What goes in alternative plant-based meat and why is it receiving the attention that it is right now?
220 pounds—that’s the amount of red meat and poultry that an average American consumes every year. Let that sink in for a moment. Now picture this: a single pound of beef produced in a feedlot can contribute up to 15 pounds of CO2 to our environment—36 times of what production of a similar amount of Asparagus would cause. This means that roughly a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to livestock cultivation. For reference, that is twice the amount of emissions by all the cars on the planet put together. Yes, this dietary change can do wonders for our environment. However, for a vast majority of people, it is easier said than done. Good alternatives are often not readily available.
This is the global problem that a clutch of alternative meat startups are trying to solve. The premise is simple: People will give plant based or lab grown meat a chance if it tastes like the real deal. While veggie burgers have existed for a really long time, they have failed to come close to mimicking the taste and texture of meat. As a result, less than three percent of Americans opt for veggie burgers, and two companies in particular have captured the imagination and subsequently interest of the public with their meat alternative products.
Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat is now extremely commonplace in the US and elsewhere and much of that can be attributed to how these brands, far more than others have sought to accurately replicate what meat tastes and feels like. Broadly speaking, almost all research focused on alternative meats is targeted at three distinct technologies—plant-based, microbial fermentation, and cell-cultured.
Impossible Foods, having raised a total of $1.2 billion over 12 rounds, uses a production technique that relies on microbial fermentation. The startup uses leghemoglobin molecules found naturally in the roots of the Soy plant to produce the protein heme. Scientists have discovered that heme is the key reason for why meat behaves the way it does. In fact, it is the molecule that gives blood its distinctive red colour and is responsible for Impossible Foods’ burgers to “bleed” much like real meat. To produce leghemoglobin in large enough quantities, the company genetically engineered a yeast and uses a microbial fermentation process very similar to how certain types of beer are brewed. In addition, the company has created a library of proteins and plant-based fats, experimenting with them to find the composition that closely imitates what meat tastes, looks, and feels like.
Startups in this space have quickly learned that the factors contributing to some of the defining characteristics of meat transform during the cooking process. Impossible Foods realized that hemoglobin, a major component in animal meat, plays a vital part and imparts much of the flavor profile to meat. Structures similar to the heme found in meat are also readily found in legumes. Heme-containing proteins and flavor precursors can be mixed and matched to achieve flavor similar to meat from a variety of animal sources.
The process of actually forming the meat patty is similar for both Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, even though a lot is different in how they approach producing the meat itself. The plant-based protein is first formed into a dough and then shaped into a fibrous, meat-like network using a die. This is achieved through a pressure-driven mechanism that coaxes the meat into the desired form.
Before cooking, the heme iron in the Impossible Foods burger is in its ferrous state, which gives it the distinctive red color. However, with the application of heat, the iron oxidizes with oxygen in the air to reach a ferric state and subsequently turn brown. This transformation, as you’d know, is an important indicator of the done-ness of animal meat products. This innovative use of soy leghemoglobin ensures that Impossible Foods doesn’t have to use additional food colour pigments.
Beyond Meat, on the other hand, has gone with a far more traditional approach, developing plant-based meat substitutes with flavor additives developed over the last decade or so. The brand also focuses on replicating the texture of real meat. In order to do so, the company perfected a patented process to transform the structure of pea protein.
Another thing that the company does is use coconut oil to mimic animal fat. This, it has to be said, is similar to what Impossible Foods does with its meat as well, although in the case of Impossible Foods, the coconut oil is semi-dried and mixed with textured wheat and potato protein. On being treated with heat during the cooking process, coconut oil melts from its semi-solid form, much like animal fat. Unlike Impossible Foods though, beetroot juice is used for the red color. The natural pigment betalains in beetroot, which is stable at room temperature but highly unstable at high temperature, degrades as temperatures rise, turning the meat brown.
The two distinct and innovative processes employed by both brands has meant that alternative meat products despite their very low penetration in the market (less than one percent of the market share) have been tried by at least 40% Americans. But this could be just the start of what could be an uphill battle for these brands. You see, making meat substitutes for ground meat products isn’t as challenging as replicating cuts of meat. So, while burgers, sausages, and the like have been picked up by some of the world’s biggest fast-food chains as well as grocery stores, cell-based protein technologies seem to be the best hope for recreating cuts of meat. Unfortunately though, the technology is still a work in progress and your substitute for a steak is years away.
From a nutrition standpoint, meat alternatives needing to be as close to traditional meat products means that much of what makes them unhealthy is retained. Sure, some of the cancer risks associated with red meat are not really concerns with plant-based meat, but that’s about it. The attempt to mimic meat means that these products are very similar even when it comes to the macronutrient profile.
Despite that, one thing is for sure though: These plant-based substitutes are magnitudes better for our planet. Right from land use, water use, and even fighting climate change, plant-based is the way to go. The amount of difference these alternatives can make is shocking: An analysis of the Impossible Foods burger shed light on the fact that its carbon footprint is 89% smaller than a burger made from beef. That sounds like quite the solution, right? Yes, it is. However, there is one major stumbling block—scale. These alternatives are still pricier than regular meat at a scale that’s simply negligible. It is still not known if these meat alternative companies can lower prices to make them more affordable while scaling up substantially.
Regardless of what the future holds for these companies, they have fueled interest in the sector and have drawn billions of dollars of investment into the space. The challenge of a livestock farming-free future might be a pipe dream at this stage, but it is definitely one that deserves all the attention it is getting.