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The clean protein revolution

Meat production is one of the world’s largest causes of climate pollution, and global demand for meat is rising. With the planet at stake, start-ups are leading the way with beetroot burgers that bleed, lab-grown hamburger patties and protein-rich bug based delights.

The holy grail for food companies is producing an authentic, protein-packed substitute, that re-creates the texture and experience of a meaty meal. Beyond Meat has attempted to do this with vegetables, creating bleeding burgers, made from pea protein, potato starch and beetroot juice. The vegan brand is now stocked at Tesco, bringing plant based meat to a mainstream audience.

But a veggie burger is nothing new. Lab-grown meat on the other hand sounds more like the stuff of science fiction. Nevertheless, as brands entering the sector begin to scale production and reduce costs, it is now becoming a viable business option. In five years, the cost of a lab-grown burger has dropped from a whopping $325,000 to a rather more reasonable $11.36. While the current price point means lab-grown meat is still a luxury, the goal of the sector is to offer a realistic alternative to traditional meat, that’s accessible to all people.
Ground beef burger patties are easier to grow from scratch than a steak. Thus, burgers have been the first port of call for lab-grown meat brands. But start-ups are continuing to develop products that break new ground. Just, which has already had success with eggless eggs made from mung beans, is working towards a lab-grown chicken breast, while Israeli biotech brand Aelph Farms is developing a lab-grown steak.

For lab-grown meat getting the look and taste right is vital to break through the psychological barriers to purchase. So Aleph Farms is using medical techniques for healing body tissue, to grow muscle, fibers and blood vessels all together, to more closely resemble the texture of natural beef. The brand aims to have a product for market by 2020.
Unconventional ingredients and approaches will certainly take time to get used to. So gradual normalisation is key to help customers overcome the ‘yuck factor’. Insect proteins for instance are fairly new to western audiences, Coop made headlines for stocking Essento’s mealworm larvae meatballs and burgers, however people in Asia have been eating crickets for centuries. Chipperpet has launched a range of cricket based dog treats, aiming to ease customers into accepting the unusual ingredients before launching a full range of dog food. While in Japan, the Shojinmeat Project seeks to shift perception via education, equipping high school students to grow their own animal cells in microwave sized heated boxes.

As these meat substitutes go mainstream it raises interesting questions for supermarkets in terms of transparency, regulation and where to house the meat products that aren’t really meat. Vegan Toona from Sophie’s Kitchen is stocked in US supermarkets alongside traditional tinned fish and Sainsbury’s positions plant based meat options in the meat aisle, rather than a separate vegan section. Some vegetarians and vegans have complained about the move, resenting the walk past the real meat. But it is clear that these new meat alternatives, whether lab-grown or insect meat are not solely targeting vegans or vegetarians. Brands focusing on use rather than origin makes it easier for people to try a plant-based meal, positioning meat-free food as just another option, rather than an alternative lifestyle choice.
Looking forward, alternate protein sources will only overtake animal agriculture when the meat is cheaper to make and purchase. This could lead to a future where battery farms are no more, buying a lab-grown steak becomes the norm, and organic, hand reared, free range meat becomes the luxury option. Ultimately, taste will tell.

Image courtesy of Unsplash 

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