With the advent of technology and resources, we have evolved from passive to active consumers. Growing concerns over the environmental impact and sustainability of the meat industry have got many meat eaters realising that cutting back on meat may have more benefits than they previously considered. The proportionate – if not significantly higher – rate of meat consumption to the rise in population means that eventually, demand for meat will surpass that of its supply. The answer to all – sustainable meat. Plant-based meat was met with resounding success, despite its limited accessibility. Meanwhile, cultured meat looks to be the future game-changer that will revolutionise the meat industry altogether.
A shift in consumers towards sustainable meat
Consumers are gathering behind sustainable meat due to its health and environmental benefits, as well as for ethical reasons. As sustainable meat is lab-grown, the risk of bacterial pathogens found in “traditional” livestock meat such as E. coli and salmonella are eliminated.
Also, livestock – especially cows – go through immeasurable amounts of food and water – of up to 11,000 gallons a year per cow – and take up vast stretches of land. Cattle gas also makes up for ten percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Hence the advent of sustainable meat helps in reducing global warming as well.
Though cultured meat and plant-based meat both have the same purpose of reducing consumers’ reliance on livestock, the methods used for these two products could not be more different from each other.
“We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.” This statement was part of Winston Churchill’s article in 1931 entitled ‘Fifty Years Hence’, where he speculated what the world would be like in 50 years. It may have taken more than 50 years, but cultured meat has made Churchill’s forecast come to fruition.
As cultured meat dabbles on entirely new technology that has only solidified in the past five years or so, the methods behind growing meat cells are complex. Though multiple processes exist, they all primarily follow a similar approach. Cultured meat is produced by drawing out a serum from unborn calves, and then feeding and nurturing the cells so that they multiply to create muscle tissue. The result? Muscle tissue that has the exact biological composition as traditional meat.
On the challenges of cultured meat
One issue with this process is that growing a group of cells is fundamentally different than raising an animal, so more work is needed to ensure that the cultured meat resembles the kind of meat products consumers are used to. Furthermore, many companies still use fetal bovine serum (FBS) – a standard medium made from the blood of pregnant slaughtered cows – to cultivate the meat. Hence, start-ups will have to find a slaughter-free source that costs the same or less to remain ethical.
One of the biggest hurdles faced by start-ups is the cost required to create cultured meat, but that may no longer be the issue as production costs for cultured meat are rapidly decreasing. For instance, a sausage cultured by New Age Meats cost about US$2,500 to produce in October 2018. About a month later in September, the price went down by about close to 12 times cheaper at US$216. While cultured meat is still too expensive to be commercially sold yet, it is only a matter of time before it does – which gives start-ups plenty of time to obtain animal cells for growing meat ethically.
Plant-based meat is essentially like the mock meat made from tofu that we have known for years. This time, companies are leveraging on new research to make their products feel, smell and taste like real meat than ever before.
The two most prominent players in the new wave of plant-based meat are Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, both of which brag that their burgers resemble real meat more closely – both in flavour and texture – than their predecessors with their “bleeding” feature. Much of Beyond Meat’s innovation is built on work conducted on pea proteins at the University of Missouri – along with a bit of beet juice to create a “bleeding” effect.
Meanwhile, Impossible Foods unlocks the power of heme – an essential molecule found in every living plant and animal, most abundantly in animals. Impossible Foods started by using heme-containing protein from the roots of soy plants called soy leghemoglobin. The DNA from soy plants is then inserted into a genetically engineered yeast which multiplies, resulting in the production of a lot of heme with a fraction of the footprint of field-grown soy.
Talking with Henry Woodward-Fisher of Impossible Foods
Having tried Impossible meat for myself at FatPapas, I can dare say that the difference in taste is almost negligent. Better yet, Impossible meat is already so packed with flavour that they are best eaten without any extra condiments or seasonings.
We also spoke with Henry Woodward-Fisher, International Launch Manager at Impossible Foods, who shared with us more about Impossible meat, and where it stands in the meat industry.
