The future of high-tech meat substitutes

Today's average American hamburger comes from a cow – but it may not be long before it comes straight from a lab in Silicon Valley.

A growing number of companies are using high tech to create meat and animal product replacements that look like the real thing – but are made with anything but.

And their target market isn’t vegans -- it’s true blue carnivores.

“I compare it to an alternative source of energy. The hybrid car only came in the market in 1998-2000, and 14 years later every brand of car offers an alternative. Alternative protein, alternative energy.”

— Gardein founder Yves Potvin

From startups like Hampton Creek Foods and Beyond Meat (both backed by Bill Gates) to old-timers like Gardein Protein, the landscape of meat-free products is rapidly expanding. According to a 2013 study by the research firm Mintel, consumers are increasingly interested in beef, poultry and even fish alternatives.

“The data shows that 7 percent of Americans identify as being vegetarian, but 36 percent of consumers say they’re using meat alternatives,” says Beth Bloom, food and drink analyst for Mintel.

Meanwhile, global meat production has tripled over the last four decades, according to 2011 research by the Worldwatch Institute. But with increased production come concerns about greenhouse emissions, animal welfare and the health risks of eating red meat.

Meat substitutes are nothing new. Asian cultures have been using seitan (a protein made with wheat gluten) since the 7th century, and veggie burgers have been a supermarket staple since the 1980s.

More people become concerned about the environment and want to know where their food is coming from, and these foods reduce the risk of food-borne illnesses like e-Coli and Salmonella poisoning.

That’s why scientists and entrepreneurs see meat replacements not only as alternatives, but as big moneymakers, too.

Today’s next-gen products use everything from peas to non-GMO soy, wheat gluten, pea protein and grains to replicate the taste, texture and culinary viability of animal products.

“We’re looking at how we can create value-added products with benefits that far exceed what [consumers] get from just eating meat,” says Ethan Brown, CEO of Beyond Meat. It’s like “Beef 2.0” and “Chicken 2.0,” he quips.

Beyond Meat’s plant-based Chicken-Free Strips hit the market last year, boasting that they contain all the protein, taste and chew of chicken – but without the antibiotics, hormones, GMOs, transfats and cholesterol.

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Next month the company will release a beef replacement, which Brown says is revolutionary both in its mouthfeel and the fact that it’s made with yellow pea protein, but without gluten or soy. Most beef alternatives now on the market include both.

The process itself is high tech. “We’re taking proteins and running them through a heating, cooling and pressure process that realigns them so that they substantially mimic the fiber structure that you find in animal flesh or meat,” Brown says.

“The outcome for the consumer is that it tears like meat, it has the same grams of force required to rupture and it has the overall mouthfeel of muscle,” he said.

Silicon Valley-based Hampton Creek, meanwhile, is focusing on its plant-based egg, created by taking the proteins and replicating what chicken eggs do on a molecular level. It aims to be a cheaper alternative, but just as tasty and just as good for you.

“From that we get insights about what works. Is it as good or better than a chicken egg in doing what a chicken egg does?” says Josh Tetrick, the company’s CEO.

From that they created a mayonnaise replacement, Just Mayo, on sale at Whole Foods. It even comes in a chipotle flavor. Its next rollouts will be a scrambled egg substitute called Just Scrambled and a cookie dough called Eat the Dough.

So how does this stuff taste?  Some reporters who got a sample of Eat the Dough and Just Mayo said they tasted pretty authentic.

Writing in Wired Magazine
about Beyond Meat, celebrity chef Alton Brown said this about the Chicken-Free Strips: “My first thought was, 'If I were served this in a restaurant, I'd tell them they'd made a mistake and given me real chicken.'"

Even Bill Gates voiced his approval, both with funding and in a special report called The Future of Food.

But some people are turned off by the idea of “Frankenfood” processing and the image of Birkenstock-wearing hippies chowing down on Tofurky-like products.

The next-gen companies are trying battle these images by  focusing on recreating classic recipes that appeal to meat-eaters, from beefless sliders to buffalo wings to chicken-free strips.

“Products in this category are not just appealing to vegetarians and those who don’t eat meat. Consumers who are meat eaters are becoming more interested,” says Mintel analyst Bloom.
And meat eaters are where the money is. According to Mintel, meat alternatives were a $553 million growing market in 2012. The red meat market alone is $58 billion, and the key to future success is taking a piece of that carnivorous pie.

Companies like Beyond Meat and Hampton Creek say they aren't looking to create niche, luxury products for vegetarians and vegans -- they’re looking to line the shelves of major markets like Winn Dixie and Wal-mart.

One company that knows how to do that is Gardein Protein.

Gardein founder Yves Potvin created a veggie dog back in the 1980s under the name Yves Veggie Cuisine. He sold the company and later started Gardein, whose products now are in more than 20,000 supermarkets, more than 50 universities, Epcot Resort at Walt Disney World, Knott’s Berry Farm, Wynn restaurants in Las Vegas and restaurant chains including Yardhouse.

“I compare it to an alternative source of energy. The hybrid car only came in the market in 1998-2000, and 14 years later every brand of car offers an alternative. Alternative protein, alternative energy,” Potvin says.

Yet some question whether meat substitutes will ever replace the real deal; most nutrition experts advocate that they adopt a “supporting cast member” status in people’s diets – not a starring role.

Dr. Walter Willett, Chair of the Harvard Department of Public Health, says there is a role for these products, but there are already lots of healthy meat alternatives.

“We don’t need to wait for new manufactured products, because there are already thousands of alternative traditional dishes and meals based on beans, soy products, and nuts that can provide healthy and tasty alternatives to red meat,” Willett says.

Yet research suggests that consumers are starting to buy these newfangled products in lieu of animal products. For now, they’re sold mostly at Whole Foods and other pricey, up-market food stores. But Beyond Meat’s Brown says he sees a bright future ahead.

“The mainstream consumer -- that’s the one I’m wholly focused on,” he said.