The Race to Make a Great Fake Steak

With funding from food giant Unilever, a Dutch engineer is fine-tuning a machine designed to help make meat obsolete

11 min read
Photo: Niels Blekemolen
Photo: Niels Blekemolen

Atze Jan van der Goot removes a laptop-size slab from a refrigerator and deposits it on a table with an icy thump. It’s a reddish-brown mass, with clearly visible fibrous striations. And though it’s half frozen, it’s still pliable: You can pick away small pieces with your fingers, but it retains its shape, just like a hunk of frigid raw beef would.

This is no ordinary fake steak. For one thing, it has attracted the interest—and money—of some of the world’s leading food conglomerates, including Unilever, the Swiss flavor maker Givaudan, and Avril Group, the Paris-based agro-industrial concern. Then, too, it was not made with an ordinary food extruder, like most meat substitutes on the market today. Rather, it was produced with a new and radically different kind of machine. This machine was designed by Van der Goot to do one thing extraordinarily well: turn vegetable-based ingredients into something so similar to meat that it can grab a healthy share of the fast-growing market for meat substitutes, which was estimated at US $4 billion last year by the research firm Visiongain, in London.

There’s more than money at stake here. The global meat industry is the source of about 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, or roughly as much as what comes from all the vehicles on the planet. Producing the beef in just one hamburger creates about the same amount of greenhouse gases, in carbon-dioxide equivalents, as driving a Mazda Miata 60 kilometers.

And it’s going to get worse. The United Nations predicts that as the global population grows from 7.6 billion today to 9.8 billion by 2050, more countries will industrialize, and food production will soar by 60 percent. At the same time, global meat consumption will surge because as people become more prosperous, they tend to consume more meat and dairy. In 2014, about 315 million metric tons of meat were produced worldwide, and the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) figures that will increase to 455 million metric tons by 2050.

“Using animals as a technology for food production worked when we had millions of people, maybe up to a billion people,” says Nick Halla, the chief strategy officer of Impossible Foods, of Redwood City, Calif., whose plant-based burger has been rolling out to favorable reviews in the United States. “But it doesn’t work now that we have 7 billion going on 10.”

Cows are a remarkably inefficient food source. Barely 4 percent of the calories a cow eats becomes beef that people can eat. Producing 1 kilogram of protein from beef uses about 18 times as much land, 10 times as much water, 9 times as much fuel, 12 times as much fertilizer, and 10 times the amount of pesticides as producing the same amount of protein from kidney beans. And beef production occupies almost 60 percent of the world’s agricultural land, even though it accounts for less than 2 percent of the calories consumed by the world’s population.

“It would be hard to imagine a more inefficient means of producing protein,” says Liz Specht, a biologist with the nonprofit Good Food Institute. “Raising animals for food,” she declares, “is one of the top contributors to every single one of the most severe environmental problems plaguing us.”

Scores of organizations, including startup companies and multinational conglomerates, are now pursuing alternatives to meat in general and beef in particular. The work isn’t part of an organized effort to lower greenhouse gas emissions, but if it succeeds, it will have that effect.

Plant-based meat analogues are a growing business—the global market is expected to swell to $5.8 billion by 2022, according to the market research firm Million Insights. Across the board, production of these surrogates is associated with much lower greenhouse gas emissions than actual meat is, according to an analysis of 39 meat substitutes conducted by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.

Replicating meat convincingly, however, is no mean feat. Meat consists of muscle, fat, water, connective tissues, amino acids, and minerals, all of which have to be created and blended with exquisite precision to produce flavors, textures, aromas, and cooking properties to which many people have become accustomed. Companies such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are selling generally well-regarded ground-beef substitutes, so the race now is to the next logical step: a product that has both the taste and springy, fibrous mouthfeel of genuine muscle meats, such as beefsteak.

imgState-of-the-art Steak Maker: The latest version of the shear-cell machine, called a Couette cell, can make relatively large, thick, plant-based steaks. It does so with greater efficiency than conventional food extruders can.Photo: Niels Blekemolen

A fake steak is much more difficult to produce than a good stand-in for ground meat. Researchers are pursuing two main avenues: cultured meat, and vegetable-based meat substitutes. Cultured meat is also known as lab-grown meat, cellular meat, in vitro meat, or, as its adherents like to say, “clean meat.” To produce it, researchers start with self-renewing cells, such as embryonic or pluripotent stem cells, from animal tissue. They then create genuine meat by culturing and multiplying those cells in a nutrient mix in a bioreactor.

Cultured meat was thrust into the media spotlight in 2013 when Mark Post, a professor at Maastricht University, in the Netherlands, unveiled his cultured meat burger, which cost about $330,000. A pair of taste testers found it underwhelming. Nevertheless, three companies—San Francisco–based Just and Memphis Meats, and MosaMeat in the Netherlands—have announced plans to bring cultured meats to market in the near future. A fourth company, SuperMeat, in Israel, recently raised $3 million in seed funding.

