The Future of Food
By John Reiss
Whether it’s called meatless meat, cultured meat, or cellular agriculture, the quest is on for providing clean, guilt-free meats for consumers. Companies like Memphis Meats, Impossible Foods, Finless Fish, and Beyond Meat are developing products to exploit our cravings for meat. Venture capitalists and Silicon Valley companies, along with investors including Bill Gates and Richard Branson, are betting hundreds of millions of dollars that this technology can reshape how we eat.
Meat is a major part of the American diet and at $200 billion in annual sales it’s also a hugely profitable industry. But raising animals for food is costly and inefficient. It takes about 26 lb. of feed to produce a pound of beef contributing an estimated 14.5% of greenhouse gasses globally. In developing countries people aspire to a western-style diet where meat is considered a luxury and a symbol of status. The growing demand is putting increased pressure on natural resources, and there is also the added stigma of harvesting animals for slaughter, even if done humanely.
The idea of “cultured” or “clean” meat from animal cells produced in labs bypassing the agricultural process is now the goal. Companies like Memphis Meats, Finless Fish and MosaMeat are creating cultured meats from animals. But the financial costs are far from efficient at this stage of development. Finless Fish’s first fish croquette cost $19,000 a pound, although more recently cultured meatballs by Memphis Meats have reduced their product costs from $18,000 to $2,400 per pound. Still not affordable numbers even for the Whole Foods crowd. According to the MosaMeat website “Cultured meat is 100% natural meat, made from the same cells that build the meat we eat, only grown in a bio reactor instead of an animal”. They also claim that cells from a single cow can produce 275 million quarter pound burgers. But some consumers may not be able to get around the stigma of “test tube” meat, and much like the debate over GMO foods these products may carry heavy social or political costs. There are also regulatory hurdles to jump along the path to getting these products marketed, since both the US Food and Drug Administration would oversee the biotech side of the process while the Department of Agriculture would be involved in meat safety regulations.
Impossible Foods has created a burger made from plant-based products that is sold in more than 200 restaurants around the US. It contains the same amount of protein and iron as beef but with no cholesterol. Their website states “A core part of our mission is to make delicious meat sustainably — bypassing animals and making it directly from plants.” Indeed, they claim that the product uses “75% less water, generates 87% less greenhouse gases, requires 95% less land and 100% fewer cows”, which could go a long way to reducing greenhouse gasses globally and appeal to meat lovers and vegetarians alike. The Impossible Burger contains protein from potatoes, wheat, soy, coconut oil, and heme, a key ingredient that mimics the color, flavor, and aroma of meat. Heme, from the word hemoglobin which gives blood its red color, is found in animal and fat proteins. The type used in Impossible Burgers is called leghemoglobin, derived from the roots of legumes. Beyond Meat has a line of burgers, sausages, and “chicken” strips. Their burger looks and cooks like real meat, contains pea protein and beet juice to mimic the red color of meats, and contains no GMOs, soy, or gluten. The New York Times calls it the 'holy grail' of ersatz animal protein: A plant burger upon which a human carnivore would happily snack..." Beyond Meat products are available in grocery stores including Whole Foods.
There’s no question the market for meatless food will continue to grow and expand. Meatless products like the Impossible Burger resonate with people looking for foods that can mimic and replace the real thing. Cultured proteins, like Memphis Meats and Finless Fish, face more of a questionable future because of developmental and regulatory hurdles, and ultimately the social acceptance of manufactured meats. But it won’t be from lack of financing or innovative thinking.
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