From lab-grown steaks to plant-based blood, science is taking the animal out of meat
Agriculture has come a long way in the past century. We produce more food than ever before — but our current model is unsustainable, and as the world’s population rapidly approaches the 8 billion mark, modern food production methods will need a radical transformation if they’re going to keep up. But luckily, there’s a range of new technologies that might make it possible. In this series, we’ll explore some of the innovative new solutions that farmers, scientists, and entrepreneurs are working on to make sure that nobody goes hungry in our increasingly crowded world.
Animal agriculture has quietly become a huge contributor to climate change.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, global agriculture — dominated by livestock production and grains grown as animal feed — accounts for roughly 30 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Another study, conducted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, found that 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions are “directly attributable” to livestock production. That’s more than the emissions generated by the entire transportation sector. The problem is cows, not cars.
Despite growing evidence that animal agriculture is damaging the planet, the Western diet isn’t likely to change anytime soon. In fact, studies suggest rising incomes and urbanization are actually fueling a global dietary shift toward consuming even more meat and dairy in the future.
How do we reconcile our insatiable appetite for meat with our duty to protect the environment?
It’s quite the predicament: On one hand, it’s increasingly obvious that addressing animal agriculture should be a big part of our efforts to mitigate climate change. On the other hand, meat is absolutely delicious and demand for it is steadily increasing.
So how do we fix this issue? How do we reconcile our insatiable appetite for meat with our duty to protect the environment?
The answer: highly convincing fakes. Over the past few years, a handful of enterprising startups have sprung up with the goal of creating animal-free meat. There are several big players in this space, with some growing meat in petri dishes and others developing new and innovative ways to use plants in meat-substitute products. In this article, we’ll take you on a tour of some of the biggest players in the space, and explore the innovative ways they’re hoping to solve the carnivore’s conundrum.
Despite what your mother may have taught you when you were young, eating insects isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Most people tend to find the idea a bit unsettling, and therefore don’t look at insects as a viable source of nutrients. That’s where Exo Protein comes in. The idea was born of an attempt by several college students at Rhode Island’s Brown University to make a food product out of insects that actually tastes good.
Co-founder Gabi Lewis already had a concept for a protein bar that dealt with the nutrition versus taste trade-off that many protein bars suffer from. With 2,000 crickets – yes, crickets – a recipe for cricket flour, an oven, and a blender, Lewis and co-founder Greg Sewitz created a protein bar that makes insects palatable.
Why cricket flour? Well, even with just 40 crickets per pound, you get flour that consists of 65 percent protein. That’s more than twice the protein content of other commonly lauded healthy protein sources like beef jerky, chicken, and salmon. It also contains all essential amino acids, and twice the iron content of a comparable serving of spinach.
But perhaps the best reason to start eating crickets is its environmental benefit. Crickets produce one hundred times less greenhouse gas than cows, and require 0.05 percent (that’s five one hundredths of a percent) of the water cows do. Plus for every hundred pounds of feed, you get 60 pounds of cricket protein — 12 times the average yield from cattle.
Lewis and Sewitz admit that getting people to consider insects as a food source is a challenge. While 80 percent of the world’s population is said to eat insects regularly, in the Western world it’s seen more as a strange delicacy. If the Exo team can get Americans past that, the idea of the protein bar may be about to change in a big way.
When most of us think of a veggie burger, we think of a burger that tastes nothing like that juicy quarter pounder meat lovers can’t do without.
Impossible Foods wants to change that. In 2011, the Silicon Valley, California, startup embarked on a mission to create a completely plant-based burger that actually tastes — and bleeds — like real meat.
It took nearly five years to perfect the recipe, but in July of last year, the company’s burger debuted at Italian-Asian fusion restaurant Momofuku Nishi in New York. Since then, the company has expanded its reach into three other New York City restaurants – Bareburger, Public, and Saxon & Parole – as well as Cockscomb in San Francisco and Crossroads Kitchen in Los Angeles.
Impossible Foods has created a completely plant-based burger that actually tastes — and bleeds — like real meat. (Credit: Impossible Foods)
What’s the secret? While the true process is a trade secret, Impossible Foods says that what makes its burgers taste like meat is something called “heme.” Heme is found in large quantities in animal muscle; it’s what gives meat its signature red color and satisfying taste. The company says it discovered a way to extract heme from plants and ferment it using a process similar to how the Belgians have been making beer for nearly a thousand years.
And the burger is only the beginning. Impossible’s scientists already have concept products for chicken, pork, fish, and even a kind of yogurt that is entirely plant based. But in the near term, you’ll need to make a trip to one of the company’s partner restaurants to try it out.
Beyond Meat doesn’t grow fake meat in a lab. Instead, it uses a specific combination of plant proteins to create an astonishingly meat-like burger patty.