Just (known until recently as Hampton Creek Foods), which already sells a range of plant-based foods, is the most specific about its near-term plans. The company’s head of communications, Andrew Noyes, said in April that Just plans to have a cultured-meat product for sale by the end of this year.

Cultured meat has a lot going for it. Unlike real meat, its production wouldn’t generate toxic runoff, and it wouldn’t spawn bacterial superbugs. Producers could precisely control the proportion and type of fats in the product, tweaking its flavor and nutritional content. And unlike plant-based analogues, cultured meat actually is meat, so in theory, it wouldn’t require consumers to adapt to new flavors, textures, or cooking methods.

imgWhere’s the Beef? It’s not here in the laboratory of Atze Jan van der Goot, a professor at Wageningen University & Research, in the Netherlands. Van der Goot (right) and an assistant have produced a vegetable-based meat substitute, visible on the bench at left.Photo: Niels Blekemolen

But against these advantages must be weighed some sobering difficulties. One of the biggest technical challenges is choosing the nutrient mix in which the muscle cells are cultured and encouraged to grow into muscle fibers. Most of the work so far has used fetal bovine serum, which is harvested from cow fetuses. It’s expensive and not at all compatible with the sustainability and ethical imperatives driving the development of meat alternatives.

So researchers are now investigating a wide assortment of nonanimal serum alternatives—for example, ones based on algae or mushroom extracts. These solutions, or “substrates,” contain varying proportions of oxygen, sugar, vitamins, minerals, and, typically, compounds selected from a vast array of amino acids, growth factors, and other biological agents. At the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), in Zurich, food technologist Alexander Mathys says it would be “a clear game changer” if another kind of medium could be successfully developed.

Just, Memphis Meats, and SuperMeat all insist they are close to solving the serum problem, but they decline to give any details.

Another problem is the very high costs of cultured meat. Memphis Meats CEO Uma Valeti claims that the company’s production costs have dropped “dramatically” since mid-2017, when the costs had fallen below $2,400 per pound ($5,300 per kilogram).

In terms of sustainability, there’s no guarantee that the production of lab meat will use less energy than animal-grown meat. The few analyses that have been carried out so far have been inconclusive. In a 2015 study in the Journal of Integrative Agriculture, Carolyn S. Mattick and her colleagues considered the type of energy inputs that might be needed for a full-scale cultured-meat production facility: The facility itself would need to be built, large quantities of growth media would need to be produced and heated to the right temperature, the massive bioreactor tanks would need to be frequently cleaned and drained, various materials would need to be shipped in, and much of the water involved in the production process would need to be sterilized. Although cultured meat will certainly use less land and water than livestock production, “those benefits could come at the expense of more intensive energy use,” the authors wrote.

Specht, at the Good Food Institute, cautioned that the life-cycle analyses that have been done so far “are based on cell-culture operations for biopharma production, which may be of little relevance to food applications.” Cultured meat is also expected to beat conventional meat on greenhouse gas emissions, but mostly because of the absence of methane production (cows and sheep belch quite a lot, it turns out).

Larger reductions in greenhouse gas emissions would come from a wide embrace of vegetable-based meat substitutes, which are now a hotbed of tech innovation. Though puny when compared to global meat sales, the multibillion-dollar market for meat substitutes is growing briskly and has attracted interest from technologists, researchers, and venture capitalists.

imgFake Steak: The current version of the Couette-cell machine in Van der Goot’s laboratory can produce meatlike, fibrous slabs nearly 3 centimeters thick.Photo: Robin Utrecht

Van der Goot, whose academic career began in fluid-dynamics research, has been developing his machine for more than a decade, together with colleagues at Wageningen University & Research and at Delft University of Technology, both in the Netherlands. He calls it a Couette-cell machine, and it looks like a shiny makeshift version of the meat slicer you’d find at your local deli, with duct-taped tubes connecting various cylindrical parts.

When the project started, few people were interested and even fewer companies, Van der Goot says. But after the prototype machine was unveiled in 2015, companies started lining up. In 2017, a consortium called Plant Meat Matters was launched to commercialize the technology, with partners currently including Givaudan, Unilever, and Dutch meat-analogue maker The Vegetarian Butcher. The consortium now has a waiting list. The prototype was designed together with TU Delft, but new machines will be built, a bit ironically, by Meyn Food Processing Technology, a Dutch manufacturer of poultry-slaughtering equipment.

Van der Goot’s machine updates a method called extrusion, which is how most plant-based meat replacements are made today. Food extruders, which have been producing breakfast cereals, pasta, snacks, and pet foods for decades, use high pressures and temperatures to squeeze a doughy mixture through a tube. A cooling step then causes the smooshed proteins to solidify, eventually rolling out of the device as crumbly pieces. The most popular variant, known as high-moisture extrusion cooking, blends the ingredients together while the water-rich mixture is heated to 130 to 180 °C.

The Couette-cell machine is a stripped-down version of an extruder. It has two nested cylinders, one of which spins while the other is fixed. This motion creates linear shearing as the “dough” is stretched out between them. The spinning pulls the proteins in a single direction, causing meatlike fibers to appear spontaneously. These fibers are key to replicating the look and texture of muscle meats, as opposed to ground meats.

