Technologies in Food Are Making an Animal-Free Future Possible

Nov. 5, 2019
From burgers to whole-muscle steaks plus dairy, seafood and chicken, no animal protein seems beyond the reach of formulation and technology.

Clearly, many consumers still love animal-derived meat and dairy products. Consider, for example, the increasingly exotic selections of meat snack bars found in convenience stores, the ubiquity of bone-in and boneless Buffalo wings and the many varieties of cheese available in supermarkets.

Nevertheless, a striking trend has been the drive to reduce animal product consumption and dependence on animal agriculture -- for reasons ranging from personal health to environmental sustainability to compassion for livestock animals. As a result, not only will the plant-based movement continue to gain momentum in 2020 and beyond, but also tremendous innovation is occurring in the realm of laboratory-cultured (or cellular) meat, seafood and dairy products.

Although still futuristic and likely years away from widespread commercialization, cultured meat and seafood beckon with the promise of a taste, texture and nutrient profile identical to that from slaughtered animals — but without any environmental degradation or animal cruelty.

“Demand for meat is expected to double by 2050,” according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, notes David Kay, senior manager of communications and operations for Berkeley, Calif.-based Memphis Meats, one of the first commercial enterprises globally to produce edible cellular meat.

“But with modern meat production requiring a third of the world’s land and water, there simply aren’t enough resources on the planet to meet that demand," he continues. "Growing meat directly from cells can enable our food system to meet skyrocketing demand while preserving both our planet and our most cherished culinary traditions.”

In the more established realm of plant-derived meat alternatives, analogues that mimic the taste, texture and other qualities of the iconic American beef burger are becoming mainstream. For example, Burger King rolled out the plant-based Impossible Whopper (from Impossible Foods) in select U.S. cities this year, while McDonald’s more cautiously is testing the P.L.T. (plant, lettuce and tomato) burger made with the Beyond Burger (by Beyond Meat) in several restaurants in Ontario.

The competition between the two California-based food firms has gotten intense. Redwood City-based Impossible Foods got its products into grocery stores on the East and West Coasts in September. El Segundo-headquartered Beyond Meat is diving deeper into foodservice.

In addition, Beyond Meat recently reformulated its three-year-old burger substitute to improve the product’s taste, texture, amino acid profile and verisimilitude to ground beef during the cooking process. The Beyond Burger now blends pea and mung bean protein with rice proteins, while apple extract has been added to change the color of the product from red to brown during grilling.

The Impossible Burger, meanwhile, still consists of soy protein isolate, potato protein and a number of other ingredients, the most notable of which is soy leghemoglobin (originally extracted from the root nodules of soybean plants and now produced in bulk through a proprietary yeast fermentation process). This heme, for short, is key to the flavor and color of the Impossible Burger and makes it “bleed” like a beef burger when it’s on the grill or being sliced.

Though high profile, Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are far from alone in the meat substitute space. Today, large corporations such as Nestlé, Tyson Foods and Maple Leaf, as well as many startups, are rolling out new plant-based meat and poultry analogues. Pork producers Smithfield and Hormel are developing faux pork products as well as burgers.

In a 2019 report, Innova Market Insights notes that the number of meat analogue launches worldwide increased from a global index of 100 in 2014 to approximately 190 in 2018.

Dairy substitute launches have experienced even faster and steadier growth, from 100 in 2014 to nearly 200 in 2018. According to a 2018 Innova consumer survey, 49% of U.S. consumers are influenced by health priorities when purchasing meat and dairy alternatives, while 37% seek diet variety and 19% seek novelty. Indeed, in the past year, 56% of U.S. consumers have changed their eating habits or diet.

The environmental drivers behind buying plant-based alternatives vary somewhat by generation, Innova reports, with 77% of millennials believing that companies should lead environmental and social change; 58% of Gen X pointing to waste and pollution as heavily influencing their purchase of brands; and 53% of Gen Z concerned about sustainability of the entire planet.

One in three baby boomers, on the other hand, believes that purchasing locally produced products and reducing food miles will have the most favorable impact on the environment; consequently, this generation is less likely to purchase meat and dairy substitutes mainly for environmental reasons.

Overcoming challenges

Although widely viewed as more sustainable than animal-based products, plant-based products and ingredients have their challenges in terms of taste and waste. Dedicated to improving the flavor and functionality of animal-free ingredients, Boston startup Motif FoodWorks announced in August it had received $27.5 million in investment funding with the goal of introducing many new animal-free ingredients to the market.

“We are focused on two main areas,” says Michele Fite, Motif FoodWorks’ chief commercial officer. “First, we are focused on improving the performance of plant-based meat and dairy — qualities like texture, flavor, color and how it cooks. More consumers are interested in incorporating plant-based alternatives into their diets, but most options on the market today come with some pretty big trade-offs in these areas. We believe consumers shouldn’t have to make sacrifices when they decide to eat plant-based foods.”

In addition, Motif FoodWorks is concentrating on developing plant-based proteins that match the nutritional profile of animal-based proteins.

M.J. Kinney, a food scientist with The Good Food Institute, contends that food industry and academic researchers need to develop ways to incorporate more “whole forms of [plant-based] ingredients instead of fractionated ingredients.”

Take the increasingly popular pea protein isolate, for example. Pea protein is extracted from yellow peas, which are 70% starch. That leftover starch is often sold to animal feed producers, Kinney observes. So, she questions: Is using pea protein really helping to curtail animal agriculture? The new Plant Protein Innovation Center, a collaborative enterprise based at the University of Minnesota, will be tackling this and other issues.

