Making Meat in the Lab

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Sat in on an interesting session on meat substitutes at the Institute of Food Technologists meeting. So here’s the argument, which you’ve no doubt heard before – most of the western world, including North and South America and Europe is a carnivorous group. We love our meat. Since the 1960s, our consumption of animal-based protein jumped from 70 billion kg to 250 billion kg, and per capita, North Americans top the list at 120 kg of meat per year. Clearly there won’t be enough cows and pigs and chickens to feed this growing appetite. And given the growth of chronic conditions such as heart disease in meat-eating societies, consuming all that animal fat isn’t going to do wonders for our longevity either. So for both sustainability and health reasons we need something else. Something that can give us the same belly-filling satisfaction we get from indulging our carnivorous desires without the fat and without the cost to the planet.

Tofurkey clearly isn’t the solution. While some find it a perfectly acceptable substitute for meat, let’s face it, it still has a long way to go when it comes to standing shoulder to shoulder with the chewy, fiber-y bite of real meat. That’s where food scientists come in – they’re working on a number of meat substitutes – made from vegetable compounds and nifty engineering sleights of hand, that could potentially stand in for your favorite pork chop or porterhouse.

But they’re not there yet. A food science group in the Netherlands described a high temperature high pressure product that had the fibrous and stringy look of meat – the speaker refused to actually describe the process that produced it, for proprietary reasons – but the end product was sufficiently meat-like in appearance. A consumer test even confirmed that the product even felt like meat. But, alas, like tofurkey, the man-made “animal” product still fell short when it came to the more hedonic features of beef. “The overall appreciation of meat substitutes needs further improvement,” the presenter noted, acknowledging that while their meat product scored well on being chewy, fibrous and firm like meat, people still said they didn’t like it as much as the real thing. That might be because eating is about much more than taste and appearance and texture. There’s smell too, and while the lab-made product looked and felt like meat, it didn’t have the same aroma of freshly seared animal fat and fibers. That’s something that no amount of steak sauce can recreate.