Fake Meat: the Future of Food?

Vegetable burgers that tastes like meat are now a reality, as are burgers grown in petri dishes
October 14, 2018 Updated: October 14, 2018

Meat as we know it may soon be a food of the past. That’s the prediction of billionaire Richard Branson who recently declared a meat-free world within 30 years.

His prophecy is tied to his latest venture, Memphis Meats, where Branson has teamed up with Bill Gates, Agri-giant Cargill, and other investors. Their mission is to create the most accurate replica of a beef burger the world has ever tasted, without the negative aspects associated with the real thing.

Meat imitations are nothing new, but we’ve come a long way from the bland and disturbingly chewy soy nuggets that only a desperate vegan would touch. Fake meat has never been more sophisticated, and the audience embracing it has never been bigger.

Several restaurants, including White Castle, now proudly serve the “Impossible Burger,” a plant-based product so real it “bleeds.” KFC is considering a chicken-free chicken. And Beyond Meat—maker of the eerily beef-like  “Beast Burger”—had to build a second production facility this year due to overwhelming consumer demand. 

From mock sausage to phony bologna, food manufacturers have churned out an endless variety of animal-free versions of our favorite animal-based foods. But the techniques to mimic taste and texture have recently reached a whole new level.

What makes Memphis Meats different from previous imitations is that it’s not made from plants. It comes from a new breed of imposter called “cultured meat.” The process involves growing a mass of animal stem cells in a petri dish to artificially produce the same tissue that naturally grows on a living creature.

Of course, there are still a few kinks to work out. One of the major hurdles cultured meat faces is affordability. The first burger made from this method in 2013 cost $325,000 to produce. Scientists have since managed to whittle that number down, but a reasonable price tag is still in the works.

Another problem with the cultured meat promise is that it’s not yet vegan. In order to get that hunk of stem cells to grow, you have to feed it. For cultured beef, that means bovine growth serum—an extremely expensive substance made from cows’ blood. To truly sell cultured beef as a compassionate alternative, manufacturers need a much cheaper nutrient formula that requires no animal input.

But it can be done. JUST, a food company working on a cultured chicken, recently announced that they have a plant-based growth medium. JUST’s product is ready for release, but they are now up against a lack of regulatory clarity with selling in vitro meat.

But even if manufacturers can work out these technical hurdles, they still face a problem of perception. According to Adrienne Rose Bitar, postdoctoral associate in History at Cornell University and author of “Diet and Disease of Civilization,” a big part of the ick factor we get when considering cultured meat is that it inhabits the same creepy gray area which fuels our fears of zombies.  

“Lab-grown meat puts us in an uneasy position, because we don’t know if it’s alive or dead,” Bitar said. “It defies our categories, and that is very troubling from a human perspective.”

Bitar is currently researching the history of fake meat for a new project. She believes the big challenge of marketing cultured meat is striking the right chord with the consumer. The aim is to present a benevolent food of the future, without making people think they will be feeding on a scientific experiment.

“Should they go at it from a tech-forward perspective and risk being called a frankenfood, or sell it as recreating nature in a more efficient and humane way?” Bitar asks. “That’s a real decision that they’re going to have to make.”

One marketing strategy is to frame cultured meat in the artisan mold. “The idea is that you can have a microbrewery, but for meat instead of beer,” Bitar said. “You can have these homegrown, farmers’ market-style places where they grow your meat and it can feel more local, traditional, and reliable.”

Despite all the hurdles that still need to be cleared to bring cultured meat to a market near you, it’s our evolving food attitudes that still make it a compelling venture. Growing concerns about animal welfare, environmental devastation, and the antibiotic-resistant superbugs associated with modern livestock production are prompting people to retreat from meat, or at least cut back on their consumption.

The rise in plant-based imitation animal products and the looming threat of cultured meat on the horizon has forced the real meat industry to draw a line in the sand. In August 2018, Missouri became the first state to prohibit any food from using the term “meat” if it does not originate from living animals. Lobbyists for the livestock industry are pressuring federal lawmakers and regulators to adopt similar legislation nationwide in order to prevent “consumer confusion in the marketplace.”

