The Better Meat Substitute

Can new and improved meat analogues help us control our damaging desire for animal flesh?

In one typical minute on this earth, people kill at least 109 339 chickens, 2630 pigs, 922 sheep, 781 goats, and 557 cows, plus a very large number of ducks, horses, turkeys, and rabbits, as well as three camels. And one singularly unfortunate mule. Add it all up and every week well over a billion animals are slaughtered for food, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

You may or may not find the death of so many animals unsettling, but it’s hard for anyone to ignore the undisputed environmental and health consequences [PDF] of this massive meat consumption. They include higher rates of greenhouse-gas emissions, water pollution, deforestation, and biodiversity loss. And possibly colorectal cancer as well.

No rational person can doubt that the world would be a better place if a significant fraction of carnivores simply gave up meat. But nothing in the history of human forbearance suggests that’s ever going to happen.

So let’s consider a slightly less obvious countermeasure. That would be to replace some proportion of meat with something that looks, tastes, and feels like meat but whose production doesn’t require tens of billions of animals, many of them hormonally augmented, that are 1) occupying more than 26 percent of the planet’s land area; 2) eating valuable crops; 3) drinking extremely large quantities of water [PDF]; and 4) producing dizzying volumes [PDF] of the greenhouse gas methane. Although the retail costs of meat aren’t high, the environmental ones certainly are.

Vegetable substitutes textured to resemble cooked animal flesh have been around for decades. But they’ve never been very enticing—a fact borne out by the limp sales figures. In the Netherlands, sales of such replacements hit a peak of around 1 percent by volume in comparison with meat, according to a 2004 Dutch study. That bump in popularity occurred after one of a series of gruesome meat-safety crises hit Europe. In the United States, sales of meat substitutes in 2011 totaled US $277 million—which was around 0.2 percent of what was spent on meat, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal and data from the American Meat Institute.

Now, though, a new crop of greatly improved meat substitutes is becoming available in Europe and the United States. Some of the new products are from small start-ups that are taking on huge food conglomerates whose subsidiaries have dominated the market (albeit small) for meat substitutes.

The new products include Beyond Meat and Match in the United States and Plenti in the Netherlands. All are produced with technology or advice from university laboratories: Beyond Meat from the University of Missouri; Plenti from Wageningen University & Research Centre in the Netherlands; and Match Meat from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. That technology is shaking up this long-placid backwater of the food industry is underscored by the fact that another highly touted new company now quietly readying its first faux-meat offering is a Silicon Valley start-up, complete with a Stanford professor, Patrick O. Brown, at the helm.

The new generation of meat substitutes have a texture and mouthfeel that matches the real thing remarkably well. The older offerings don’t do that quite as convincingly. All of the new substitutes come with anecdotes about diners—and even professional food critics—believing they were eating real meat.

While researching this article I sampled Plenti, Match, and Beyond Meat. I found the three to be quite different from one another, and yet all were impressively meatlike [see “A Consumer Guide to Fake Meat.” They’re a big improvement over more traditional meat stand-ins, such as those available in the United States and Canada under the brand names Yves, Tofurky, and Boca. It’s possible I would have been fooled had they been sprung on me unawares (especially if accompanied by a couple of glasses of wine).

Every now and then technology and social trends align to offer something sublime as well as important—like making possible a kinder and more enlightened paradigm for the food-processing industry. The food conglomerates have taken a beating lately as news articles have described their long-standing propensity to churn out nutritionally bankrupt foodstuffs loaded with the unholy trinity of salt, sugar, and fat. And yet, it’s just possible that the technology these companies wield could be put to uses that are not only profitable but also beneficial to people’s health.

“Say you swapped five percent of meat for vegetable protein,” says Vaclav Smil, an environmental scientist. “It would make a difference on this planet.”

Historically, healthy food has been a niche that the big food companies were content to leave to small subsidiaries or scrappy independents. But times are changing. Hundreds of millions of aging baby boomers are reevaluating their diets after being treated for cancer, heart disease, or other illnesses. And meat is a big business—$160 billion in the United States in 2010, according to the American Meat Institute. If emerging techniques allowed a company to make meat substitutes that were good enough to capture even a few percent of that market, it would still mean the kind of business that a conglomerate could love.

