On a recent morning at the barbecue restaurant Smokestak in London, the founder, David Carter, was trying a pre-service experiment. He had just grilled, for the first time, a plant-based burger patty made by Beyond Meat, which grandly bills its products as “the future of protein”. Plated up on the kitchen pass, the future looked a little dry and processed. But what mattered, of course, was how it tasted. Carter chopped it into little chunks and called out to his team: “You guys want to try this?”
Beyond Meat, which is based in Los Angeles, is one of an array of new “meatless meat” companies creating buzz in Silicon Valley and attracting investment from the likes of Bill Gates and Google Ventures. These food-tech startups are trying to create convincing facsimiles of animal products – same texture, same taste – using only plant-derived proteins. Unlike Quorn, say, these companies are pitching themselves not at vegetarians but at meat eaters. The Beyond Burger is pink prior to cooking and even “bleeds” when you cut it, thanks to the inclusion of beetroot.
Since launching in 2016, more than 13 million Beyond Meat burger patties have been sold across 15,000 restaurants and grocery stores in the US. Beyond Meat products will be available in the UK from this month. Beyond’s chief competitor is San Francisco-based Impossible Foods, whose Impossible Burger contains an even greater helping of science. Run by a former Stanford University biochemistry professor, its angle is all about haem, the iron-containing molecule in animal muscle that gives a burger its burger-ness. Haem also occurs in plants, and Impossible has found a way of growing and extracting the protein in which it is contained.
It’s not just burgers. Beyond Meat also makes sausages and “chicken” strips; New York-based Ocean Hugger Foods synthesises tuna from tomatoes. What all these startups have in common, however, is an ambition to save the world (and make money in the process). With the global population on track to hit nine billion within a few decades, food supplies will come under pressure. Fish stocks are limited, and animal farming requires a great deal of resources – land, water, food, time – that may be better used in other ways. As Zoe Leavitt, a technology analyst at CB Insights puts it, “A cow is a very inefficient way to turn grass and sunlight into calories for humans.” What’s more, farming produces carbon emissions and there are concerns that eating meat has poor effects on health.
Of course, if Beyond, Impossible et al are going to succeed in attracting meat eaters, their products have to taste as good as the real thing. Hence GQ co-opting Carter and the Smokestak team for a taste test. So, what was their verdict? “That tastes like a burger from a football match,” said one of the chefs. And David’s thoughts? “It’s nice, but is it ever going to compete with the top-of-the-line burgers they have around here? No chance.”
But taste isn’t the only consideration here. Carter was shocked by the nutritional values, for example. “Jesus Christ: ‘Total fat 20g’? Trying to be healthy for heaven’s sake!” This is the double bind the meatless-meat market faces: people who don’t want to eat meat typically don’t want to eat processed foods either.
These issues explain why the future may not belong to plant-based meat. The food crisis will need to be tackled, but the long-term solution may instead come from meat grown in vitro from stem cells. There are already several US startups operating in this area: Memphis Meats, which focuses on beef, duck and chicken; MosaMeat, backed by Google cofounder Sergey Brin; and Finless Foods, which is working on fish proteins.
Right now, lab-grown meat is expensive: it costs £1,800 to produce a pound of Memphis Meat. Still, the costs of new technologies tend to diminish over time and if lab-grown meat becomes affordable, that means consumers can get meat that’s more sustainable but just as healthy and delicious as the real thing – because it is the real thing.
The race is on, then, with in vitro meat seeking to drive down its costs before the plant-based imposters improve. But perhaps it oughtn’t be so binary. Carter puts it bluntly: “My theory is just eat less meat. If you’re going to eat rubbish meat, eat vegetables. If you’re going to eat meat, make sure it’s the best quality you can get your hands on – or don’t touch it.”