Science is progressing in the development of imitation meat products, but issues over taste, texture and cost remain

Even for omnivores, there is a lot to like about the prospect of convincing fake meat. There are known health and environmental benefits to reducing red meat consumption, and if fake meat can be produced cheaply, there are cost benefits as well. So where are we in terms of fake meat research?

There are two promising avenues of production for lab-grown, realistic replacement roasts: printed or cultivated animal cells, or entirely plant-based imitation meat. Neither method has progressed much past the development stage – only one company has their plant-based burgers in select restaurants now, based on plant proteins generated in a lab.

“Recombinant protein production is well established, a known quantity, but not for food,” said Christine Farrance, Senior Director of R&D and Scientific Affairs for Charles River’s Microbial Solutions, echoing recent concerns raised by the FDA, who rejected one meat manufacturer’s Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) designation.

Let us look closer at four of the hottest topics in fake meat development: taste, texture, production, and environmental impact.

Taste

This one is obvious. Any meat-lover who has tried tofu will tell you that even the best vegan versions do not exactly match the taste of real meat. That is not to say that tofu or seitan meat substitutes are inferior (that is a matter of preference), but it does mean that meat connoisseurs are not going to be easily fooled into thinking they are eating the real thing.

Consumers will probably have not issue with the taste of lab-grown meat from real animal cells, but for plant-based meat it is trickier. The start-up Impossible Foods Inc. has patented the production of their meat alternative, which uses genetically modified yeast to produce heme. This compound is found in blood and some plants, and the company claims that it is the key to their more authentic flavor.

Taking their food science up a notch, the company also uses gas chromatography mass spectrometry to analyze the aroma of cooking beef, looking for every subtle odor that adds to the meat experience. As odor is linked to flavor, this approach has garnered positive feedback on the realism of their product.

Texture

In a strange twist, plant-based meat might trump animal-cell grown meat in the texture department. Since the plant people are fabricating everything from scratch, they have more control over small details. They use proteins from wheat for firmness, potato for water retention, and coconut for fat, to name a few. By not being tied to real meat, plant-based products have all the flexibility that a lab can grant.

For cultured meat, or “clean meat,” the process is very different. Actual animal cells are used to either grow or 3D print the meat. In theory, this method should produce meat that is closer to the real thing, but in practice, texture has proven difficult. Animals are complex – fats, muscles, and organs grow and develop together in a process much too complicated for any printer to mimic.

One promising approach would be electrospinning starch fibers into a scaffold that could form the structure of a steak, then growing the meat around it. Medical researchers are taking a similar scaffolding approach for 3D printed human organs, where structure and texture have also proven difficult.

Production

For plant-based meat, scalability is an unknown factor.

“Large scale production is already done for recombinant proteins used in pharma, like the insulin made in E. coli,” said Farrance. However, she acknowledges that the scale for widely-available meatless meat would be a step up from pharma. Issues of fermentation tank size, yield, and cost effectiveness could affect the feasibility of this product.

Similar issues would plague clean meat. So far, cost-effectiveness has proven to be lab-grown meat’s downfall, though costs are dropping. Last reported cost for a pound of lab-grown Memphis Meat was $2,400/lb., while Mosa Meat hopes to offer an $11 hamburger patty… someday.

Environmental impact

This last issue would seem to be a no-brainer. It is a well-established fact that livestock production is bad for the environment – it is energy inefficient, water-intensive, and the methane produced from cattle farts contribute a great deal to agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, which is the second largest emitter globally.

The problem is the first largest global emitter: the energy sector. According to a recent study, if meat is grown in labs that run on power from conventional fossil fuels then they are environmentally no better than cattle. Furthermore, according to Farrance, protein production requires many barriers to prevent cross-contamination. If plant-based meats use the same safety standards, they will generate a lot of waste from plastic packaging and disposable protective gear.

So what’s next?

For lab-grown alternatives to unseat real meat, they will need to address all four of these challenges. Research has been promising, but results have been slow. A company that creates a tasty, cost-effective, sustainable meat alternative will have a game-changing product, but they can’t afford to skip a step.

In order to meet these challenges, the FDA and USDA are collaborating on regulations for cell-based meat, and the FDA may take a closer look at plant-based products as well. Although research and regulations usually move at different speeds, in this case regulators are trying to stay ahead of the game.

Finally, as Farrance mentioned, large-scale production of these alternative meats is still an unknown quantity. If production can be scaled to meet demand, we may see wide release of these products within a few years.