Fake it ’til you make it

A real look at fake meat

Andy Reed
7 min readAug 24, 2019

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Introduction

It looks like meat, it tastes like meat, but is it real meat? The answer may fool you. Fake meat has crept its way onto menus everywhere, ranging from fast-food establishments like White Castle to upscale restaurants like Dave Chang’s Momofuku Nishi. This may be surprising, but according to a recent Gallup survey, 5% of the United States population identifies as vegetarian, another 3% vegan. With these numbers comes a rise in the number of flexitarian consumers — people who still eat meat but are seeking to reduce their meat intake. Additionally, a Yale study found that 58% of Americans understand that global warming is mostly human-caused. Given both of these dietary and climate trends, the prevalence of meat substitutes as a more environmentally-friendly and ethical option has grown, with companies cropping up to meet the newfound demand.

Sources of plant-based protein

What is fake meat?

Companies producing fake meat aim to recreate the juicy taste of a burger with solely plant-based ingredients. This fake meat consists of plant-based proteins from foods like soy, pea, wheat, potato, combined with fats like coconut or canola oil. Sprinkle in some mystery ingredients that no one can pronounce, and there you have it, plant-based meat that looks, feels, and tastes like real meat. While this may sound simple, the scientists behind these formulas have toiled for years to get them just right. While taste tests by acclaimed chefs like J. Kenji Lopez-Alt have praised the new fake meat recipes, there is still a long way to go to perfectly imitate the sensory, meaty experience, that carnivores and vegetarians alike may crave. Nonetheless, for those that have survived on Boca Burgers or other vegetarian meat substitutes, the new wave of plant-based meat substitutes promises more flavor and more texture in every bite.

Who are the big players?

Impossible Foods

According to Impossible Foods CEO, Pat Brown, “animal agriculture puts more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than all cars, trucks, trains, buses, ships, airplanes, and rockets combined. It pollutes and consumes more freshwater than any other industry.” Keeping this impact in mind, Brown and his team at Impossible Foods aim to foster sustainable meat consumption by providing consumers a 100% plant-based alternative that tastes just as good. Impossible has found a method to create juicy plant-based burgers that require 75% less water, 95% less land, and 87% fewer greenhouse emissions than a traditional beef burger. But how do they do it?

Impossible Foods claims that the secret to their meat-like products is heme. Heme, which is found in the protein hemoglobin, is responsible for carrying oxygen throughout the body of humans and animals. Found in high amounts in animal muscles, heme is also what gives raw meat its bloody flavor and cooked meat its umami taste. While heme is most commonly found in animals, it also is found in the roots of plants such as legumes, which use it to extract nitrogen from the air. By extracting the DNA of the heme-carrying protein leghemoglobin from soy plants and inserting it into yeast, which creates its own heme, Impossible Foods produces heme on a massive scale. When paired with wheat and potato protein, coconut oil, and other nutrients, Impossible is able to deliver a product that mimics the aroma and flavor of beef. Currently, Impossible Burger can only be found in certain restaurants (including Burger King locations across the US), but the company expects to begin sales in U.S. grocery stores later this year.

Comparison of Beyond Burger and beef burger.

Beyond Meat

Founded a few years before Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat is the maker of several fake meat products, including Beef Crumbles, Chicken Strips, Sausage and the signature Beyond Burger. The company boasts a similar environmental mission as Impossible and proudly displays its ecological stats. Beyond’s plant-based meat substitutes use 99% less water, 93% less land, and 90% fewer greenhouse emissions (GHGE), and 46% less energy to make than their traditional meat counterparts. On top of posting impressive statistics, the taste of the Beyond Burger has been applauded by the likes of billionaire Bill Gates, chef Alton Brown, and New York Times food journalist Mark Bittman. All three figures claimed that the Beyond Burger was not distinguishable from real beef.

Beyond Meat replicates the meatiness of burgers, chicken strips, and sausage links in a similar way to that of Impossible, but with its own twist. Beyond employs peas as its protein of choice (making its burgers gluten-free) and a mixture of coconut and canola oil as its fats. Like Impossible, it introduces yeast extract to the party to develop an umami flavor. While Beyond is not on the same heme bandwagon as Impossible, it seems to have nailed a method to make each burger appear if it’s bleeding through the use of beet juice.