“Say you swapped 5 percent of meat for vegetable protein,” says Vaclav Smil, an environmental scientist at the University of Manitoba, in Canada. “Nobody would even notice. But it would make a difference on this planet.”

Eat a hamburger and you’ve just used about 2500 liters [PDF] of water, or enough for 16 baths in an average tub. And for each kilogram of beef consumed, as many as 35 kilograms of carbon-dioxide-equivalent greenhouse gases are released—about the same as what comes from a reasonably efficient car driving almost 275 kilometers.

Think of livestock as a means of converting vegetable protein into animal protein. To make livestock grow fast, producers feed them a diet rich in legumes and grain, usually soy, corn, and wheat—all of which contain protein that people could otherwise be eating. For cows, the conversion process is particularly inefficient. In Europe, where beef cows are fed a diet high in soy, it takes about 8 kilograms of soy protein to produce 1 kilogram of beef protein. So it is eight times as efficient to get your protein from soy than from beef. And that’s before you account for the enormous water and energy use, greenhouse-gas emissions, deforestation, and the rest that come from raising so many animals.

Today, meat eating varies among developed nations, ranging from about 45 kg per person per year in Japan (not including seafood, which is particularly popular there) to about 125 kg per person per year in the United States. Much of that meat is produced in “factory farms,” in which tens of thousands of animals are raised. The confined feedlots you find there are sometimes awash in animal waste that often runs off into streams and rivers, although it is not supposed to.

Factory farms have driven meat prices down to historically low levels. In the United States, families spend an average of 9.8 percent of their disposable income on food, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “People spend more on entertainment,” Smil says. “No country in human history has paid so little for food as a percentage of disposable income,” he adds.

Though it has plateaued in developed countries, per capita consumption of meat is on the rise globally and is expected to keep increasing for a couple of decades more. Worldwide, meat production was 110 million metric tons in 1975. By the end of 2012, the Food and Agriculture Organization estimates, it had risen to 302 million. Meat consumption will keep increasing for the foreseeable future, driven by growth in both population and disposable incomes in countries like China. Thus meat production could reach 465 million metric tons in 2050, the FAO estimates, when world population is predicted to exceed 9 billion [PDF] (it is a little over 7 billion today).

Smil marshals a barrage of statistics to support his contention that the world could indeed produce 465 million metric tons of meat per year. But the strain on the world’s freshwater supply, environment, climate, and health-care systems would be noticeable, to put it mildly.

A satisfying meat alternative could do enormous good. “We need sophisticated technology to achieve this,” says M.A.J.S. “Tiny” van Boekel, dean of education at Wageningen UR. “If you really want to achieve sustainability, you have to work on technology. People don’t expect that. To some, sustainability is a cow in a meadow and chickens running around. But that’s not how we are going to feed 9 billion people.”

How do you make vegetable protein taste like animal protein? By using an industrial-age technology called extrusion.

You may have had your first experience with extrusion before you were out of diapers, as a toddler playing with a toy called the Play-Doh Fun Factory. You pushed Play-Doh through a die to make Play-Doh strips that had the cross section of a star or a circle. The basic technique was first used more than 200 years ago to make lead pipe, and then wire, and still later, spaghetti. Extruders now produce breakfast cereal, puffed snacks, and pet foods.

The use of vegetables, nuts, and grains to make meatlike foodstuffs goes back to the 19th century, at least. In Asia, some meat substitutes grew out of Buddhist traditions, which eschew the consumption of meat, particularly in a temple. But the enterprise took a quantum leap in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the earliest U.S. patents were issued for the use of extrusion to make “meat analogues” from vegetable proteins. Many companies were involved, including Archer Daniels Midland, the extrusion-machine maker Wenger, A.E. Staley, Cargill, Miles Laboratories, and Worthington Foods.

There are dozens of meat replacements on the market in Europe and a similar number in North America. Different products make use of different kinds of proteins or combinations of proteins, including wheat gluten and a protein derived from a fungus. But the majority are based on soy protein, sometimes in combination with other vegetable proteins, which has been extruded to give it a fibrous, meatlike texture.

