Can faux chicken - or any other meat substitute - win over committed carnivores?

 

In a recent post on mashable.com, Bill Gates enthused about Beyond Meat's vegan "chicken". He said the faux chicken is so good he "honestly couldn't tell it from real chicken".

It sounds incredible. Have we really progressed that far with fake meats that they are indiscernible from the real thing? The last fake meat I tasted was only a few years ago during my eldest daughter's vegetarian phase. I sampled all sorts of soy, mushroom and fungus foods that had been shaped to look like meat. That's where the similarity to meat ended: the shape.

But now we have a breakthrough, allegedly. And it turns out that Bill Gates is not the only person who thinks that Beyond Meat's chicken alternative tastes like the real thing. The New York Times columnist, Mark Bittman, said that Beyond Meat's product "fooled me badly in a blind tasting". And Farhad Manjoo, writing in Slate, said, "The chicken strips look, feel and taste closer to real meat than any other food I've ever eaten."

The product sounded amazing. I needed to try it.

Like most meat eaters, I don't relish the suffering of animals, but I've learned to live with the cognitive dissonance I get from loving animals and loving to eat them. Every now and then, some bleeding-heart foodie appears on TV and reminds me how awful factory farming is and my conscience is piqued for a short while.

I'll buy free-range organic chicken until I realise I'm not a wealthy celebrity chef and I can't afford to eat chickens that have their own therapist and have been driven to a farmers' market in a Toyota Prius. So my choice is: become a vegetarian/vegan or continue to eat animals that have led nasty, brutish and short lives. I choose the latter, but I wish it didn't have to be that way.

When I read the rave reviews of Beyond Meat's chicken substitute, I thought it might be the answer to my dilemma. But where could I get hold of this product?

I contacted the Missouri-based company. Beyond Meat, it turns out, is only available in the US, mostly through Whole Foods Market stores. A company spokesperson said they don't have any dates for a UK launch yet.

As luck would have it, I was in San Francisco, visiting my eldest daughter (the erstwhile vegetarian) last week, so I went to the Whole Foods store on 2nd Street to buy Beyond Meat products. They said they didn't have any in stock and they didn't know when they'd get another shipment. They suggested I try their store in Haight-Ashbury. I did, but they hadn't heard of Beyond Meat. A shop assistant suggested I try their Franklin store, the company's flagship store in San Francisco.

Given all the plaudits, I expected to find at least a shelf devoted to Beyond Meat products, but all they had was a few small tubs of "chicken" strips, priced at $3.30. The label on the tub said, "contains: water, soy protein isolate, pea protein, awaranth, chicken flavor, (maltodextrin, yeast extract, natural flavouring), soy fiber, carrot fiber, canola oil, titanium dioxide, white vinegar."

My mouth wasn't watering.

The ingredients look familiar, but the secret of Beyond Meat, apparently, is in the mechanical process the manufacturers use to make long chains of protein molecules, which gives the "meat" that special texture.

Back at the hotel, I eagerly opened the tub. At a glance, the strips could pass for chicken. When I tore one apart, it shredded like chicken. Up close, though, they had an unpleasant pea-like aroma. But it's the "mouth feel" that people rave about. When you sink your teeth into a strip, it gives like chicken. I'd like to say it tastes like chicken, but it doesn't.

In a John Gummer-inspired moment, I fed some to my 12-year-old daughter. Her verdict: "Looks like clay, smells like clay, tastes like clay."

Have people really been fooled by this product in blind taste tests? I find it hard to believe. Still, it's a vast improvement over Quorn and other faux meat products. We may not have Beyond Meat in the UK, but we may soon have something similar.

A European Union-funded project called LikeMeat has also developed vegan "meat" using plant proteins. Like Beyond Meat, it has focused on getting the mouth feel of the product just right.

Angie Trius of CyberColloids, one of the LikeMeat consortium members, told me that the project has just finished and they are "in the process of agreeing on the IP exploitation plan".

The other route to making meat that doesn't necessitate an animal dying is to grow it in a petri dish. The idea of growing "cultured meats" from animal stem cells has been around for several decades, but no one has yet come with a viable way to mass produce it.

In 2008, the American animal-rights group, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), offered a $1m prize to anyone who could create in vitro chicken by 30 June 2012. No one collected the prize. The deadline has now been extended to June 2013.

Before that deadline, though, Mark Post, head of physiology at Maastricht University, will unveil the world's first cultured-meat burger in London.

The Dutch scientist extracts muscle stem cells from cows, which are then fed and nurtured through "exercise" so they can grow and strengthen to create muscle tissue. The exercise consists of stretching the muscle between two bits of velcro. A very small chunk of meat is created this way. Three thousand of these small chunks of meat are used to create one hamburger patty. The estimated cost of the first patty: £200,000. Of course, this is just a proof of concept.

But if you expect to see lab-made hamburgers in your local supermarket anytime soon, don't hold your breath.

Post reckons it will be about 20 years before technology is advanced enough to mass-produce lab-made burgers. But with the demand for old-school meat expected to double in the next 40 years, you can be sure that the smart money will be heading in the faux-meats direction (the energy efficiency of faux meats is much higher than farmed meat).

Already Twitter founders, Evan Williams and Biz Stone, have invested in Beyond Meat. Maybe after the app bubble has burst, investors will be looking to sink their money into something a bit meatier.

All I can say is: hurry up! My conscience is killing me.

The future of fake meat

Dutch pioneers, led by Dr Mark Post, are attempting to grow the world's first artificial burger using animal stem cells to create tiny slithers of "meat", which could be squashed into a beefburger patty. The burger, which will cost an estimated £200,000 to produce, was due to be griddled by Heston Blumenthal last autumn, but the project was delayed.

US scientist Patrick Brown plans to make a meat substitute that actually looks – and tastes – exactly like the real deal. He manipulates plant material in a bid to finally get rid of the "yuck factor" associated with veganism.

A team of US researchers believe they can produce artificial raw meat using a 3D printer. Stem cells are multiplied in a petri dish and then inserted into a bio-cartridge to print out portions.

Calories in a capsule – "food pills" – were a 20th-century futuristic fantasy that never came to pass, but Willy Wonka's three-course-meal chewing gum could yet become a reality. Researchers at the Institute of Food Research in Norwich have found a way to release flavours inside microcapsules at different times.

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