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Explained: How new tech is raising the bar for lab-grown and vegetarian meats

Plant-based alternative “mock meats” made of soya, jackfruit, mushrooms etc., have been around for a while; what is different now is the extent and sophistication of the technological intervention to create “meat” that is remarkably similar to the real thing in taste and texture.

Written by Pooja Pillai | New Delhi |
Updated: January 23, 2020 9:20:30 am
How new tech is raising the bar for lab-grown and vegetarian meats Environmental sustainability is the most compelling reason. Industrial livestock farming is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and is a huge drain on land and water resources.

At CES 2020 tech showcase in Las Vegas earlier this month, Impossible Foods, the California-based alternative meat producer, unveiled the “Impossible Pork”, a plant-based pork substitute that is kosher and halal, and which claims to have the taste, texture, and mouthfeel of the real thing. Also unveiled was the Impossible Sausage, a plant-based and pre-seasoned alternative to actual sausages.

In 2016, Impossible Foods launched its flagship Impossible Burger, a plant-based replacement that “smells, handles, cooks and tastes like ground beef from cows”. Soon afterward, Impossible Burger was available at major fast food chains, in some restaurants in the United States, Hong Kong, Macau, and Singapore, and in a few American grocery stores.

Who else is manufacturing alternative meats?

Startups around the world are presenting technological solutions to replace traditional meat, seafood, milk (and dairy products), and eggs. Beyond Meat, also based in California, has created beef-substitute burgers, beef, and beef crumble, as well as a “Beyond Sausage” meant to replace pork sausages. The company supplied McDonald’s’ first plant-based burger, PLT (Plant Lettuce Tomato), which was rolled out in select Canadian outlets in September last year. Beyond Meat is also partnering with other fast food chains such as Dunkin’, Del Taco, Subway, KFC, and Carl’s Jr.

Barcelona-based Novameat, and the Israeli food tech startup Redefine Meat are making 3D-printed, plant-based meat. Some lab-grown meat startups are creating meat from chicken, pig, and cow cells — Memphis Meats, based in California, created the first cell-based meatball in 2016; the Dutch company Meatable has developed a commercially viable process of using stem cells to make cheaper, fast-growing meat in its labs.

In India, Udaipur-based startup Good Dot is making “vegetarian meat” using plants. The Institute of Chemical Technology, Mumbai has partnered with nonprofit The Good Food Institute India to set up a centre to research and develop cell-based meat.

Perhaps the biggest indicator of alternative meats having moved beyond being just a fad, is that even food industry giants such as Tyson, Perdue, Nestlé, and Smithfield have jumped in. Nestlé launched its meatless Awesome Burger in September last year.

Explained: How new tech is raising the bar for lab-grown and vegetarian meats Environmental sustainability is the most compelling reason for alternative meats. (Source: impossiblefoods.com)

What is the science of alternative meat?

Plant-based alternative “mock meats” made of soya, jackfruit, mushrooms etc., have been around for a while; what is different now is the extent and sophistication of the technological intervention to create “meat” that is remarkably similar to the real thing in taste and texture. Reviews for Impossible Pork are unanimous that it is as good as real pork.

Many plant-based meat companies achieve this by combining plant proteins derived from rice, beans etc. with fats from coconut or sunflower oil, cocoa butter, etc. Some, like Good Dot, use derivatives from yeast to get the meaty flavour. The European Union-funded Smart Protein project is using spent yeast and other byproducts of the manufacture of pasta, bread, and beer.

Impossible Foods says it has created vegan heme (or haem), the iron-containing molecule that is found in all living organisms and is believed to be what makes meat taste meaty. Impossible Foods says that its products “get their heme from the protein soy leghemoglobin, which is naturally found in soy roots”, but which it produces through “genetic engineering and fermentation”. This, the company says, makes Impossible meats taste like actual meat, and also causes them to “bleed”.

Explained: How new tech is raising the bar for lab-grown and vegetarian meats There is consumer demand for alternative meats in the US and Europe. (Source: impossiblefoods.com)

How big is the alternative meat market?

Barclays said in a report last August that alternative meats are still only 1% ($14 billion) of the $1.4 trillion global meat industry; they are, however, expected to grow to 10% over the next decade.

With rising availability and consumer demand in the US and Europe, investors are backing what is seen as the next big thing in food tech. When Beyond Meat went public in May last year, it soared 163% over its IPO price, becoming the best-performing first-day IPO since 2000. In the same month, Impossible Foods raised $300 million in its Series E round; in all, it has raised $687.5 million in various rounds of funding since 2011.

Earlier this month, cell-cultured meat startup New Age Meat raised $2.7 million in seed funding, and Gathered Foods, the makers of plant-based seafood Good Catch, raised $32 million in Series B funding. Beyond Meat shares gained over 27% in the week ended January 10 — its best performance since July last year.

Industry stakeholders will be hoping the promise does not fizzle out like the dotcom bubble of the late 90s.

Explained: How new tech is raising the bar for lab-grown and vegetarian meats Heavily processed alternative meats may not be as healthy as is often claimed. (Source: impossiblefoods.com)

But why eat alternative meats?

Environmental sustainability is the most compelling reason. Industrial livestock farming is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and is a huge drain on land and water resources. Plant-based and lab-grown meats on the same scale will have a much smaller carbon footprint.

Health is another: aside from high cholesterol, antibiotic resistance is a concern, since animals on factory farms are given massive doses of antibiotics to stave off diseases. However, heavily processed alternative meats may not be as healthy as is often claimed. A single serving (113 g) of the Impossible Burger 2.0 has 370 mg sodium, more than four times the 75 mg/100 g on average in traditional lean, ground beef patty.

The third reason is moral. Arguments for vegetarian or veganism as a way to reduce cruelty to animals may find more takers if alternative meats that closely mimic the taste and texture of real meat is easily available.

Then there is food security. An example is playing out currently in China, where the culling of millions of pigs in the wake of the African swine flu epidemic has led to a severe shortage of pork. In the world’s biggest producer and consumer of pork, prices in December 2019 were double that of December 2018, and are bound to cast a shadow over the Spring Festival/New Year celebrations that will begin on Friday. At the launch of the Impossible Pork, company CEO Pat Brown said the next step would be expansion into Asia, with a particular focus on China.

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