We’re more than a decade into the alt-protein revolution. Will meatless beef ever replace the real thing?
What’s in your burger in the year 2030 may hinge less on culinary innovation than on a series of mechanical engineering experiments going on right now at the University of Illinois, where scientists are studying how to make plant-based patties more delicious.
Michael Leonard, the youthful-looking chief technology officer for Boston-based Motif FoodWorks, which is bankrolling the research, describes what researchers are looking for in existential terms.
“It’s all the mechanical properties that are relevant to the consumer mouthfeel and texture experience,” he says. “So you measure how springy is a product, how viscous is it, [and] how does it flow? How does it chew down?”
Leonard and his academic partners are searching for taste and texture needles in a giant biological haystack of otherwise dull vegetarian ingredients. Working with nearby synthetic biology powerhouse Ginkgo Bioworks, they use complex lab equipment called microbial “foundries” to synthesize and screen new botanical candidates that may have a desirable taste or texture. Think of it as speed-dating for lab-grown ingredients. If the scientists confirm that the new ingredient has the right structure and functionality, Motif can then use a fermentation process to produce large amounts. At a different lab across the ocean at the University of Queensland, Australia, Motif is researching an area known as “oral processing”—the mechanics of how we chew food and break it down with saliva. And at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the company is studying solubility, viscosity, and emulsification in order to get a handle on that all-important hamburger quality: juiciness.
This may seem like a lot of effort to create a better veggie burger. Plant-based meat alternatives are currently a niche category that encompassed the equivalent of just over 1 percent of the $95.3 billion worth of meat sold in the U.S. in 2019. But the fact that Motif has attracted $119 million in venture funding suggests that investors think that the company and its competitors—like the $150-million fungal protein startup Nature’s Fynd, or the publicly traded SavorEat (market value: over $100 million)—are not just creating an obscure vegan product. Instead, these companies are seeking to replace the cow-based burger with something they predict will be kinder for cows, better for the Earth, and more pleasing to the tongue.
Creating plant versions of meat is one way to take livestock out of food production. Other companies are culturing stem cells taken from live animals and attempting to grow “kill-free” tissue in large tanks called bioreactors. Beef, pork, poultry, fish, shrimp, and even foie gras businesses are already cooking away. But producing cultured meat is energy-intensive and expensive, costing hundreds of dollars per kilogram, whereas plant-based alternatives are cheap and plentiful, and available at your local grocery store right now.
Food scientists making plant-based burgers with soy or pea proteins have traditionally employed a “modify and mask approach.”
Cattle industry observers scoff at the idea that plant-based protein will ever supplant beef and milk, but the implications for the environment and animal welfare are enormous. The burger is a quintessential example of “affordable luxury.” The beef, fat, and blood-soaked interior offers an umami festival for the senses that far exceeds the stingy satisfaction of a turkey sandwich or a bowl of pasta. And burgers are cheap! In-N-Out will serve you up what some people consider the best burger you can buy for under $3, and even chains like Smashburger or Five Guys hawk their huge, high-end boutique burgers for less than $10.
Fast food restaurants sold 6.4 billion of them in 2019, but our love affair with the almighty hamburger comes at the cost of a significant environmental footprint.
If the world’s cattle herds occupied their own country, the greenhouse gas footprint of that “Cowstralia” would be roughly the same as the entire European Union (EU). Cattle produce 4.62 gigatons of greenhouse gasses per year, while the EU generates 4.483 gigatons per year. And with a worldwide population hurtling toward 9.5 billion people by 2050, the growing demand for beef in populous medium- and low-income countries is particularly ominous because there’s simply not enough supply to meet that demand.
There are also concerns over the common practice in the United States, Australia, and South America of shipping pre-market cattle to “feedlots” where they are fattened on a rich diet of cornmeal and other grains for days or weeks prior to slaughter. The conditions on these lots raise questions of animal welfare and cruelty for many people, along with other concerns, like the overuse of antibiotics. Some 70 percent of our medically important antibiotics go to prevent disease from tearing through tightly packed herds, raising the risk of emerging antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Some beef alternative companies are not shy about presenting their product as a fix to all our Malthusian woes. Nature’s Fynd makes foods like sliders, chocolate pudding, and cream cheese, using a fungal organism called Fusarium strain flavolapis, which evolved to live in Yellowstone’s hot springs. In a growth chamber in the 36,000-square-foot Nature’s Fynd facility in the meatpacking district in Chicago, scientists stack trays of the organism, along with a nutrient-rich blend of liquids and gases, causing the microbe to ferment the feedstock into slabs of white protein, which the company has branded as “Fy.”
The results look something like trays of uncooked ravioli. The Fy can then be steamed, rinsed, pressed, and sliced into a range of textures and shapes—without needing to be trucked in from a farm. CEO Thomas Jonas says that, per unit of protein, Fy production emits 99 percent less greenhouse gas, uses 99 percent less land, and consumes only 87 percent as much water compared to beef.
Others find that comparison unconvincing. Frank Mitloehner, an animal science professor at the University of California, Davis, says that comparing an American plant-based product to the global beef industry is misleading—even irresponsible—because worldwide beef estimates include the much less efficient cattle herds of other countries. He also says what we eat is not the main driver of our carbon footprint.
“If we as society focus our attention on what we eat and think that what we eat makes all the difference in the world for our carbon footprint, then we are taking attention away from what really matters, which is the use of fossil fuel,” Mitloehner says.
Taste matters most
At the end of the day, beef is a hard product to replace because it’s cheap and tastes good. And Motif’s Michael Leonard also believes that for most consumers making food choices for their own shopping cart, what ultimately matters more than sustainability is taste.
