Is technology the future for meat alternatives? A deep dive into food technology
‘Veganuary’ may be over, but the demand for meat substitutes and plant-based food is still soaring. This year a record number of people took part in the ‘Veganuary’ movement, and more recently fast-food giants Burger King and McDonalds have expanded their plant-based menus across stores. This movement towards more sustainable eating has given rise to a new branch of food technology (FoodTech), which utilises alternative protein sources to generate meat substitutes that don’t compromise on flavour.
There are a number of reasons why people choose to turn to a plant-based diet, with animal-welfare, the environment, and public health being some of the main considerations. Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are two of the leading names in the FoodTech industry and produce many of the meat substitutes which are popular today. Beyond Meat’s burgers are made with pea protein and brown rice to deliver the protein provided by regular meat. Pea protein contains all 9 of the essential amino acids that our bodies can’t create, making it a complete protein similar to animal meat. To emulate the texture of animal meats, Beyond Burgers contain potato starch and methylcellulose, a fibre derived from plants. Proteins found in animal meats are made of muscle fibres which are elastic and flexible, however plant cells don’t have this muscle tissue and are more rigid. This is why it can be difficult to mimic the texture of meat with plant-based ingredients. Beyond Meat uses their own patented process to alter the structure of plant proteins so that they are more similar to animal proteins. The process involves creating an alkaline environment and adjusting the temperatures and pressures until the protein forms to the texture of meat. Finally, their plant-based products are made with beet juice and apple extract to emulate the colour and taste of animal products.
Over at Impossible Foods, a different process is used which relies on the molecule haem found in humans, animals and some plants. Haem is found in the bloodstream of animals and forms part of haemoglobin used for transporting oxygen around the body. Haem also helps to give meat its unique taste. The haem molecule is abundant in animal muscle tissues, is rich in protein and iron, and is responsible for the flavours and aromas produced when meat is cooked at high temperatures. Soy leghaemoglobin is the haemoglobin found in soy plants, and this molecule is central to developing the Impossible Burger. The DNA is first extracted from soy plants and inserted into genetically engineered yeast. The yeast is then fermented in a process similar to beer fermentation, to produce haem which can then be used in plant-based burgers. The remainder of the burger is made up of soy and potato proteins, as well as methylcellulose, similar to that of the Beyond Burger.
Creating the perfect plant-based meat substitute is not an easy task, and although many efforts have gone into developing alternatives that mimic the taste and texture of meat, the current options available do not hit the mark for everyone. With this in mind, several labs and businesses across the world have turned towards cultured or lab-grown meat. This aims to provide the textures and flavours of conventional meat, whilst minimising the ethical and environmental issues that come with animal meat consumption. Upside Foods is a US company specialising in cell-cultured meat. They developed the first ever cultured beef meatball and hope to share their first products with consumers soon. Their production process works by obtaining cells from living animals or slaughtered animals already part of the food system. The cells are nourished in a nutrient-rich growth medium containing amino acids, vitamins, and minerals, and are then placed in a cultivator where they follow their natural process to form meat. After 2-3 weeks the meat is harvested and prepared for consumption. Whilst the process relies on cells derived from animals, the nutrient growth medium used by Upside Foods is completely free of animal products, and the company aims to completely remove the animal from their production process.
There will be some challenges to overcome in the cultured meat industry before we see these products widely available to consumers. For example, although cultured meat requires less animals than traditional livestock farming, animals are still needed to harvest the cells used to create the meat. It’s unclear how consumers will respond to food produced in this way. Will cultured meat have enough acceptance that allows it to compete with already established plant-based alternatives? Does lab-grown meat have different health implications when compared to conventional meat consumption? How can we control the nutritional composition of cultured meat? These are all questions which will be answered as the industry continues to grow.
The current techniques being used to develop meat alternatives will be refined over time with advances in research and technology. It is likely we will see the addition of more plant-based meat substitutes which more closely resemble traditional meat. Equally, in the longer term, technology may allow a new type of meat to enter the market, in the form of lab-grown or cultured meat. How these types of products will fair against each other remains to be seen.