Fake meat has gained an unlikely champion.

Oscar Mayer has become the latest food brand to embrace the appeal of plant-based meat. Through a partnership between its parent company, Kraft Heinz Co., and Jeff Bezos-backed startup NotCo Inc., the iconic hot dog and deli meat maker is set to launch NotHotDogs and NotSausages later this year.

Even with falling sales in the category, the idea that America’s favorite foods can be made without harm to animals, planet or health still holds promise. After years without a standout meatless hot dog option, the Oscar Mayer addition follows plant-based pioneer Impossible Foods Inc.’s December announcement that it was adding a hot dog to its portfolio. 

Taste is cited as the No. 1 reason US adults don’t go back to fake meat after trying it, according to a 2023 survey from industry think tank Good Food Institute and pollster Morning Consult. The dearth of return customers has led to sales declining 23% by volume for the 52 weeks ended Jan. 28, 2024, for fresh products such as refrigerated plant-based burger patties, according to market researcher Circana.

But manufacturers are working get the taste and texture right, said Chris DuBois, executive vice president at Circana. And he’s optimistic that it will happen: “The industry is pushing hard.” 

At the Kraft Heinz Not Company, which formed in 2022, this means that biting into the products should provide the consumer with the “snap” of the outer casing and the savory smokiness of a standard Oscar Mayer hot dog, said Robert Scott, president of research and development at Kraft Heinz.

“Being able to borrow the flavour note, the flavouring systems, and incorporate those into a completely different matrix — it’s a massive technological accomplishment,” added Lucho Lopez-May, chief executive officer of the joint venture producing Oscar Mayer’s first vegan item. Prices will be likely be about 40 per cent to 60 per cent higher than conventional Oscar Mayer hot dogs, which sell for about US$4 for a pack of 10. The meatless versions will be at the “entry point” of the plant-based category, Lopez-May said. The new products will debut at Expo West, a trade show for natural and organic products, on March 12 and will begin rolling out to major retailers later this year. 

As for the health credentials, both executives agree there is still work to do — the sodium in the NotHotDogs and NotSausages is high and could eventually be lowered. But they stressed that that was never the first priority.

“We wanted to make something that tastes great,” Scott said.