Jeroen Willemsen, a cofounder of the Dutch company Ojah, in Ochten, which makes the meat alternative Plenti, points to three generations of meat substitutes. The first was a “tofu generation,” based on the bean curd. These products didn’t taste much like meat but had reasonably high levels of protein. The second generation features ready-to-use items that resemble sausages, meatballs, hamburger patties, and the like. The key ingredient is texturized vegetable protein. It is produced by extrusion of a low-moisture precursor and then dried into flakes or granules. These are rehydrated and incorporated into the final, ready-to-use product, which is sold frozen or chilled.

The third generation, which includes Plenti and Beyond Meat, are a special category known in the food industry as high-moisture meat analogues, or HMMAs. They are designed to have the taste and mouthfeel of genuine muscle meats— chunks of chicken breast, a piece of smoked eel, or shredded pork. The new analogues are meatlike enough to be sold in much the same way as meat—refrigerated and intended for use in soups, sandwiches, chilies, burritos, and other dishes where sauces and seasonings will help enhance the meaty illusion.

Being a relatively recent development, HMMAs occupy just a thin slice of today’s meat-substitute market. Researchers extruded the first HMMAs in the 1980s, following pioneering work at the Protial research and development laboratory in Angers, France. But a flurry of patents in just the past seven years confirms that tinkering over the last decade has greatly improved the appeal of these foods.

Here’s the challenge, according to Ethan Brown, the founder of Beyond Meat: “The difficulty is in matching perfectly the tension between biting cleanly through the product, with just the right amount of push-back, and the fiber structure.”

Fortunately, to meet that challenge you have a marvel of modern industry, the twin-screw thermoplastic food extruder [PDF]. It precisely applies heat, pressure, and mechanical shear forces to a foodstuff, typically a floury mix rich in protein, to transform it in some way. The mixture moves through the machine in a flow, being altered continuously as it does so.

For an HMMA, the processing begins with a mix of protein powders derived from legumes and possibly some grains or seeds, along with starch, binding agents, flavors, and colors. They all go into a single hopper. From there, they move into the preconditioner or feed zone, where the protein powders are mixed with finely sprayed water and oil. The oil brings the mixture up to a fat proportion resembling that of meat, at least 4 or 5 percent. The gooey mixture is moved along by a pair of corotating, intermeshing steel augers. These mix and knead the powder, water, oil, and other ingredients into a dough while pushing it from the preconditioner into the extruder’s main barrel, a tube about 2 or 3 meters long, where the dough begins its transformation into a fibrous, meatlike substance.

To satisfy the meat cravings of a world with more than nine billion people, we would have to kill almost two billion animals every week

As the augurs pull and push the dough through the extruder barrel, heat and pressure and shear forces alter the dough’s proteins, says Brian Plattner, a process engineer at Wenger Manufacturing. The heat comes from two sources: Some is generated mechanically by the spinning augers, and some is applied externally. For example, heat and moisture, in the form of steam, are often injected into the dough directly through the jackets surrounding the barrel.

The transformation to ersatz meat begins with the breaking of a certain type of chemical bond in the proteins, called a disulfide bond. These bonds link sulfur compounds in the protein molecules. It is largely the breaking and reassembling of those disulfide bonds that texturizes the vegetable protein to resemble meat, according to Fu-hung Hsieh, a professor of biological engineering at the University of Missouri. Hsieh developed the extrusion process—specifying the ingredients, temperatures, and so forth—on which Beyond Meat is based.

After their disulfide bonds are broken, the protein molecules are then realigned and linked into longer chains, based on new disulfide bonds, in a phenomenon similar to polymerization. Chemists refer to this mass linking as “plasticization,” which is why the technical name for the manufacturing process is “thermoplastic extrusion.”

For a high-moisture meat analogue, the final, or die, stage is all-important and requires a special die [PDF]. At 1 to 2 meters, it is longer than a conventional die, explains Mian N. Riaz, director of the Food Protein Research & Development Center at Texas A&M University. Coming from the barrel, the dough moves into the die at 125 to 130 °C, according to Plattner. The part of the dough that’s in direct contact with the die surface moves more slowly than the part in the center, giving rise to shear forces, which encourage the realignment of protein molecules. Meanwhile, coolant circulating through the die rapidly reduces the temperature of the meat-analogue-to-be. This shearing and fast cooling in the die chamber promotes lamination, in which adjacent long protein chains cross-link with each other. That cross-linking forms layers that greatly enhance the food’s fibrous texture. The cooling also prevents it from expanding and becoming puffed and porous, like a big meaty mega-Cheeto.

