In the Flesh: Can Synthetic Animal Protein Make the Cut?
Whether you eat it seven days a week, are an environmental vegetarian or are as vegan as they come, most of us take a stance on meat. But would you eat something that looks like meat, smells like meat and tastes like meat but, well, isn’t?
There is perhaps no food as divisive as meatless meat – certainly not traditional animal meat because at least meat eaters unequivocally like it. Meatless meat is as unpopular with some groups of vegetarians and vegans as it is with meat eaters, albeit for different reasons. The former query its nutritional properties and environmental impact while the latter question why plant eaters would seek out something that tastes like the very thing they’re trying to avoid.
Whatever your opinion, meatless meat is a rapidly growing industry and no more so than in traditionally high-meat-consuming countries like the US. Soy-based Quorn, tofu and tempeh, wheat-based seitan and vegetable-protein-based alternatives have been on the market for a long time, but the latest trend revolutionising the meatless meat industry is in vitro meat (IVM) – lab-grown meat that smells, tastes, looks and feels like natural meat. Apart from the technological expertise and scientific knowledge underpinning it, the development of IVM is significant because it may be the final frontier that, unlike seitan and tofu, may finally convince staunch meat eaters to give up meat.
Patrick Brown, the CEO of Californian biotech start-up Impossible Foods, the company that created the infamous bleeding, plant-based Impossible Burger, went as far as to say that the company “scores zero points if a vegan or vegetarian buys its burgers” because meat lovers are the company’s target consumers. The Impossible Burger is engineered from a combination of wheat, potato, coconut oil and heme, an iron-containing molecule that gives meat its flavour and iron-rich composition. By extracting heme from plants, which is atom-for-atom identical to heme in animals, Impossible Foods have created a vegetarian burger that recreates the precise flavours, textures and aromas of ground meat.
Although IVM isn’t yet available in Australia, Shannon Martinez, chef at the helm of famed vegan franchise Smith & Daughters, says inventions such as the Impossible Burger help stem the demand for meat. “If we want to replicate meat for meat eaters in order to reduce their intake, we have to give them something they’re used to eating so they don’t notice,” she says. “A meat-and-three-veg bloke isn’t going to eat a vegetarian patty made of potato and chickpea but he will eat the Impossible Burger and that’s how he’ll reduce his meat intake.”
The US may be treading new ground in IVM technology, but nowhere is the limitless appetite for natural meat more apparent than in Australia. In 2014, Australia surpassed the US as the highest consumer of meat in the world for the first time since 1982, consuming 90.2 kilograms of meat per capita per year.
With current livestock production unlikely to meet global population growth and the projected 70 percent increase in demand for meat by 2050, IVM is a way to solve the ethical, environmental, resource and health problems associated with factory farming. The Impossible Burger, for instance, uses a twentieth of the land and a quarter of the water, and produces an eighth of the greenhouse gas emissions of a burger made from cows.
Once it’s scaled up to be more cost effective, nutritionist and food scientist Dr Anneline Padayachee, who is an associate academic at the University of Melbourne, says IVM is a functional food product that can be specifically developed to meet the nutritional needs of target populations – particularly older people who can’t swallow red meat anymore and people in third-world countries who suffer from iron deficiency. “Anaemia is a big health concern globally that affects women of childbearing age in third-world countries whose children’s growth and development are then affected,” she says. “A serve of lean red meat twice a week can easily solve that problem, but it’s too expensive for certain populations. If IVM could be fortified with a long shelf life, it would be a viable source of iron in a third-world country.”
But if IVM is all that it’s cracked up to be, why isn’t there a booming IVM industry in Australia? Without the injection of readymade capital to facilitate the production of IVM, vegan chefs in Australia are making do. Martinez has created a vegan patty that bleeds in a similar way to the Impossible Burger because of the beetroot in it. “It would take a lot of money to create the Impossible Burger in Australia; it takes more than a chef whipping up stuff in a bowl. Bill Gates funded the creation of Impossible Burger, but who would fund it here?”
Part of the problem also lies in the shortage of research institutes in Australia. “I know one of the Good Food Institute’s main objectives is to try and encourage the world’s best cellular biologists to go into clean meat production,” says Matti Wilks, a PhD candidate in psychology at the University of Queensland and lifelong vegetarian. “But right now, it seems that most of the already established institutes and the best researchers are based overseas, so it makes sense that other interested parties would go there.”
“If we want to replicate meat for meat eaters in order to reduce their intake, we have to give them something they’re used to eating so they don’t notice.”
Australian customers’ ambivalence may also have something to do with it. According to the Melbourne University paper, consumers surveyed in the paper consider cultured meat, i.e. IVM, to be meat and what’s more, they find it “quite repulsive”. “I think this question of ‘what meat is’ is one of the reasons clean meat has caused such a stir – because it’s the same biologically, it really forces us to reclassify what we consider meat and the process by which it is developed. So we either have to change the definition of meat, or create a new category just for this,” adds Wilks.
IVM also raises interesting ethical quandaries for existing plant eaters. Martinez points out how many of her vegan customers won’t eat IVM because of the fact that it still requires the use of real animals. Indeed, no one making lab-grown meat has gotten around the fact that the cell culture process needs the morally questionable foetal bovine serum, which comes from unborn calves. Memphis Meats and Finless Foods have said they are looking to develop a vegan serum, but this isn’t yet available.
Vegans and vegetarians aside, anecdotal data suggests the consumption patterns of Australia’s meat eaters are shifting – which may just be the societal change that accelerates the development of IVM in Australia. Martinez says 70 percent of Smith & Daughter’s customers are meat eaters, while Dr Padayachee has observed a growing number of ‘reducetarians’. “While many people aren’t completely removing meat from their diet, they’re decreasing the frequency of eating it and this can have a huge effect. If our population of 24 million people cut back from 150 grams to 100 grams of meat five days a week or abstained a few days a week, that is significant,” she says.
The technology is still young and various ethical, nutritional, psychological and scalability considerations have to be resolved before IVM is ever to become a commercially available staple in the Australian diet. But if the meteoric rise of the IVM industry in the US is anything to go by, fake sausages and beef patties may one day be a reality at your average Aussie barbie.