As anyone who has ever endured a dry and heavily processed veggie puck for lunch knows, they lack the meaty tang of real beef. When eating those products, it’s traditionally been best to keep your expectations low. You’re not eating a beef burger—you’re eating a plant burger. Leonard points to a Yale survey showing that 67 percent of people would be willing to replace meat with plant-based food—but only if it tasted better.
“The plant-based movement for sustainability, animal welfare, nutrition, all those are great,” he says. “But if the product doesn’t taste good, we’re never going to get the kind of adoption we want to see.”
Leonard says that food scientists making plant-based burgers with soy or pea proteins have traditionally employed a “modify and mask approach.” They try to cover up odd flavors or textures with other ingredients.
“If I have this issue with ‘off’ flavors, I can throw in some gums and other hydrocolloids, ingredients with a lot of vowels, to replicate the performance of fat,” Leonard says. “I’ll use a processing technology to make fiber, to make this thing look and feel more like a meat product.”
Motif seeks not to mask but instead to create ingredients that will supplant the “off-ingredients” and help a burger made out of them taste good in the first place.
Beating Impossible Foods at its own game
The success of the Impossible Foods plant-based burger suggests that Motif is on the right track by focusing on novel ingredients. Impossible, which uses genetically engineered yeast to produce a “bloody-tasting” ingredient called soy leghemoglobin, landed in Burger King in 2019 and is now available at more than 5,000 restaurants and retailers around the country, including ordinary chains like Walmart, Target, Kroger, and Safeway. Tasting panels at the New York Times, Serious Eats, and Cook’s Illustrated have all praised the result as something of a dramatic step forward from the perennially uninspiring veggie burger puck.
“If you compare the plant-based burgers on the market today, it’s hard to argue that the Impossible Burger isn’t significantly closer to a conventional burger than all the others,” David Welch, a senior adviser at the Good Food Institute, an industry nonprofit that promotes plant-based and lab-cultured alternatives to meat, said in an email. “I think Motif has the potential to make those types of ingredients available to all companies, [for] achieving the goal of taste equivalence or superiority to conventional beef and dairy products.”
Mitloehner says Impossible CEO Patrick Brown told him that plant-based foods would completely replace animal food by the year 2035. That’s a view in keeping with a white paper by the think tank RethinkX, which posits that beef and milk demand will have shrunk 70 percent by 2030, putting the majority of cattle ranchers and processors into bankruptcy. (A dairy trade group derides the white paper and its authors as living in “a vegan fantasyland.”) Alternatives to cow’s milk, which now account for 14 percent of the fluid milk market, offer a glimpse of how this dynamic might play out—including fierce legal arguments that because “almonds don’t lactate,” nut-based producers should be legally banned from using the term “milk.” But it’s clear that there is a long road ahead for plant-based beef alternatives to truly “disrupt” the incumbent.
A skeptical Mitloehner calculates that by the end of 2020, plant-based alternatives to animal protein sources made up just six-tenths of one percent of the market.
“They have something to be proud of, because 0.6 percent is still a lot,” says Mitloehner. “But it’s certainly not replacing animal agriculture as we know it. So they need to just stop that narrative. It’s laughable.”
The spatula-wielding robot
However impressively meat-like Fy, Impossible Burgers, or Motif’s foods may ultimately taste, the companies still depend on relatively relatively low-tech, energy-inefficient refrigeration to get their products to market. Since 40 percent of foods require refrigeration, a team of South African engineering professors estimate that roughly 15 percent of the world’s fossil fuel use goes to food transport refrigeration.
Tel Aviv-based SavorEat, which went public late last year and has a market value of over $100 million, doesn’t have that problem. It’s taking what you might call the most Jetsons-like approach. Cartridges full of cellulose derivative, along with plant-based protein and vegetable fat, are fed into a rectangular “robot chef” that resembles a microwave turned on its side, which then 3D prints and cooks a plant-based patty—in just six minutes from start to finish. Intended for restaurants and other commercial kitchens, the robotic approach uses plant ingredients that are stable at room temperature for up to six months. The company estimates that shipping food at ambient temperature will reduce its food transportation carbon footprint by 24 percent.
Having a robot whip months-old cellulose into burgers may seem contrary to a slow food movement that prizes fresh, local ingredients. But the company insists that the cellulose simply serves as a binding agent that helps give the SavorEat burger a particularly realistic texture without sacrificing taste.
And for fast-food joints that depend on volume for profitability, having a machine that turns non-refrigerated ingredients into a perfectly uniform burger would have appeal, particularly since such chain restaurants are always looking to cut labor costs. “The recipe is a code,” says SavorEat’s CEO Racheli Vizman. “Our solution allows a business to serve the same exact product, in different locations—and does not require any experience in grilling or cooking.”
Entrusting one’s hot lunch to a cold algorithm and a spatula-wielding robot may seem dystopian—until you drive past a cattle feedlot and remember what the status quo looks like. But as Mitloehner points out, guilt about animal welfare only goes so far in the grocery aisle—just 3 percent of American beef is from cattle that spent their whole lives on a pasture. The other 97 percent went to a feedlot, were fattened on corn, and were slaughtered earlier, providing a taste at an affordable price point that American consumers clearly prefer.
Investors, who have risked over $370 million on Motif, Nature’s Fynd, and SavorEat alone, will not have endless patience for the plant-based protein companies if they can’t make good on their promises to truly disrupt the beef industry. Frankly, the results look really good—but that could merely be attributable to the skill of the food photographers.
Motif’s Leonard thinks the investment will allow the company to do the systematic scientific research needed to move beyond the “modify and mask” approach that has dominated plant-based meat development up to now. But ultimately the payoff for investors will most likely hinge not on how the new foodstuffs look but on how they taste. To a public accustomed to the “off” flavors of mediocre veggie burgers, the proof will be in the alt pudding (and the fake sliders and imitation taco meat).