Interestingly, you can find Beyond Burger in the meat section of many grocery stores (including Whole Foods stores nationwide), as opposed to the alternative or organic food aisle that may house other alternatives like Morningstar patties, tempeh, and tofurkey. Securing shelf space alongside traditional meat products was a strategic decision made by the Beyond team, in an effort to encourage carnivores and flexitarians to taste Beyond’s product.

Find Beyond Meat products in stores such as Target

Currently, two four-ounce patties normally retail for $5.99 at retailers like Target. For comparison, the average price of 100% ground beef in the United States is around $3.67 per pound, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This means that Beyond Burger costs more than three times the price of a normal burger made from supermarket ground beef. This considerable premium presents an enormous issue in the accessibility of Beyond Burger as the high price-tag likely boxes out many average American consumers. This also presents a large obstacle in the path towards the goal of converting omnivorous consumers (especially cost-conscious spenders), as they are unlikely to make the ecological and health-conscious switch if it will cost significantly more money. However, the price disparity is something that will hopefully improve over time as Beyond improves their technology and processes and its customer base grows. If a similar price to regular beef can be achieved, we may start to see more consumers choosing Beyond Burger over its bovine counterpart.

What’s next?

A growing market

While consumers who strictly avoid meat may have sparked the demand for more robust meat alternatives, flexitarians are the ones who are accelerating the market demand. The NPD Group reports that 95% of buyers of vegan burgers at U.S quick service restaurants (QSRs) also purchased beef burgers in the past year. With vegans, vegetarians, and flexitarians all craving plant-based meat options, Euromonitor expects the U.S. market for meat substitutes to hit $2.5 billion by 2023.

Investments in Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, as well as Memphis Meats

Hunger for plant-based meat doesn’t stop at consumers, as investors also want in on the game. Beyond Meat’s (BYND) IPO in May resulted in a 163% jump in stock prices on the first day, contributing to the company’s current market valuation of $9.2 billion. CNBC reports that investors are “clamoring” to invest in Impossible Foods before its inevitable IPO, with some rumored deals valuing the company at $5 billion.

Be on the lookout for an increase in the availability of Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods offerings in U.S. restaurants and grocery stores, as well as an expansion of product lines into other meat substitutes. Impossible could be looking to sell their products in grocery stores as soon as September, given the FDA’s recent approval of the heme compound.

Lab-grown meat (“clean meat”)

Another relevant topic of interest is lab-grown meat or “clean meat.” Companies like Memphis Meats, SuperMeat, and Future Meat Technologies are growing meat from cells as opposed to harvesting animals, providing a safer, healthier, and more nutritious alternative to raising traditional livestock. The minimum cost to produce meat in a lab is currently around ten times more expensive than the alternative, but look to see that multiple shrink in the coming years.

JUST Egg

Other “fake” proteins

Even though much of the focus lies on “fake meat,” other companies are working to create new varieties of plant-based protein. JUST Inc. (formerly Hampton Creek Foods) offers a number of plant-based egg products, including JUST Mayo, JUST Egg, and JUST Cookie Dough. The plant-based seafood market also boasts a number of budding ventures, including but not limited to Good Catch, Ocean Hugger Foods, New Wave Foods, and Sophie’s Kitchen. Additionally, Prime Roots (formerly Terramino Foods) is working on creating a variety of fungi-based protein products.

Wrap-up

Regardless of the role meat plays in your diet, the technological advances being made in the meat substitute industry are undeniable. While Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods seem to be riding the crest of the current wave of innovation, expect to see new players enter the market, forcing companies to expand product variety, increase quality, and diversify pricing. Americans may be far from being majority vegetarian, but the increasingly popular fake meat will likely be popping up at your local grocery store, drive-through, and backyard barbeque very soon.

This article was adapted from an article I wrote earlier this Winter for Wolverine Cuizine.

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