In addition to creating a more realistic, meatlike product, the shear-cell machinery uses less power than does traditional extrusion. Both processes require thermal energy to heat the machines and materials and mechanical energy to shear or mix the materials (and, in the case of traditional extrusion, to push them through a die). In fact, traditional extruders use slightly less thermal energy, but the Couette machinery uses 90 percent less mechanical energy, Van der Goot says, and that’s where the technology’s main energy and cost savings come from. “If the process requires less mechanical energy,” he says, “then we need a smaller engine, and the wear on the shear-cell motor will be far less.” The upshot is cheaper equipment and lower maintenance costs.

imgDinner Is Served: Atze Jan van der Goot holds the most recent version of his plant-based steaks, which are produced from soy protein and wheat gluten.Photo: Robin Utrecht

Van der Goot shows me one of his recent creations: a slab that looks stunningly like beefsteak. It’s about 3 centimeters thick, 60 cm long, and 25 cm wide. Although the lab was not set up for a tasting on the day I visited, Van der Goot’s team insists that the slab cooks and cuts like an actual steak. If true, that would be a big improvement over essentially all of the plant-based beef analogues currently in supermarkets, which mimic ground beef rather than steak and take the form of tiny chunks that have been smooshed together to form a patty or meatball.

To make the steaklike slab, Van der Goot starts with a mixture of soy protein isolate (a highly purified form of soy protein), water, and wheat gluten, which is required to create the fibrous structures. The water and soy isolate are mixed together and left to rest for about 30 minutes, as this “prehumidification” period enhances the later protein structuring. The gluten is added last, to prevent globules from forming.

This water/soy isolate/gluten mixture is then quickly poured into the Couette device through a tube, until the space between the two cylinders (known as the shearing zone) is completely filled with the mixture. The material is then heated to 95 °C and spun at a modest 30 rpm for about 15 minutes, as the heat helps to solidify the fibrous structures created during the shearing. Experiments have found that these fibrous structures won’t appear at temperatures higher that 100 °C or lower than 90 °C.

“It’s mild and simple,” Van der Goot says of the shear-cell process, “and that is also why it can be very inexpensive.” He envisions a scenario where the local butcher shop would have a small version of the machine on a countertop to create artisanal blends at will. His team has experimented with alternative mixtures of peas or lupines, but so far getting the right texture has proved difficult. That’s why one of the goals of the Plant Meat Matters consortium is figuring out how ingredients other than soy can be used in such mixtures.

illustration of SmilIllustration: MCKIBILLO

Smil Says…

Eating less meat (above all, less beef) and wasting less food are environmentally less burdensome and healthier than producing meat substitutes.

Click here for Vaclav Smil”s commentary on the entire Blueprints for a Miracle special report.

Van der Goot acknowledges that his latest machine is not yet ready for commercial production, but he’s confident it will be within a couple of years. Biologist Specht, of the Good Food Institute, thinks the machine could be well received. “The capital expenditure associated with the high-moisture extruders that many plant-based meats use is a significant bottleneck,” she says, “so a lower-cost production strategy can certainly democratize access to plant-based meat.”

Though meat-free options are steadily improving in quality and growing in number, expanding their availability beyond upscale outlets such as Whole Foods in the United States isn’t going to be easy. A Finnish study from February 2018 found that while messages pointing out the negative health and environmental consequences of meat had some effect on people who already believed that meat is unhealthy and unsustainable, they had hardly any effect on everyone else.

And yet, the need to cut back on the amount of energy used in producing protein is becoming increasingly urgent. Besides the emissions, raising billions of animals for food takes up 26 percent of the planet’s ice-free surface, land that could otherwise be used for CO2- absorbing forests or to grow more efficient high-protein plants.

Ultimately, there will probably be not one large food miracle but many small ones. Plant-based and cultured meats will coexist. “I believe that 30 years out, both will be on the market and will occupy significant fractions of market share,” says Specht. “Visionaries like Bill Gates are investing in both plant-based and clean meat, as are huge companies like Tyson Foods. They see this as a two-pronged solution.”

Another possibility is that people will start eating more chicken and eggs rather than cows and lambs, notes Peter Alexander, a land-use researcher at the University of Edinburgh. Alexander recently authored a study that hailed plant-based meat substitutes and insects (yes, insects) as the most sustainable long-term food solutions, but also noted that similar environmental benefits would accrue if people simply ate a lot more chicken and eggs and a lot less beef.

“Sure, there are potentially transformatory changes that we could have,” Alexander says, “but in order to achieve those, we have to imagine consumers radically altering their preferences, which just doesn’t seem likely.”

“Our goal is to drastically reduce the impact of our agriculture system on the world,” says Halla of Impossible Foods, capturing the driving motivation of the bustling new industry growing up to produce meat alternatives. “If we can create better products than animals can, and that people like better—and we are approaching that—then it will be an easy choice for consumers to switch. We can create a much more sustainable food system.”

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