Although it may share similarities to real meat on a cellular level, critics accuse cultured meat of being unnatural. However, if you consider how most meat is currently raised, natural is a term that has lost its meaning.

“Chicken grown on a massive industrial scale has been bred to have breasts so big that they can’t even stand up,” Bitar said. “They’re bow legged, have sores, and are fed antibiotics. That’s not natural either.”

Ancient Origin of Fake Meat

Anybody who hunts or raises livestock knows that to make meat, death is part of the deal. Yet our love for meat makes this a price worth paying.  Few people get excited about broccoli the way so many do about bacon.

Fake meat is about having your cake and eating it too. The goal is to create a meat-like experience with none of the blood on your hands.

The earliest meat analogues come from the Buddhist monasteries of ancient China, where things like tofu and seitan were born.

There was no rule about being a vegetarian in original Buddhism, where the first practitioners had to beg for their food and ate whatever they were given. But as the religion spread to China, monks began distancing themselves from meat, particularly after Emperor Wudi became a vegetarian to demonstrate his compassion.

Ancient monks ate very simply by themselves, but things got fancy when they had to feed the meat-eating pilgrims who came to their temples. To give visitors a taste of the familiar, while still adhering to their vegetarian precepts, monks recreated classic Chinese dishes with the first plant-based substitutes.

Some of us may remember an interest in fake meats coming out in the Asian-influenced macrobiotic movement 50 years ago. However, Bitar discovered that the first American examples emerged not in the 1970s, but in the early 1900s. It started with John Harvey Kellogg, who famously preached vegetarianism as a means toward a more pure, healthy, and spiritual existence.

Kellogg is best known for inspiring the breakfast cereal industry, but his influence also set off a lesser known fake meat industry. The products of his time were made from a combination of ground peanuts and wheat gluten, packaged in cans, and ordered through the mail.

“It started off as spiritual/religious need for vegetable meats, but then it acquired different appeals,” said Bitar, “One was for safety, which was valid because the meat industry back then wasn’t as safe as it is today. Another was expense. It was cheaper. The other factor was convenience. You didn’t have to prepare it like you do raw meat.”

Focus on Health

Health is one reason people are backing away from real meat today. The are concerned about saturated fat and the mounting science that links cancer with eating animal flesh.

However, fake meat may not be the path to health either. Jennifer Mimkha, a registered dietitian with Prana Nutrition in Florida, preaches a plant-based diet, but she sees meat imitations such as Tofurky and soy dogs more as vegan junk food than real nutrition.

“I typically think of them as special occasion foods,” Mimkha said. “If someone is struggling with giving up meat, and this will help bridge the gap, I support it. But my goal  is to transition them to a whole food diet.”

Making plants taste and chew like flesh means that meat substitutes are often highly processed and contain fillers we probably don’t want to consume too often. Plus, many of these products are made primarily with soy and wheat—two ingredients that a growing number people are trying to avoid.

But fake meat manufacturers are getting wise to consumer interest in healthier substitutes. Part of popularity of the Beast Burger is due to its nutritional profile. It contains no soy or wheat, yet still boasts 20 grams of protein. It also has more than double the amount of iron and almost half the saturated fat found in an 80-percent-lean beef burger.

Mimkha appreciates that there are more meatless options than ever, but she encourages her clients toward homemade burgers rather than store bought. While they may not taste much like meat, they can still be satisfying.

“There are recipes that are fundamentally healthy because they’re made with beans and vegetables, and they can still give you a fix for your meat craving,” she said. “If people are willing to spend the time to cook, they can make their own healthier alternatives.”

As for cultured meat, Mimkha supports any move toward eating fewer animals. But she’s not interested in trying it herself. An accurate meat replica is not an experience she seeks.

“It’s bizarre how much the Impossible Burger tastes just like meat,” she said. “I almost didn’t want to eat it because I didn’t even like the taste of meat before I switched.”

Bitar, however, is looking forward to her first bite.

“I can’t wait to try it,” she said. “I think it has so much potential.”

Follow Conan on Twitter: @ConanMilner