The fleshy lump of protein sizzles on the griddle, turns from pink to brown, emits crimson juices, and releases a deep smoky aroma. Plonked in a bun, it looks just like a beef burger. But this patty is made from pea protein, its luscious fat comes from canola and coconut oils, and that blood-red colour stems from beets. The result is 20g of muscle-building protein, zero cholesterol – and one very relieved Aberdeen Angus cow.
The Beyond Burger is one of a new wave of hyper-realistic, plant-based meat alternatives which, alongside futuristic lab-grown meat, promises game-changing health and environmental benefits. Over 25 million Beyond Burgers have been sold through 25,000 stores and restaurants across America since 2016 and the brand has plans to launch in 50 countries worldwide. It is already available at Honest Burger in London’s King’s Cross and will soon arrive in Tesco stores nationwide (after its August launch was delayed until production could match expected demand).
“We aren’t trying to create something that is like meat – we are trying to build meat directly,” explains CEO and founder Ethan Brown.
At the company’s research centre in El Segundo, California, scientists analysed the amino acids, lipids, minerals and water which constitute the architecture of meat. They then sourced plant-based alternatives and reset their bonds using heating, cooling and pressure to form a meaty substance. “All the animal is doing is taking vegetation and water and using their digestive and muscular systems to convert that into muscle, which is harvested as meat,” says Brown. “We are essentially doing the work of the animal but in a more efficient way.”
The quest for perfection continues. In El Segundo scientists squish patties in a machine known as the “E-tongue” to test for elasticity and juice flow – even the right pressure against the teeth. An “E-nose” device is isolating the molecules contained in meat’s scent. It may seem excessive, but this fusion of flavour, texture and aroma – dubbed “the theatre of meat” – is vital. Evolution has hardwired humans to crave calorie-dense meat, and its taste is ingrained in a complex web of personal, social and family traditions.
“A lot of people want to eat things that are better for the environment but when they are hungry, taste and sensory factors can override that,” explains Alexandra Sexton, an Oxford University researcher who analyses food technology and alternatives to conventional production systems. “What sets the latest products apart is how much attention they are giving to those sensual properties.”
Plant’s on fire
This cutting-edge science is colliding with consumer interest. In the UK, demand from Tesco customers for frozen meat-free foods soared by over 70% in the year to March 2018, while Iceland’s soya and beetroot No Bull burger was its best-selling burger of the summer. Marston’s pubs now serve a Moving Mountains B12 “bleeding” mushroom and pea burger. Brown believes a new generation of environment- and health-savvy consumers are the driving force.
“In the past, most plant-based meat alternatives have simply not tasted as good,” says University of Bath psychology researcher Chris Bryant, who studies consumer acceptance of meat alternatives. “This is not tofu aimed at vegans – it is high-quality and, in some cases, indistinguishable from meat.”
Data from Allied Market Research suggests the meat substitute market will be worth £5.7 billion by 2025. Beyond Meat’s investors include Bill Gates, Leonardo DiCaprio and Twitter co-founder Biz Stone. Its US plant-based rival Impossible Foods is backed by the likes of Google Ventures and UBS.
The tasty secret behind the latter company’s wheat-and-potato Impossible Burger, which is already sold in 3,000 restaurants across the US, Hong Kong and Macau, is heme – an iron-rich compound found in meat. “That was a key discovery,” says Sue Klapholz, Impossible’s vice-president of nutrition and health. “Not just to create the flavours of meat but also the texture, the mouthfeel, the nutrition.”
Impossible genetically engineers a yeast to help grow a plant-based heme found in soy plants. The use of GMO avoids the need to grow acres of soy – “What goes in the burger is essentially the same protein you would get if you dug up the root nodules of soy beans and extracted the protein,” says Klapholz – although its use may concern some as Impossible expands worldwide.
This whirlwind of innovation is fuelled by environmental and health necessities. Modern livestock farming methods are simply unsustainable: the industry causes 14.5% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, and feed crops take up one third of the world’s cropland. Around 70 billion animals are reared for food each year and demand is projected to increase by 70% by 2050. Excessive meat intake is also linked to high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, obesity and bowel cancer. Research by the Oxford Martin Programme suggests if we all went vegan by 2050, the world would have eight million fewer deaths every year.
But at Mosa Meat in the Netherlands, scientists specialising in cellular agriculture plan to solve the meat apocalypse through laboratory-grown “cultured meat” (or, as they say, “clean meat”) instead.
Stem cells are extracted from an animal via a biopsy, then placed in a medium containing nutrients and natural growth factors, and allowed to proliferate inside a bioreactor until trillions of cells merge into muscle tissue. No genetic modification is involved. As Sarah Lucas, the company’s head of strategy, points out, the meat is “at the molecular level, identical to livestock meat” but produced in sterile conditions, without the risk of slaughterhouse contamination or using drugs that may be spawning antibiotic-resistant superbugs.
Professor Mark Post, Mosa Meat’s chief scientific officer, unveiled the world’s first lab-cultured burger in August 2013. One taster said it was “close to meat, but not that juicy”. It cost €250,000 (around £225,000) to make – it was funded by Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google – but the company plans to launch an affordable product by 2021. It will probably be restricted to gourmet restaurants to begin with, but Mosa hopes to have products in supermarkets by 2026. The race is on: in 2016 US-based Memphis Meats made the world’s first lab-grown meatball.
The environmental benefits are compelling: Mosa Meat claims one cell sample can create up to 20,000 tonnes of meat, so they would need just 150 cows to satisfy the world’s meat demand. Impossible Foods says its burgers use a 20th of the land and a quarter of the water needed for livestock meat.
