Are alternative meats a fad or the future?
Liz Specht, PhD ’14, is associate director of science and technology at the Good Food Institute (GFI), a nonprofit organization that supports plant-based and cultivated alternatives to conventional meat products. With a decade of research experience in synthetic biology, and a firm belief in how technology can help meet sustainable food demands, Specht is an alumna leading the new wave of new foods.
As the term “veggie burger” starts to seem quaint, and those almost-appetizing patties of yore make way for new, high-profile non-meats, we had one question for alumna Liz Specht, PhD ’14: Where’s the beef?
Why have plant-based meats become such a phenomenon?
Interest in plant-based meat has risen over the last few years because these products are no longer catering simply to vegetarian or vegan segments of the population: they appeal to the growing category of “flexitarian” consumers—those who don’t give up meat altogether but seek to reduce their meat consumption, which some studies say constitute upwards of 50 percent of consumers. In order to have that broad appeal, the products need to really deliver on the taste and texture of meat—what these new products intend to do.
Consumers are also increasingly aware of the negative impacts of conventional meat production. Meat is undeniably among the most resource-intensive foods by virtually any metric: land use, water use, greenhouse gas emissions—you name it. It seems every few months another huge report is released synthesizing the work of environmental scientists around the world with the same conclusion: we need to eat far less meat to have any chance of hitting our climate targets and preventing massive environmental collapse. There are public health issues too, as modern “factory farms” are breeding grounds for antibiotic resistance and zoonotic disease, and the longstanding animal welfare aspects are also growing in the popular consciousness.
Younger generations are especially motivated to decrease their environmental footprint and to have concern for animals. Millennials and Gen-Z consumers are far more likely than their parents to see their food choices as an expression of their values. These two synergistic trends—better-tasting products, along with aware and altruistic consumers—
are really driving the demand.
How are new plant-based meat products different?
There are two main categories of alternative meat products: plant-based meat and cultivated meat. The former uses plant-derived ingredients to provide all of the basic building blocks of meat: proteins, fats, vitamins, etc. The result is a product with the same texture and flavor as meat but a comparable or superior nutritional profile and a far lower environmental footprint. Some new products incorporate ingredients made through fermentation that add substantially to the flavor profile, such as the leghemoglobin protein of the Impossible burger, which provides the same meaty flavor as do heme proteins (hemoglobin and myoglobin) found in animal meat.
Cultivated meat (also called cultured meat, cell-based meat or clean meat) is made by cultivating animal cells directly, in the same way that we can grow other types of cells like yeast or bacteria for fermented or probiotic foods. Animal cell culture has been performed for decades, predominantly by the biomedical industry to make therapeutics, but these same principles can be used to grow animal cells into muscle tissue—which is exactly what meat is. Unlike plant-based meat, cultivated meat is not yet available on the market. It’s still being developed by several dozen startup companies, and commercial launch is expected to happen in the next few years.
How do you reconcile your aims with an entire industry and livelihoods built around meat consumption?
The meat industry has already undergone massive transitions in response to the need for increased efficiency, production and consistency. Until the last 40 or 50 years, most meat production in the U.S. happened on relatively small family farms. In the span of a few decades, that production model was completely upended as industrialized animal agriculture came to dominate the industry.
The industry is today poised for another disruption, and the meat industry itself recognizes its part in this transformation. Major meat companies are rebranding themselves as “protein companies,” and they have been investing for years in start-ups that have been leading this wave of innovation. This transition produces new jobs and new opportunities throughout the whole value chain, from plant protein crop farming to plant-based and cultivated meat manufacturing.
What would you say to someone who Just. Loves. Meat?
The goal of the plant-based and cultivated meat industry is to provide consumers with the exact experience that they crave and love, but to do so with plant-based ingredients or animal cells. The greatest point of pride for the flagship plant-based meat brands is that as they continue to refine their formulation, their products become more indistinguishable from meat, so that the consumer experience is precisely what meat lovers want.
This is what really drew to me to the Good Food Institute—unlike other organizations working on food system sustainability, GFI recognizes there are very real consumer wants and needs, and responds with a refreshingly pragmatic theory of change. For all the increasing awareness and concern about meat, consumers always purchase food based on taste, price and convenience. Unless products can deliver on all those attributes and present sustainability, health and animal welfare benefits, there is little hope for consumer behavior change. This is where GFI is unique—we help accelerate the development of products that allow consumers to make a better choice as the default choice, rather than browbeating people to care more about the implications of their diet.
Are there any drawbacks to alternative meats?
The biggest drawback at the moment relates to how young this emerging industry is. We are still working with a limited set of ingredients, flavor profiles, texturing methods and production technologies. This industry has not yet achieved the same economies of scale that the conventional meat industry has enjoyed for decades, meaning that there are some temporary challenges in terms of cost and efficiency. But as the alternative meat industry grows, innovations and scale will allow this field to capitalize on its inherently high efficiency and to become more accessible and affordable around the globe.
What’s next for meat alternatives?
So far, meat alternatives have mostly been focused on replicating the exact flavor and texture of conventional meats that consumers are familiar with. But the species of meat we currently consume (cows, chickens, pigs, etc.) weren’t selected for being the most delicious or nutritious, these species just happened to be easy to domesticate. In the near future, we’ll begin to see meat alternatives that outperform their animal-based counterparts at multiple levels, from taste to nutrition. We have barely scratched the surface in terms of what’s possible for plant-based and cultivated meat. Once we decouple the means of meat production from the biological limitations of the animal itself, anything becomes possible.