The future of food is almost here

Listened to an excellent Ezra Klein interview recently with Patrick Brown— the man who is revolutionizing plant-based meat.  It’s totally fascinating what he’s doing.  He’s trying (and succeeding) at making plant-based meat to appeal to carnivores, not just an acceptable substitute for somebody who wants a vegetarian burger.  This is a much higher bar.  And it is pretty fascinating how he is figuring out all this stuff about meat that none of the other meat-substitute people even really bothered with before.  Lots of great science involved.  And he’s doing it all to help save the planet  An excellent piece from NPR:

This summer, diners in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles will get their hands on a hamburger that has been five years in the making.

The burger looks, tastes and smells like beef — except it’s made entirely from plants. It sizzles on the grill and even browns and oozes fat when it cooks. It’s the brainchild of former Stanford biochemist Patrick Brown and his research team at Northern California-based Impossible Foods.

The startup’s goal is like many in Silicon Valley — to create a product that will change the world.

“The demand for meat is going through the roof, and the world is not going to be able to satisfy that using animals — there’s just not enough space, not enough water,” says Brown, Impossible Foods’ founder and CEO.

Global meat production is expected to increase by 612,000 tons, or 1 percent, this year, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

So Impossible Foods has developed a burger that it says is less resource-intensive, healthier and will eventually be cheaper to produce than red meat…

The Impossible Burger is more than just peas and carrots smashed together: It’s the result of some pretty high-tech research.

Brown’s team analyzes meat at a molecular level to determine what makes a burger taste, smell and cook the way it does. He wants his burgers to be squishy while raw, then firm up and brown on the grill. He believes everything from an animal’s fat tissue to muscle cells can be replicated using plant compounds.

Before starting the company, Brown had a hunch that a certain ingredient made meat taste different than other foods. “I had a very strong suspicion early on that heme would be the magic ingredient for flavor,” said Brown.

Heme is an iron-containing molecule in blood that carries oxygen. It’s heme that makes your blood red and makes meat look pink and taste slightly metallic.

It’s highly concentrated in red meat, but it can also be found in plants. And that was the trick to giving Brown’s meat-free burgers that blood-pink look when raw and meaty taste once cooked.

Brown could have extracted heme from legumes like soybeans, which contain leghemoglobin in nodules on their roots. Except, that would have been expensive and time consuming, and unearthing the plants would release carbon into the atmosphere.

So, he decided to use yeast instead. By taking the soybean gene that encodes the heme protein and transferring it to yeast, the company has been able to produce vast quantities of the bloodlike compound. [emphasis mine] Each vat of frothy red liquid in the lab holds enough heme to make about 20,000 quarter-pound Impossible Burgers. “We have to be able to produce this on a gigantic scale,” says Brown.

“Ultimately, we want it to be practical to produce enough of our product to match what’s currently consumed in the U.S. or the world. Well, that’s a lot of heme,” he says…

The taste is unreal. When I tried a mini burger slathered in vegan mayo, mashed avocado, caramelized onions and Dijon prepared by San Francisco chef Traci Des Jardin at the company’s headquarters in Redwood City, I was floored. The flavor was slightly less potent than meat, but if I didn’t already know this burger was made from plants, I wouldn’t have guessed it. The texture as I chewed was just like ground beef…

Impossible’s plant burger is still more expensive to produce than beef patties. But Brown says the goal is to increase production so the “meat” becomes less expensive than ground chuck. The company is already leasing a 66,913-square-foot manufacturing facility in Oakland to ramp up production…

“If people are going to be eating burgers in 50 years, they’re not going to be made from cows,” said Brown. “We’re saving the burger.”

This is such great news.  As discussed in much detail in the Klein interview, real meat is way more resource intensive than plant-based meat and that has huge environmental consequences.  Not to mention, the suffering of the animals in our meat-industrial complex.  Personally, I’d happily pay twice as much for Brown’s burgers, but that won’t change the world.  If he really gets the prices down to compete with meat– and it is a lot easier raising soybeans, etc., than cows– this is technology that really will change the world.

Also, I’m sure you noticed that part I emboldened.  Sadly, I’m sure many people will resist this because it is based on GMO technology, but to me this is a great example of how this technology can really change the world for the better.  And I’m not really worried about mutant heme-producing yeast destroying the world as we know it.

Finally, I assume that replicating ground beef is the easiest place to start with all this, but hopefully the technology can essentially be replicated for other meats.  Until then, I do find it encouraging that at least some big companies are starting to take the health of the chickens they raise at least somewhat seriously.

In short, lots of reasons to feel optimistic about the future of meat.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

2 Responses to The future of food is almost here

  1. ohwilleke says:

    Color me skeptical. Early version of vegan meat, like tempeh, tofu, and “veggie burgers” (e.g. with rice/bean mixes) have been quite inferior to the real thing.

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