At consumer level, however, the primary driver is health. Research by Mintel revealed that 49% of Brits interested in limiting their meat consumption are motivated by health – animal welfare (24%) and the environment (24%) were lesser factors. Though veganism has quadrupled in the past decade, UK consumers still eat on average 79kg of meat a year. This suggests the biggest market comprises meat-eaters seeking a healthier balance.
“More consumers are looking to cut consumption of animal products for health reasons,” says Bryant. “And it does seem early adopters are particularly abundant in the fitness community. Many Men’s Fitness readers – young, well-educated males – are among the demographic shown to be most open to clean meat.” Beyond Burger’s Ethan Brown says he is “100%” targeting meat-eaters and aims to disrupt the caveman notion that meat is manly.
If health is the primary concern, just how nutritious are these meat alternatives? After all, meat is packed with protein, its oxygen-transporting iron content is easily absorbed, and it also provides energy-increasing B vitamins and growth-boosting zinc. But it is also high in saturated fat and dietary cholesterol, which is why the NHS recommends a limit of 70g of red or processed meat per day.
Compared with a 113.5g Sainsbury’s Taste The Difference burger, a 113g Beyond Burger has similar protein (20g v 21.3g), less saturated fat (5g v 6.6g) and salt (0.38g v 0.90g), and more fibre (3g v 0.5g) – plus, of course, zero cholesterol. It is also GMO-free. “If you are an athlete what you really want out of meat is high-quality amino acids and healthy fats,” says Brown. “We can deliver those in spades, while stripping out cholesterol and saturated fat.” NBA star Kyrie Irving and NFL icon DeAndre Hopkins are both fans of the product.
But is the protein good enough? Meat remains the gold standard for athletes, made from high-quality amino acids ripe for transforming into muscle. “There are ingrained thoughts about plant protein being inferior because of its amino acid composition, but we can take the best sources of amino acids and combine them,” explains Brown. “The number one cultural hurdle is: can plant protein guide my body’s growth and recovery? And the answer is 100% yes.”
Adapt and grow
The innovations are not perfect. A Beyond Burger contains more overall fat (20g v 14.6g) and calories (270 v 221) than the Sainsbury’s alternative. But the product is under constant refinement – and its potential adaptability is key. The company has already launched the Beast Burger, with an extra 3g of protein and omega fatty acids to aid recovery. “We start with a blank canvas so if we see a benefit in one species – is there something really great in salmon? – we could put that into the burger we are building,” says Brown.
Although Mosa Meat’s Lucas says their produce should be the “equivalent to livestock meat from a health and nutritional perspective”, its saturated fat could be replaced by healthier polyunsaturated fatty acids by adjusting the feed – just as grass-grazing cows have healthier fat profiles than their grain-fed cousins. Plus, if the component of meat which causes colorectal cancer is ever identified, that too could, in theory, be removed.
An Impossible Burger also has 20g of protein, high quantities of energy-lifting thiamin and brain-boosting B12, and zero cholesterol. “Our goal is always to try to be as good if not more nutritious than the products we replace,” says Klapholz. Again it is the combination of proteins that helps the product square up to beef: “We have more protein which is of a lesser quality in terms of not having the same amino acid depth, but we have more of it, so serving for serving we match beef quite well.”
Impossible hopes to eventually out-beef beef itself. “We are not constrained by the physical nature of beef – cows aren’t really evolving so beef from cows isn’t improving. There is greater potential for us to be even better.”
Sexton suggests curbing enthusiasm to an extent, pointing out that many of these meat-free alternatives have been launched in the form of snacks or junk food.. “You might save a bit of cholesterol and saturated fats by swapping beef for a pea-based burger, but if you eat a big portion of chips and sugary drink with that it compromises the advantages.” That’s why Klapholz of Impossible Foods ensures their products are versatile: “A consumer might want to make a favourite pasta sauce or meat loaf, and if it doesn’t work in those recipes it won’t fly with those people.”
Meat and veg
Marketing battles are raging already. Plant-based companies want meat aisles to be renamed “protein aisles” and insist their products sit next to meat. But in February 2018 the US Cattlemen’s Association filed a petition to ban lab-grown and plant-based meat from being labelled “meat”. In France a new law bans vegetarian companies from calling their products “sausages” or “mince”. The global meat, poultry and seafood market is expected to reach £5.6 trillion by 2025. It won’t disappear overnight.
Lee Holdstock of the Soil Association insists there is an alternative path, with consumers eating less but higher-quality meat, thereby avoiding fossil fuel-derived fertilisers and enabling livestock to continue their vital role as part of a mixed organic crop rotation system. There is a contradiction to overcome, too. “Consumers increasingly want to be connected with the story of where their food comes from and they increasingly want products they see as ‘natural’,” Holdstock says. And though farming methods are anything but natural, talk of food scientists, bioreactors and laboratories doesn’t sit comfortably either.
Lucas insists transparency will be important – and it is an advantage, not a problem. “Slaughterhouses have high walls for a reason,” she says. Lab-grown meat facilities can have glass walls. But for both cultured meat and plant-based alternatives, consumer perception will be everything. “It will depend on whether people see the technology as making this food safer and better or compromising it,” concludes Sexton. “Our idea of what ‘natural’ is in the mainstream food system is so intertwined with what we conversely think of as ‘unnatural’ that the term is far more complex than we might think.”
All innovators agree on one point: a meat revolution is coming. “We are at a game-changing point in history,” says Bryant. “Until now, giving up animal products has been a sacrifice for consumers. Many acknowledge there are good reasons to eat less meat, but they don’t want to give it up because they like it. Plant-based and clean meat are about to give us all the chance to have our steak and eat it.”