Authentic Imitation

Appetite for Meat-Substitute Projects Grow

Fake meat is real. But it’s up to project teams to ensure that alternatives to beef, chicken, pork or fish—whether sourced from plants or made in a lab—taste just like the real thing.

The global meat substitutes industry is projected to reach US$5.2 billion by 2020—an annual compound growth rate of 8 percent since 2015, according to Allied Market Research. A slew of startups, including SuperMeat in Israel and Beyond Meat in the United States, have launched projects to develop products that replicate the taste and even juice of real meat.

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“Unlike software where you can put something out there and iterate on it very quickly if it’s not working, we really had to put something out there that blew people’s minds.”

—Dana Worth, Impossible Foods, Redwood City, California, USA

But making flavorful meat substitutes requires massive upfront project funding and time, says Dana Worth, director of commercialization for Impossible Foods, Redwood City, California, USA.

For instance, Impossible Foods raised US$182 million in funding. It budgeted five years of R&D to capture the essence of beef—right down to the scent—to create a plant-based burger. The R&D team held as many as three in-house taste tests each day to perfect the product. Such extensive trial and error is necessary, Mr. Worth says, because teams can’t afford to leave a bad taste in consumers’ mouths by releasing a product that’s not delicious the first day it’s on the market.

“Unlike software where you can put something out there and iterate on it very quickly if it’s not working, we really had to put something out there that blew people’s minds,” Mr. Worth says. By the end of 2016, Impossible Foods had launched the burger in four restaurants across the U.S.

It’s not just vegetarians who crave this fake meat. Other consumers and producers are motivated by animal welfare and environmental concerns associated with conventional meat production.

SuperMeat doesn’t rely on plants or animals to make meat—just scientists and a strong project team. The company’s lab is using small cells of chicken to grow larger tissue that eventually will become meat. But the organization says it will need US$2.5 million to create a cost-effective prototype that could validate its product and lead to mass production of so-called cultured meat.

The environment also would benefit. Production of cultured meat would use 99 percent less land, emit up to 96 percent less greenhouse gases and use up to 96 percent less water than today’s meat industry, according to SuperMeat.

For all but the most environmentally conscientious consumers, however, flavor tends to matter above all else. So at organizations like Impossible Foods, the quest to perfect faux-meat flavors continues. Says Mr. Worth: “If you’re not delicious, nothing else matters.” —Christina Couch

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PHOTO BY ALEX TRAKSEL/SHUTTERSTOCK

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