Plant-Based Food Feud: Faux-Meat Brands Start a Public Beef Over ‘Clean’ Ingredients

Lightlife blasts Impossible and Beyond as 'food tech,' and startup Planterra tries to play the peacemaker

After challenger brand Lightlife wrote an open letter about Impossible, the high-profile brand shot back on Medium. Impossible
Headshot of T.L. Stanley

Key Insights

The battle for flexitarian consumers isn’t just happening in supermarkets and restaurants. It’s reached the national media via a full-blown public feud involving several faux meat brands.

Name-calling and clapbacks have ensued.

There’s even a backlash to the backlash, with a startup company defending two of the category’s heavyweights and hailing them for having ushered meatless meat into the mainstream.

Lightlife set off the recent chain of events with an open letter derisively calling Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat “food tech” companies that “attempt to mimic meat at any cost.” Lightlife’s main gripe with its better-known competitors: They’re making frankenfood with lengthy lists of unrecognizable ingredients. 

“Enough with the hyper-processed ingredients, GMOs, unnecessary additives and fillers, and fake blood,” said the full-page ad, printed in The New York Times, USA Today and other publications and signed by Lightlife’s president Dan Curtin. 

Consumers “deserve plant-based protein that is developed in a kitchen, not a lab,” according to the Clean Break campaign, which aims to call attention to Lightlife’s newly reformulated products that have 11 ingredients (down from 14). The brand’s letter specifically calls out Impossible’s use of “synthetically produced soy leghemoglobin,” known as “heme,” a defining characteristic that makes the brand’s burgers appear to bleed like beef products.

The Silicon Valley-based Impossible, no stranger to firing back at its critics, called the Lightlife letter “a disingenuous, desperate disinformation campaign” that used “a logic-defying concept with zero relevance to health or product quality.” Saying that consumers care about “taste, nutrition and sustainability,” the brand said that “heme” is a commonly used, FDA-approved ingredient.

Impossible’s execs, in a blog post on Medium, compared the Lightlife attack to “meat-industry propaganda” that has been “financed by one of the largest animal agriculture companies in North America.”

Lightlife is owned by Maple Leaf Foods, based in Canada, with traditional meat brands like Schneiders, Swift and Prime in its portfolio, along with plant-based brands under the Greenleaf banner.

Beyond Meat, one of 2019’s splashiest IPOs, defended itself against Lightlife’s claims with this statement: “If Lightlife took a look at our ingredients, they would see that our food is made from simple, plant-based ingredients. With no GMOs. No synthetic additives. No carcinogens. No hormones. No antibiotics. No cholesterol. Our foods are designed to have the same taste and texture as animal-based meat, giving more consumers more options that are better for them and the planet. We believe it’s the future of food.” 

The brand hoping everyone can get along

And after the initial flap, Planterra Foods waded into the fray. The company, a Colorado-based newcomer to the ultra-hot space, bought its own full-page ad in The New York Times last week to address the “attempted takedowns.”

The letter, from CEO Darcey Macken, notes that plant-based meat has been around “for decades,” but salutes Impossible and Beyond as leaders who “shined a light on this space and helped elevate it to where it is today.”

“It may seem strange to give a shout-out to competitors,” Macken told Adweek, “but we felt it was worth acknowledging the role Impossible and Beyond have played in broadening awareness” of the category.

Players in alternative meat, whether emerging or established, “should be inclusive in pushing the category forward,” she said, while noting that back-biting may be unavoidable.

@TLStanleyLA T.L. Stanley is a senior editor at Adweek, where she specializes in consumer trends, cannabis marketing, meat alternatives, pop culture, challenger brands and creativity.