Why Fake Meat Is The Future
The Impossible Burger is well named. An entirely vegetarian patty dreamed up by the brains in Silicon Valley rather than the brawn of a Texas farm, it has been applauded for its ‘impossibly’ realistic taste and texture—right down to the bloody, metallic aftertaste that has made it a friend to carnivores around the world.
Fake meat is everywhere. As we all wake up to the impact our meat-heavy diets are having on the planet, not to mention our waistlines, people are becoming vegetarian, flexitarian, pescatarian, vegan, or even just more meat-conscious in their droves.
One look at the statistics should have you shunning steak tartare for life. A study by the University of Oxford found that if we want to keep global warming below the two degrees celcius increase the UN has warned will be deadly for every inhabitant on this planet, we all need to be eating 75 percent less beef and 90 percent less pork.
But what happens if you really, really like bacon? Or if your diet is a fundamental part of your culture: chicken soup when you’re sick, turkey at Christmas and roast beef for Sunday lunch? Enter the world of fake meat, which can help ease the transition into a vegetarianism for millions of people who are doing it for moral rather than taste-based reasons.
Meat substitutes have existed for centuries. In the past, those too poor to buy meat would simply create the illusion of it instead, so aubergine puree for caviar in 19th century Russia, beef from mushrooms in revolutionary France and ‘sausage’ made of leeks in World War II Britain. More recently, Quorn—a fake meat made from mycoprotein—was launched in the 1980s, but has long been a byword for bland, flavourless food.
But scientists in California have helped create the first meat substitute that doesn’t taste too far off the real thing. Impossible Foods—the inventor of that famous burger—has pioneered a bioengineering process that uses a molecule known as ‘heme’ to give meat-free meat the slightly metallic flavour it is usually lacking, and even a distinctive ‘blood’ colouring.
And then there is Los Angeles-based Beyond Meat, which has seen its popularity skyrocket by almost 700 percent over the last year and a 'white hot' IPO earlier this year. Today, its plant-based burgers, ground beef, sausages and bacon are sold in more than 30,000 supermarkets and restaurants globally.
Phuture Food, meanwhile, is creating pork substitutes for Asian consumers. This Malaysian startup has turned the focus away from beef towards pork, which plays a more important role in the Asian diet. Using plants such as wheat, shiitake mushrooms and mung beans to mimic the texture and flavour of pork, the company is hoping to take the environmental strain off population growth in countries such as Malaysia and China.
Price-wise, Phuture Food is hoping to hit a lower price point than actual pork. Impossible Foods has the same aim: get the price of a meat-substitute burger below that of an actual hamburger patty. At that point people will vote with their wallets, which has been proven to be a lot more effective in terms of sales than anything else.
“It’s so important to make food that is environmentally friendly as well as bank-balance friendly,” says Gen.T honouree Tamsin Thornburrow, the founder of Hong Kong zero waste grocery store, Live Zero. “People are not going to change their habits if they can’t afford to do so. But if you show them that they can make a real difference, but keep eating well, and even save some money in the process, then you might get them to make the transition.”
And then there are startups such as MosaMeat, Just and Memphis Meats, which are tissue-engineering meat in a laboratory. Unlike Impossible Foods, these lab-based startups are creating actual meat that has been grown from real animal cells, just on a petri dish rather than a live creature. Bill Gates has invested in MosaMeat and called it the future of meat eating.
People are not going to change their habits if they can’t afford to do so. But if you show them that they can make a real difference, but keep eating well, and even save some money in the process, then you might get them to make the transition
— Tamsin Thornburrow
And like so much in the tech era, these advances bring us the chance to customise our products. In the future, Impossible Burgers and companies like it are hoping that clients will be able to choose the taste and texture of their burger online: so soft and chewable for children and the elderly, or particularly bloody for those who prefer it that way.
And fast-food chains are catching on. This autumn, every Burger King in the US will sell an Impossible Whopper, made from Impossible Meat’s magic ingredient; a plan that will be rolled out in Europe by next year. Del Taco has partnered with Beyond Meat to offer a taco that tastes like the real thing but is meat-free. While earlier this year, British Twitter was set alight by the announcement that bakery chain Greggs—a byword for good, working class grub—had, to the cultivated consternation of right-wing commentators such as Piers Morgan, launched a vegan sausage roll.
And while we must applaud the choice to help our sickly planet, there is every reason to suggest that these changes are being done for business reasons above all else. Meat substitutes make financial sense for fast-food chains as they lower production costs and increase profit margins.
And then there is the question of whether fake meat is healthy for people rather than just the planet. As ever, the old adage applies: too much of anything isn’t good for you. Fake meat can be higher in sodium, which is bad for the kidneys and liver, while too much soy can—in rare cases—lead to breast cancer. However, given the adverse effects red meat can have on both the colon and the heart, it is arguably a risk worth taking.
And while lab-grown meat is currently only being produced in small amounts—and the question of whether ‘meat’ is still meat if it hasn’t come from a live animal is still being debated—this is a trend that can only grow as we change our lives in order to save the planet. And perhaps one day in the future, the idea of eating animal flesh will be happily consigned to the past, along with smoking on planes and patting secretaries on the bottom.