Of all of the futuristic foods we’ve discussed here, only Beyond Meat has been successful in a wide-scale rollout, offering products in stores ranging from Walmart to Whole Foods. Frozen food producer Tyson also took a 5-percent stake in the company, which is further cementing the startup’s position as the current market leader in plant-based meat substitutes.
Beyond Meat’s success can also be attributed to the fact that the company has urged its retail partners to place its products in the meat case versus the vegetarian aisle. It’s still a veggie burger, but founder and CEO Ethan Brown says you shouldn’t judge it that way.
“The flavors in meat are the result of a reaction of about 600 different molecules,” Brown told Digital Trends in an interview. “We’ve studied those molecules to identify similar molecules in the plant kingdom and combine them in the same way, so they give you that aroma and flavor.”
Even if you’ve made the perfect veggie burger that you claim tastes just like meat, it’s still a veggie burger. That’s where Memphis Meats comes in. The company’s product could be described as a burger grown in a petri dish. But what makes Memphis Meats’ process special is that no animals are slaughtered in the process.
Instead, cells are extracted from a living animal and fed a mixture of vitamins, minerals, and plants. After about two weeks, the meat is then harvested when it reaches the desired tenderness. Compare this with raising and slaughtering traditional livestock, a process that takes nearly six months to complete.
An actual product is about five years off, CEO Uma Valeti admitted in an interview with Digital Trends. However, Valeti’s team has made great strides in reducing production costs, which in turn will make it a viable traditional burger alternative – albeit one that sells at a slight premium compared to normal hamburger meat.
“As we scale up, we are confident we will be able to produce meat at a price that is cost-competitive with, and ultimately more affordable than, conventionally produced meat,” Valeti says. The company has also recently announced a chicken and duck substitute, grown in the same way the meat is, that’s set to be widely available later this year.
Arguably the most recognizable future food on our list, Soylent was developed by co-founders Rob Rhinehart, Matt Cauble, John Coogan, and David Renteln as a healthy alternative to traditional food. Rhinehart and his team initially planned for Soylent to be a nutrition drink like any other. But response to the product’s release in 2013 — including suggestions it could feed the malnourished cheaply — changed the direction of the company so drastically that it now actively promotes the “development of a world where access to affordable, complete nutrition is no longer a challenge.”
At the heart of Soylent is its composition. Each 400-calorie bottle is formulated to provide 20 percent of daily recommended nutrition, and can be consumed as a meal replacement. The cost per bottle is $2.69, which is far less than the modern meal and comparable to other meal-replacement drinks on the market.
One major drawback to Soylent has always been taste. It’s unappetizing and bland, and has been compared to drinking chalk. The company recently released two new flavors – cacao and nectar – to address that issue. Reviews are generally positive, but it’s still unlikely to be something you’d want to live off of for an extended period of time – though some have tried.
But with the manufacturing process improving and prices of the drink falling, we might not be too far off from seeing Soylent in areas where food is either scarce or at a premium.
Factory farms have gotten increasing attention over the past few years for the inhumane treatment of animals in captivity. The demand, especially among egg production in its current form, is just not sustainable over the long term according to government and private studies. Due to the fact that egg whites are found in lots of foods (mayonnaise, meringue, pasta, protein supplements, and most baked goods), a solution is needed quickly.
Clara Foods is seeking to develop an animal-free egg white substitute.
To that end, Clara Foods is working toward a completely animal-free egg white substitute. While quite a few options already exist, those substitutes are often insufficient for sensitive applications like angel food cakes, meringues, and macaroons. So the company is taking things a step further by actually building the egg whites “from the ground up,” as CEO Arturo Elizondo puts it.
For example, the substitute could be engineered to foam more to make better meringues and angel food cakes. Or it could have better binding characteristics so that it works better to keep vegetarian meat substitutes together. And yet another version could be tailored to provide certain nutritional benefits, like higher protein content.
While no immediate release date for a market-ready product is available, the company is hiring for several positions and recently completed a $1.75 million seed funding round.
Future of Food, or Just a Passing Fad?
There are those that might argue that all this lab-grown, plant-based meat business is just a flash in the pan – a fringe food trend that won’t stick around. But the fact of the matter is that meat substitutes and dairy alternatives have been around for decades, and what we’re seeing today is really just the evolution and maturation of a longstanding idea. Impossible Foods is the Boca Burger of the 21st century. It’s the same core concept, but executed with better technology – and that trend isn’t going away anytime soon.
We will be able to produce meat at a price that is cost competitive with conventionally-produced meat
It’s also important to remember that the startups discussed in this article are just the tip of the iceberg. They’re just the most recent and successful of the bunch, and there are dozens more behind them vying for a spot on your plate. One startup alone might not make a significant impact on the world, but together, these startups are expanding the range of choices you have at the grocery store.
In the future, making the choice between real and fake meat probably won’t be as much of a compromise. Ten years from now, we wouldn’t be surprised if choosing between cow and plant patties was like choosing between paper and plastic: making the environmentally friendly choice isn’t an inconvenience — it’s just a choice.