Disrupting diets with Bill Gates and Twitter

10 April 2014


It looks like meat and tastes like meat, but it’s never been near an animal. And it’s better for your body and the environment than the real thing. Sound too good to be true? Not if the growing group of mock-meat pioneers have their way.

For thousands of years, meat has been the mainstay of our diets and a symbol of wealth and status. But in the modern era, some people are consuming way too much of it, and it’s playing havoc with our world – the intensive-livestock systems that dominate agriculture today are putting a huge strain on the environment and causing animals to suffer and our bodies to struggle. In short, our meat-heavy diets are senseless and destructive.

So the hunt has been on for an affordable alternative to this ancient foodstuff; something sustaining, satisfying and savoury that fulfils the role of meat as the focal point of a meal, but with none of the negative impacts of its often-problematic doppelgänger.

"Guilt-free 'meat'"

This is where "mock meat" comes in. Also known as "meat substitute", "faux meat", "fake meat" and "meat analogue", these edible alternatives to meat have the look, feel and distinctive taste of the real thing, only there’s a difference – you can indulge in them without worrying so much about the impact on your waistline and the world.

Derived from plants, these inventive products are far less of a drain on the planet’s resources, contain less fat and salt, cholesterol and calories, and have come into being without any animals being slaughtered. You’ve got to admit, these are good credentials.

Building on ancient innovation

It has to be said, the meat-alternative phenomenon isn’t a new thing. The soy-based substance known as tofu, for example, originated in China as far back as 2,000 years ago. Then there’s Quorn, which hit a select few shelves in the mid-Eighties and is now found in pretty much every supermarket. There have also been some funny examples, including the awkwardly named "Tofurkey" – a vegetarian turkey dish originally designed for Thanksgiving.

But in the last few decades, we’ve seen a flurry of entrepreneurs experimenting with other, more sophisticated alternatives. Below, we take a look at two pioneers of fake-animal proteins, who are using some clever science to turn our traditional diet firmly on its head. And believe us, you’d be hard pressed to distinguish these delectable delights from their "authentic" counterparts.

Leading the charge

No exploration of the mock-meat industry would be right without first mentioning California-based business Beyond Meat, whose mission is "to create mass-market solutions that perfectly replace animal protein with plant protein".

Its non-GMO, gluten-free, vegan products include grilled, lightly seasoned and Southwest-style chicken-free strips and beef-free crumbles, which are mince substitutes. The products are made from soy and pea protein, flours and fibre. They contain the same amount of protein, but half the fat, of their real-meat equivalents; saturated fats, antibiotics and hormones don’t even make an appearance.

Business magazine Fast Company named Beyond Meat one of the most innovative companies of 2014. It has attracted such prominent investors as business magnate Bill Gates, and Twitter founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone, who described the products as "freakishly similar" to meat.

Another food-technology innovator, Hampton Creek Foods, has made its name with its Just Mayo product, which includes an excellent egg substitute; the crucial emulsifying qualities of the "egg" come from a pea extract. Although not strictly a mock meat, it certainly fits into the wider category of animal-protein alternatives where, its website states, "taste and sustainability live on the same plate". And the team is working on other mock products.

The future of "mock meat"

There can be no doubt that there’s a growing desire to replace traditional forms of meat, cut from the animal, with "meat" derived from plants. These alternatives may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s certainly exciting to see some genuine game-changers being developed, and it looks like the next few years will bring about a big change to our diets.

There are certain things to beware of, if mock meat seriously takes off. Firstly, the increasing commoditisation of "meats" – whether real or fake – could encourage and sustain a food system that’s dominated by corporate control. Secondly, opting for these "guilt-free" products might mean that we take our eye off the ball when it comes to other important issues, such as reducing food waste. Finally, there’s a worry that mock meat might dominate to such an extent that we may one day forget the farm; this would be disastrous because livestock farmers are hugely important custodians of our land, and provide many benefits beyond food, in the form of cultural, social and economic value.

But for anyone who wants to improve their health, help curb climate change, conserve the earth’s natural resources and respect animal welfare, these incredible "meaty" treats have almost boundless appeal. The question is this: will these meat replicas, with their convincing mouth-feel and flavour, be enough to tempt even the most committed of "carnivores"? Time will tell.

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