In contrast, the biggest challenge for cultured meat companies has been production costs, but those have declined dramatically. Based in Maastrict, Netherlands, Mosa Meat first cultivated a beef burger from cells in 2013 at a cost of $280,000 (per burger). Another European firm in this space — Biotech Foods in San Sebastián, Spain — reports it can now produce a kilogram of cultured meat from cells at a cost of about 100 euros (approximately $112). This company hopes to have regulatory approval and reach production scale by 2021.

Kay acknowledges that Memphis Meats’ first products will be sold at a “price premium,” but the price will continue to fall substantially as production scales up. “Once we have a regulatory pathway in place, we will be ready to sell products,” he says.

“As we work with regulators to develop this regulatory path, we continue to work on research and development. The major focus is on reducing the cost of production and increasing our production scale. Specifically, we are working to build scalable cultivator systems inside of which we will be able to grow large quantities of meat.”

Focus on flexitarians

Per a recent report by Euromonitor, only 3% of consumers worldwide are vegan and only 6% are vegetarian. However, 21% of people globally are trying to limit their meat intake. Known as flexitarians, those individuals who still consume meat and dairy products but are striving to cut back are the driving force behind new product development in both the plant-based and cultured meat and dairy categories.

Targeting flexitarians specifically, Tyson Foods — an investor in Memphis Meats and previously in Beyond Meat — introduced its own line of plant-based and blended products in June of this year. Among other items, the new Raised & Rooted brand includes plant-based nuggets made from pea protein isolate and other ingredients, as well as a blended burger made with both pea protein and Angus beef.

“Today’s consumers are seeking more protein options so we’re creating new products for the growing number of people open to flexible diets that include both meat and plant-based protein,” said Noel White, president and CEO of Tyson Foods, in a statement at the time of the launch.

Kerry is also catering primarily to the global flexitarian market with its new Radicle brand of integrated plant-based food solutions.

“Consumer demand for plant-based foods — driven by a desire for healthy protein options, a flexitarian approach to eating and sustainability concerns — is increasing at a rapid pace,” says George Manak, strategic marketing director for proteins at Kerry North America, Beloit, Wis. “Radicle by Kerry tackles this market shift with a comprehensive taste and nutrition solutions platform for plant-based food, addressing taste, nutrition, function and sustainable protein challenges.”

Plant-based dairy solutions are foundational to the Radicle brand. “We are focusing on delivering clean-tasting and functional protein in this category as many of the products [in the vegan dairy space] lack the nutritional protein equivalent content of traditional dairy,” notes Shannon Coco, senior strategic marketing manager for food at Kerry North America. “Kerry’s goal is to create a rich, dairy-like experience.”

In additional to nutritional challenges, plant-based dairy products often have flavor and texture shortcomings, according to Coco. Kerry is overcoming these challenges, she notes, through “delivery of a characteristic dairy taste and creamy, fatty mouthfeel, off-note masking and complete, balanced taste profiles.”

Also recognizing plant-based dairy’s flavor and functional hurdles, San Francisco-based New Culture, a maker of cow-free dairy cheese, has taken a different approach; the startup uses fermentation to produce dairy proteins. With $3.5 million in seed funding from Kraft Heinz Co.’s venture capital subsidiary, Evolv Ventures, New Culture insists that plant-based cheese is inferior because it lacks the essential component that provides dairy cheese with its signature properties: the casein micelle, a supramolecular structure of proteins found only in mammalian milk.

Founded in late 2018, New Culture is leveraging microbial fermentation to express casein proteins, which are turned into casein micelles. The company then adds plant-based fats, sugars and nutrients to create a milk-like solution that is converted into lactose-, hormone- and cholesterol-free cheese via a conventional cheesemaking process.

New frontiers

Plant-based and cultured seafood recently have garnered more attention and investment due to tremendous concerns regarding depletion of the oceans from overfishing and the mercury content of seafood. The need for allergen-free seafood alternatives originally spurred Sophie’s Kitchen, Sebastopol, Calif., to launch its line of plant-based canned tuna and frozen crab cakes, fish fillets and shrimp in 2011.

Other startups have entered this market in the past couple of years out of interest in environmental sustainability. New York City-based Ocean Hugger Foods, for one, makes plant-based tuna and eel sushi, while Good Catch Foods, Newtown, Pa., makes fish-free tuna and will be debuting crab-free crab cakes in spring 2020.

San Diego-based BlueNalu, in contrast, aims to become a global leader in cellular aquaculture. “We will produce real seafood products directly from fish cells, that are as delicious and nutritious as products that have been grown conventionally, in a way that is healthy for people, humane for animals and sustainable for our planet,” the company explains on its website.

In the more developed domain of cellular meat, much still needs to happen before the technology realizes its potential. For example, Memphis Meats currently works with farmers to procure cells from high-quality livestock for the company’s cultured beef, chicken and duck.

“We are exploring ways that we might make the cells indefinitely self-renew,” says Kay, “which means we wouldn’t need to return to the animal for subsequent samples. Our goal is to entirely detach the animal from our meat production process.”

Although reducing reliance on animals in the food system is currently a huge trend, it is not a new idea. As BlueNalu notes on its website, “In 1931, Winston Churchill boldly predicted that ‘We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat a breast or a wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.’”

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