What makes Impossible Foods stand out from other plant-based meat companies?
Henry: What differentiates us from other companies is our technology platform. The Impossible Burger is the product of multiple years of research to recreate the entire experience and science behind the meat and how it tastes, cooks, sizzles and smells. The approach for many other brands is to create better veggie alternatives to meat, and they often target an audience of vegans and vegetarians. We take a molecular approach to understand the full experience of eating meat and are targeting primarily meat-lovers with our produce.
Our first and most important discovery was heme, the magic ingredient that gives our burger its meaty taste and appearance. For more information on heme and how it recreates the meat flavour, and how we developed a scalable way to produce it, please see here.
The advent of plant-based meat like Impossible Foods may affect farmers and produce factory workers. How do you think this issue can be addressed?
Henry: We share a mission with farmers – to find new and better ways to sustainably feed the projected 9.7 billion people (projection for 2050) and reduce the effects of population growth, climate change, resource constraints and a global nutrition crisis – and we rely on farmers just as much as any food product. Impossible Foods is at the forefront of a new industry and movement with immense potential for new jobs in rural communities. We are committed to creating more, higher-quality jobs for farmers, producers, and manufacturers, and better options for consumers.
Do you reckon cultured meat may become a massive competitor in the sustainable meat market?
Henry: Companies that produce cultured meat have a similar mission, but a very different approach, and therefore, very different products to the ones we make at Impossible Foods. The Impossible Burger is not produced from cellular age. We are a completely different system that involves assembling plant-based meat directly from plant-based ingredients, such as soy protein and sunflower oil. We make our products in a state-of-the-art food production facility in Oakland, which used to be an industrial bakery.
What we have in common are consumers who are increasingly looking for delicious, more sustainable options, even as the world’s appetite for animal-derived products continues to climb.
Henry: Through our research, we’ve also found that taste is the most crucial factor that matters when it comes to customers’ acceptance of alternative meat options. Impossible products are designed to meet the needs of meat, dairy, and fish by fulfilling the cravings of the meat-lovers, and we will continue to focus on developing delicious, affordable and nutritious meat from plants without compromising on taste, texture or nutrition.
Veego by Life3 Biotech
The growth of sustainable meat may be closer to home that you think. In September 2017, Life3 Biotech – a start-up in Singapore – produced its first plant-based meat, Veego.
Veego is a protein-rich ingredient made from legumes, grains, and soya beans; but with the chewiness of meat. Unlike tofu, which disintegrates more easily, Veego can be wrestled into any meat – be it chicken, beef or pork – and can be sliced like real meat. It can be braised, steamed, stir-fried, deep-fried, and cooked in curry or teriyaki-style.
Furthermore, Veego boasts a huge 18g of protein per 100g, is high in fibre, low in saturated fat and contains vitamins A, B and C and magnesium. It is also suitable for a broad spectrum of consumers as it is gluten-free.
It is safe to say that traditional livestock meat will still be around, but consumers will now have the added option of sustainable meat to the list – it will just be another type of meat offered on the menu on top of chicken, pork and beef.
Assuming cultured meat doesn’t hit any regulatory hurdles, we might be just a few years out from traditional meat, plant-based meat and lab-grown meat all being equally commercially viable from a cost standpoint.
Traditional meat will likely have a place on the market for the foreseeable future, but the advent of affordable cultured meat could potentially put more pressure on the booming plant-based meat business than traditional meat companies. While plant-based meat remains as the only “true” vegetarian option, people who have chosen to go vegetarian for ethical reasons might see clean meat as a way to alleviate these concerns and gravitate away from plant-based meat back to “real” clean meat.
All in all, cultured meat will most likely become the most significant player in the meat industry once it becomes commercialised but, till then, plant-based “bleeding” burgers will continue to relish as the go-to meat for the environmentally-conscious
Photos by Goh Jing Wen of the DANAMIC team.