This week, actor and environmental activist Leonardo DiCaprio announced he is joining the plant-based meat brand Beyond Meat as an investor and advocate. To the majority of consumers, mentioning plant-based meat substitutes bring up visions of tasteless tofu. But things have changed. Leo’s high-profile move is just the latest in a stream of news coming from the meat-alternatives industry. There is an increasing selection of options available with more on the way, some of which may be ground-breaking.
Plant-meat that bleeds? Beef grown in a laboratory? Will we ever be able to truly replace the real thing? And if so, what are the pros and cons? It seems we are entering a new veggie wild west, and if things continue in this direction these alternative-protein pioneers may very well change the way we eat for generations to come.
If You Cook Me, Do I Not Bleed?
“Our products are assemblies of amino acids, fats and water just like what you’re getting from an animal. We offer the same taste and texture of meat, minus the negative nutritional or environmental impact” said Ethan Brown CEO and founder of Beyond Meat in one of the company’s early press releases.
Plant-based substitutes for meat have been around for decades, but it seems that a new wave of companies is devoted to not only offering alternatives, but viable mainstream replacements to eating meat.
Beyond Meat uses a process that takes fresh green peas and separates out its pure protein into powder form, then through a process of heating, cooling and pressure, attempts to re-created the fibrous protein structures of animal meat.
The company explains their process as follows:
The company’s basic thesis (is) that meat’s core parts - amino acids, lipids, trace elements, carbs and minerals - don’t have exclusive residence in the animal kingdom. Our task is to eliminate the need for meat from animals and find the same or analogous materials in the plant kingdom. We are not inventing new materials but matching the plant equivalent and assembling it in the architecture of meat.
According to the company, and some positive reviews and taste tests, this veggie-meat sizzles and grills (thanks to some canola and coconut oil) and even “bleeds” and changes color while cooking (thanks to a bit of beets), giving the taste and experience of the real thing.
With investors that include Bill Gates, former McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson, the Humane Society of the United States, and controversial agri-giant Tyson Foods, this company, along with competitors like Impossible Foods, are taking meat-replacement seriously. The focus on development – Beyond Meat spent almost 7 years working on the formula – seems to be the key ingredient missing from past meat alternatives.
And it’s this focus on accurately mimicking and replacing meat that may be the tipping point. Because despite the well-documented ills of the current meat industry, each year Americans eat an average of 210 pounds of meat per capita, more than double the global average, and this consumption of meat is still going up.
It will take innovative companies and public support to change this age-old habit.
Better Living Through Chemistry
It seems like only yesterday that the idea of meat grown in a laboratory was a vision solely for sci-fi, an unpalatable and unnatural concept that the average consumer would never consider actually eating.
But in what is perhaps the most demonstrative example of how much public opinion is changing regarding meat consumption, several lab-based animal alternatives are being developed with support from major players without much pushback from the public.
“Clean meat” innovator Memphis Meats has been in the lab working to produce real meat without the animal. By taking and isolating certain animal cells and then feeding those cells oxygen and nutrients, they can grow strands of actual animal muscle that can then be made into chicken patties or burgers.
It’s a Jurassic Park approach to the problem, and it’s getting some attention. The startup company recently completed a $17 million fundraising round and now has raised over $22 million, with investor like Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and Cargill, one of the world’s largest meat producers.
They haven’t yet sold a burger, but the technology works. Memphis Meats has produced apparently decent tasting meatballs and chicken and duck in their lab. That was the first step. The next, and perhaps as challenging hurdle, is getting the average consumer to accept eating something grown in a petri dish.
According to a survey of US consumers conducted by the University of Queensland “most respondents were willing to try in-vitro meat, with only one third were definitely or probably willing to eat in vitro meat regularly or as a replacement for farmed meat.”
Considering that the product has not yet been released, these are promising figures. Memphis Meats says that its lab process uses about 1 percent of the land and 10 percent of the water needed for conventional animal farming, which is great news for the environment. Add to this the potential end of raising an animal in often terrible conditions just so we can slaughter it, and the benefits of this mode of lab-based agriculture are compelling.
With China recently signing a $300 million deal to grow lab-based meat with three Israeli companies (SuperMeat, Future Meat Technologies, and Meat the Future), it seems that the sci-fi future is coming quicker than we thought.
If You Grow It, They Will Come
These new methods are promising, but not without their concerns. Are there any potential issues with genetically modifying plant and animal cells? How responsible will these companies be with their new farming practices? Will we replace endless fields of grazing cattle with endless fields of mono-culture pesticide-laden crops for our new veggie burgers?
As previously discussed, the negative impacts of industrial farming are well-documented and becoming increasingly severe. A change in direction is required. How exactly that will happen is not known, but it’s likely companies like these, and a more informed and aware public, that will get us there.
People get used to things faster than they realize, and what at first seems bizarre often quickly becomes a part of our everyday lives. There may come a time in the near future when mass produced “clean meat” or vegan burgers that bleed beets are the norm
s, and it’s the idea of farming living beings and killing them for their flesh that will be the strange idea we can’t quite get our heads around.
Jason Najum is a freelance writer and editor. Follow him @jasonnajum