An unassuming sand-colored building in a nearly deserted parking lot might house the solution to world hunger.
Improved Nature produces what it calls a quality plant protein, but most people would call it a meat alternative. The company, located in a 22,000-square-foot space in Garner, has been shipping its products since July but will celebrate its grand opening Thursday, Sept. 14. The public is invited to attend and taste samples.
Companies all over the world have been trying for decades to make a palatable meatless protein product. But Improved Nature says it has created a way to bind plant protein together to make products that look and taste like meat and also have a similar texture.
Fibers in the products make it seem like you’re chewing meat, said Rody Hawkins, president and CEO of Improved Nature.
“Meat is muscle fiber,” he said. “We can duplicate those fibers and bind them without gum or starch.”
Dana Hanson, a meat scientist at N.C. State University, said the company’s products “could be light years ahead of what we’ve had. Comparing their product with most other meal alternatives is like talking apples and oranges.”
Hawkins said Improved Nature’s products could help feed the world’s growing population, which is projected to approach 10 billion by 2050.
Five pounds of traditional protein are needed to produce one pound of meat. Improved Nature uses one pound of protein to produce five pounds of a meat alternative.
“They are not making any more land that is arable,” Hawkins said. “In fact, we have less agricultural land each year. And water is going to be a more and more important resource. How are humans going to survive?”
The company’s roots can be traced to Garner’s ConAgra plant, which closed after a fatal explosion in 2009. Improved Nature’s six partners worked there but had moved on to other interests before ConAgra left town.
The partners have created over 300 new products, including meat snacks, luncheon meat, sausages, pizzas and more. Hawkins helped to develop Lunchables, a favorite take-to-school lunch. He helped develop a sandwich for the U.S. military that has a three-year shelf life.
The meat alternative product does not have GMO, gluten, fat, cholesterol or starches. It is high in fiber, low in carbohydrates and low in calories. It contains all 10 essential amino acids, but little sodium. Its nutrition label is simple: water, soy protein concentrate, natural flavors.
It can be presented as nuggets, strips, filets or even fish. It can be breaded or fried, frozen and thawed.
At a recent national meeting of school lunch representatives, Improved Nature served “crispy tenders.” Hawkins said the representatives were surprised to learn the nuggets contained no chicken, just soy protein and flavoring.
“The greatest compliments that we have received came from three vegetarians,” Hawkins said. “They each said they didn’t like our product because it was too much like meat. They thought they were criticizing us, but we were cheering.”
Improved Nature has been in discussions with five billion-dollar food companies, including one that cold-called this summer and asked for a demonstration. But there are plenty of hurdles yet to clear, including marketing and branding.
Hawkins said some big companies have spent years building a brand based on a meat product. How does a soy-based product align with consumers’ perceptions?
Improved Nature is clear that its goal is not to convince everyone to be a vegetarian.
“All of our partners are meat eaters,” Hawkins said. “You won’t hear any of us say anything bad about eating meat. Look at human teeth. We are natural omnivores.
“But eating meat isn’t an option for a lot of people. This company really was formed to help feed people in a future where it will be difficult if not impossible to feed people with the processes we are using now.”
Improved Nature sees a potential market for military uses and especially humanitarian efforts. Hawkins foresees continually responding to a changing food environment.
“The salvation of thousands, perhaps millions, of people may be being developed right now in Garner,” said Neal Padgett, president of the Garner Chamber of Commerce. “That may be overstating the impact this product can have, but maybe it’s not.”
Someone recently asked Hawkins if he would rather have filet mignon or his company’s product.
“I told them that I eat meat at every meal,” he said. “It doesn’t feel like a meal if I don’t have some meat. And at some of my meals, I would be completely satisfied to have our product. I would eat it, enjoy it and be satisfied.”
He believes people all over the world will one day have the same experience.
“It sounds like a joke about the answer to a question at a pageant, but our company really does want world peace,” Hawkins said. “There will be no peace if people cannot feed their children. We want to do what we can to eliminate world hunger.
“We are trying to find a better way to feed the world’s population.”
Tim Stevens writes stories about Garner for The News & Observer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you go
Improved Nature will celebrate its grand opening at 4 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 14, at 101 Vandora Springs Road, Garner. The public is invited.