At the very end, just as it exits the die, the HMMA is shaped and cut into pieces. The relative proportions of moisture, fat, and protein in the final product can be set almost arbitrarily, but manufacturers generally make them close to those of lean meat: 60 to 70 percent moisture, 2 to 5 percent fat, and 10 to 15 percent protein. As with meat, the final product must be refrigerated or frozen to prevent spoilage.

Workers can flavor the HMMA while it is being made in the extruder or after it comes out of the die, or both. The Dutch product, Plenti, is sold unflavored and in bulk to retailers who flavor it and sell it to consumers.

The best modern extruder machines, with electronic sensors and actuators, offer precise control of the temperature, pressure, and shear forces, which all affect the characteristics of the HMMA. But the start-ups involved are, understandably, reluctant to give away their secret recipes. It seems they want to make as much progress as they can before they have to go head-to-head with the bigger players. Patrick Brown, the would-be mock-meat magnate, wrote in an e-mail: “Given the resources and political clout of the meat and dairy and Big Ag industries, I’m sure you can understand that we have more to lose than to gain by drawing further attention to our activities and plans.”

Still, details about some products have inevitably seeped out. Hsieh, whose breakthroughs led to Beyond Meat, was listed as coinventor on a recent U.S. patent that runs to 23 pages, including myriad details about temperature, pressure, pH, and lipid content. You can also find a video on YouTube that shows the “Missouri faux chicken” being made, in all its mock-meaty glory.

Given fake meat’s long history, why is it only now starting to rival the real thing? According to Gerry Hertzel, research coordinator for food products at Wenger, part of the answer can be found in improvements in the raw ingredients. The suitability, consistency, and variety of the soy and other vegetable protein powders from the Big Ag manufacturers, such as Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, and CHS, has improved greatly, asserts Hertzel. “If you look at the soy isolates from 10 years ago and the ones today, there’s a night-and-day difference,” he says.

Hertzel’s colleague Plattner also points to recent improvements in the design of extruder dies that let operators very precisely control the rate of coolant flow, which in turn allows for consistent and uniform cooling. He believes that the pace of improvements will hold steady and bring even better products in coming years.

And extrusion isn’t the end of the line, technology-wise. At Wageningen UR, engineering professor Atze Jan van der Groot has invented a different kind of machine to process vegetable protein powders into a fibrous, meatlike product. Van der Groot began by studying the protein structure he wanted in the final product and then set about designing something that could reproduce it. The ingenious contraption that resulted uses a conical steel rotor that spins within a complementary funnel-shaped steel vessel. The rotor crushes, shears, and heats vegetable-protein powders. “We can create a wider range of textures,” van der Groot says, while demonstrating his novel food processor. “I think it will eventually be cheaper than extrusion. It’s quite simple and robust.” He is now working with engineers at Delft University of Technology, in the Netherlands, to scale up the system.

Today a lot of meat-analogue research in Europe is focused on foods other than soy. One of Germany’s renowned Fraunhofer Institutes is concentrating on lupine seeds and has produced sausages and “ice cream” that have received good reviews. In France, the food companies Sotexpro and Roquette have jointly introduced a pea-protein-based substance meant to be added to meat to extend it. Studies have indicated that meat can be supplemented by up to 30 percent with extenders before people begin to notice any difference. Already, in the United States, soy protein makes up about 30 percent by weight of the “meat” served in the National School Lunch Program. Vaclav Smil says that extenders are the surest way to start displacing meat on a large scale.

But the more important challenge now is to make a cheaper meat alternative, not a better one. Plenti and Beyond Meat generally cost about twice as much as real chicken. With greater economies of scale, the costs would undoubtedly go down.

Ethan Brown, the founder of Beyond Meat, wants his company to be huge, and not just for the obvious reasons. “If all we end up doing is serving the wealthy, we’d be upset,” he says. “Here’s how I’ll know when we’ve succeeded: when you can go into a Burger King or a McDonald’s and buy a plant-based nugget.”

This article originally appeared in print as “Muscling Out Meat.”

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