Vegan substitutes for meat have thus far left a funny taste in the mouth. It’s not that companies like Gardein, Blue Menu, Yves and Field Roast haven’t come a long way since chewy, microwavable Morning Star burgers. And it’s not as if foods like tempeh aren’t delicious in their own right (especially in a stir fry).
It’s just that none of these actually fool the palate into thinking you’re eating real meat. For those who mix-and-match their diets between vegan and omnivorous options, it’s hard to convince yourself you should ever leave real meat behind. Vegan foods become additions to your diet, rather than replacements. That may mean you eat less meat, but it doesn’t mean you’ve gone off it entirely.
For those looking for a better substitute, one company has decided “taste” isn’t as important a factor as “texture.” This is the aptly named Beyond Meat. As CEO Ethan Brown told WIRED, “The difference with our company is we have something called OCD, which is obsessive chicken disorder. We are super-focused on replicating the fibrous structure of meat.”
What Beyond Meat does is extract proteins directly from plants and realign them to mimic the fibrous structure of meat. Brown argues the brain recognizes meat when you bite into it as a texture, and not as a flavor.
This may sound like proteins are individually realigned by scientists sitting in front of microscopes a la the “Jurassic Park” tour, but that’s not how the science works. How Beyond Meat accomplishes this is by isolating plant proteins, and then running them through heating, cooling and pressure processes that force those proteins to realign themselves. Brown says this took 10 years of research and development to achieve, since one wrong variable or relationship between variables throws the entire process off. This investment is also what keeps other companies from easily honing in on Beyond Meat’s proprietary food engineering processes.
Brown’s personal values regarding eating meat influence the amount of time, money and effort he’s put into Beyond Meat, but it’s the larger impact of livestock farming on climate change that’s driven many of his efforts. The World Bank (not exactly a major supporter of vegetarianism) has estimated that livestock farming contributes 51 percent of the greenhouse gases to our atmosphere that result in climate change.
Combine this with estimates by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization that consumption of meat and dairy will more than double by 2050, and the biggest contributor to climate change may be our diets.
Alternate solutions include cultured meat, or meat grown specifically in a lab from a cell culture. This would require no animal, and could reduce greenhouse gas emissions from livestock by as much as 90 percent. Properly regulated, it could also reduce the risk of food-borne illness. This science is still a long way off from hitting supermarket shelves at an affordable level.
For the moment, vegan and vegetarian replacements are the best options we have. While you can’t expect to turn entire societies meatless (including this omnivorous writer), it’s in everyone’s best interest to vary their diet between these many new replacements technology and research are revealing. Beyond Meat’s approach to focusing on texture instead of taste could help the meat substitution market become more valued in the average consumer’s diet. We’ll never be completely meatless, but eating less meat is certainly achievable.