While not every product launched since the acquisition has been a hit (POGO bars – Sweet Earth’s first foray into the snacks aisle – are being discontinued), Nestlé is pretty happy with the performance of its flagship Awesome Burger, the formula for which has recently been tweaked to “improve the meaty flavor and texture.”
FNU: What’s happened on the R&D front since Nestlé acquired Sweet Earth in 2017?
RR: Initially I worked with the Sweet Earth team to transition their products to different manufacturing locations [Sweet Earth has a plant in Moss Landing, CA, but some products are now manufactured at other sites within the Nestlé USA network] so we could expand production, but over the past couple of years I’ve been innovating brand new products.
Since the acquisition, we’ve launched 46 new products and just this year we have 19 new products featuring plant-based proteins, from our new burritos and entrée bowls with Mindful Chik’n to Awesome Grounds.
It’s been a great partnership where we’ve learned from each other, so they bring the culinary knowledge about plant-based foods and the passionate consumer base, and all of these innovative products, and Nestlé brings the research, the distribution and the manufacturing expertise. Distribution of Sweet Earth products has nearly doubled since Nestle acquired the brand.
I’m really excited about our new Awesome Bacon Burger [a smoky plant-based burger made with pea and wheat protein infused with vegan bacon bits] and our pea protein based Green Chile Chedd’r sausage [with vegan ‘chedd’r’ from coconut oil and potato- and tapioca-starch] and Chik’n Apple Sausage.
FNU: How does the Sweet Earth Awesome Burger stack up against other ‘next-generation’ plant-based burgers sold in the meat case?
RR: The main difference is protein content. The Awesome Burger [which has a base of textured pea protein, coconut oil, and wheat gluten] has 25g protein [vs 20g for the Beyond Burger and 19g for the Impossible Burger] but comparable levels of sodium [360mg*], saturated fat [8g] and fiber [2g].
The ingredient statement is also shorter and sweeter than some other burgers in the category.
All of the newer burgers use methylcellulose, which is by far the best vegan substitute for egg [to bind the ingredients and help retain fat and moisture as the burger cooks], but we’re constantly working on improving the label [by removing ingredients that consumers don’t recognize], the flavor, the texture, and the nutrition, so I’d say stay tuned and wait for the next version.
Nutrition: The Awesome Burger – the formula of which has recently been tweaked – has 280 calories, 25g protein, 8g saturated fat, 2g fiber, and 360mg of sodium (the earlier version had more fiber and more protein).
Ingredients: Water, textured pea protein, coconut oil, wheat gluten, natural flavors, canola oil, distilled vinegar, 2% or less of methylcellulose, sea salt, fruit and vegetable juice concentrate (color), dried malted barley extract, corn sauce (cultured corn starch, salt, water). Picture: Hardy Wilson
FNU: How important is wheat gluten – one of the big eight allergens – to the formulation of the Awesome Burger?
RR: The gluten and the pea protein work together in a way that really helps us mimic the flavor and texture of beef … you really get that firm juicy texture when you bite into the burger. They also balance out the amino acid profile.
FNU: How do you get a ‘meaty’ flavor in a plant-based product?
RR: It’s possible to get a meaty flavor without using soy leghemoglobin [the star ingredient in the Impossible Burger, which Impossible Foods makes via fermentation using a genetically engineered microbe], and keeping our product Non-GMO was important.
There are so many great sources of umami flavors that are completely plant-based and we’ve found ways to get those flavors without using heme or yeast extract. We’ve also tried to replicate that ‘fatty beef’ flavor you expect when you bite into a burger.
We’ve also worked with suppliers to get the best tasting pea protein as the way the protein is manufactured can impact the flavor.
FNU: Do the fruit & veg juice concentrates you use for color deliver what consumers expect from a ‘meaty’ product?
RR: We had to figure out how to use natural colors/plant extracts to mimic the raw and cooked colors of beef, and getting the color to transform is definitely one of the big challenges for all the plant-based burgers [consumers sometimes report that they don’t know when plant burgers are ‘done’ because they can remain pink on the inside even when they’ve been thoroughly cooked].
You want it nice and red and fresh-looking when you buy it, but you want it to caramelize while you’re cooking it.
FNU: What other proteins have potential in plant-based meats side from pea, soy, and wheat?
RR: It’s really exciting to be in the plant-based space at this time, so be on the lookout for more variety. Some of the proteins I’m excited about are chickpeas and sunflower and fermented proteins.
*Asked about sodium levels in plant-based burgers, a spokeswoman said: “As a reminder, the Awesome Burger is pre-seasoned, while traditional ground beef comes unsalted. The standard recommendation for salting 1 pound of beef is to use 3/4 tsp. salt or 1,725 mg sodium. This is the equivalent of around 431 mg for 4 ounces of beef (in addition to the 75 mg it already contains unseasoned), which is higher than the Awesome Burger. At restaurants, this number is many times even higher (700 mg+).”
New launches from Sweet Earth in 2020 include:
- The Awesome Cheeseburger Burrito and Buffalo Chik’n Burrito.
- Mongolian Beefless Entrée Bowl, Kung Pao Chik’n Entrée Bowl, Pasta Puttanesca Entrée Bowl, Chik’n Fajita Entrée Bowl, Butter Chik’n Entrée Bowl, Awesome Bulgogi Entrée Bowl.
- The Awesome Bacon Burger.
- Chik’n Apple Sausage, Green Chile Chedd’r Sausage, Ginger Scallion Sausage.
Sweet Earth POGO power-on-the-go bars which launched last year and were designed to be eaten hot or cold, were high in protein and fiber, and featured seeds, berries, pre- and probiotics.
While the ‘next generation’ snacks took the Sweet Earth brand into new territory, they have just been discontinued, confirmed a spokeswoman.
“As sales in the refrigerated plant-based meat category continue to rise, we’ve focused our efforts on expanding further into the refrigerated aisle by rolling out new plant-based meat options – including the Awesome Bacon Burger and new Chik’n Apple and Green Chile Chedd’r Sausages. With this shift, POGOs are being discontinued.”
Interested in how/whether the plant-based meat/dairy trend relates to kids?
Tune into our FREE ‘kids and the plant-based trend’ webinar on October 28, the second session in our FOOD FOR KIDS virtual series in the fall, featuring speakers from Tofurky, Ripple Foods, Crafty Counter, Rebellyous Foods and the Good Food Institute (learn more about all the speakers here).