conagra Brands) have fared somewhat better but have also been hurt by the buzzy new introductions.

In response, Boca underwent a “brand refresh” last year, according to Crain’s, which included “improving taste and texture to get closer to the real thing,” along with upscaling its packaging.

MorningStar Farms likewise expanded its portfolio to include meatless popcorn chicken and pledged to be “100% vegan by 2021” — which means eliminating eggs and replacing them with modified food starches and other functional ingredients.

And just last month, Conagra added a spicy chicken analog made with wheat flour, canola oil and pea protein to the Gardein’s line. The company also is developing new vegetarian meals under its Healthy Choice and Birds Eye brands, according to Crain’s.

All that represents an interesting and evolving dynamic that will certainly impact animal agriculture near term. That’s not a terrible development in terms of industry prosperity, however, especially if export markets continue to expand. And it’s certainly not bad news for the overall American diet, given that plenty of us could stand to consume more vegetable-based foods, even if they are manufactured from highly refined ingredients alien to human physiology.

But what’s almost laughable about the predictions made by the business gurus quoted by Crain’s is the notion that Big Food is poised to unleash some seriously creative firepower to expand the offerings and the appeal of the vegetarian category.

“Startups have really led this space in terms of innovation,” noted Aarti Ramachandran, head of research and engagements at the FAIRR Initiative, an investor group whose founder is opposed to livestock production and meat-eating. “Now big food companies can bring the scale of their innovation and bandwidth prowess to this issue so the category can really scale up and reach a broader audience.”

She got the first part right: Start-ups are almost solely responsible for creating the vegetarian category.

But anticipating that Big Food is now going to unleash a tsunami of innovation?

File that right next to those 1980s-era predictions that those cruddy little veggie burgers will never amount to much.

The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, an award-winning journalist and commentator.

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