Kroger Co. is digging deeper into the natural and organic foods business, this time by adding a vegan burger that’s gaining popularity partly because it looks and smells real to the point that it "bleeds" when you cook it.

Cincinnati-based Kroger (NYSE: KR), the nation's largest operator of traditional supermarkets, has started carrying Beyond Burger at 605 of its stores in 13 states. The move nearly doubles Beyond Burger's distribution. It’s now available in almost 1,300 locations. Whole Foods is its biggest outlet, with nearly 400 Whole Foods stores carrying the products. Another close to 300 Safeway stores in the West carry the burgers.

Beyond Meat, the maker of Beyond Burger, spent years developing a vegan burger that tastes, looks, feels and has the juiciness of a real burger. It makes the burger from a mix of plant-based products, including coconut oil, wheat and potato proteins, pea protein and yeast extract. Beet juice gives it a burger-like reddish color.

The company has big-name backers. Bill Gates is an investor in Beyond Meat. So is Twitter co-founder Biz Stone. And Tyson Foods owns a 5 percent stake in the company.

Beyond Meat sees its burger as so close to the real thing that it’s going after not only vegans but all consumers of burgers. But a package of two 4-ounce patties typically sells for $5.99 — about twice the cost of regular meat. Still, the product has been met with huge popularity at Whole Foods.

Kroger's partnership with Beyond Meat began when Russ Richardson, Kroger's vice president of meat and seafood, read about the company in a trade magazine, Kroger spokeswoman Kristal Howard told me.

"As customers' eating habits are evolving toward smaller packages, leaner meats and healthier options, pursuing a partnership with Beyond Meat to offer our customers a new and exciting plant-based protein option was the right thing for our business," Howard said. "The interest in and popularity of this category continues to grow with our customers, and offerings like the Beyond Burger align perfectly."

It doesn't hurt that Kroger has been taking aim at Whole Foods and the natural and organic food space. Kroger’s natural and organics sales hit $16 billion last year. That’s more than Whole Foods' total sales.

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