When you bite into a juicy piece of steak — or any meat — a big part of the tasting experience is texture. It’s one of meat’s most defining characteristics, which also makes it really, really hard to accurately imitate. Alterna-meat companies are trying, but all too often their efforts fall short and we’re left with gummy vegan sausages or tough “chik’n” strips.
The secret to texture might lie in mushrooms. Or, more specifically, what lies beneath mushrooms. Ecovative, a biotech company based in upstate New York, is using mushroom roots (AKA mycelium) to give meat alternatives a better, meatier texture.
The company first developed a mycelium platform 12 years ago to use as sustainable packaging material. Then, a few years ago, they started developing a marshmallow-like mycelium foam, called “Atlast,” which could be used as scaffolding for tissue engineering. Ecovative co-founder and CEO Eben Bayer told me over the phone that they can grow the mycelium into a shape that emulates meat fibers, then infuse it with plant-based fats, flavors, and seasonings. In short: they can use it as a scaffold to grow meat.
This sort of scaffolding technology is really needed right now. Texture is a huge barrier to widespread acceptance for meat alternatives, both cell-based and plant-based. On the whole, cellular agriculture companies have figured out how to replicate animal cells. But as of now they can basically only copy and mush cells together, so they’re limited to making meats that don’t require much structure, like ground beef. Similarly, plant-based meat is struggling to replicate the exact texture of meat, cheese, and fish.
Ecovative isn’t the only company working on this problem. Redefine Meat is using 3D printing to try to make plants emulate the texture of beef. Researchers at Penn State are using LEGO pieces to spin edible scaffolds made of cornstarch, and others are experimenting with spinach leaves to help grow tissue.
But Ecovative’s platform has a couple of advantages. Mycelium is super easy and fast to grow: Bayer said it only takes nine days to grow a sizeable sheet of the mushroom foam. It’s also very cheap to make and extremely versatile. Scientists can either grow the foam into an intended shape — like, say, a pork chop — or cut and shape it after the sheet is ready.
Bayer told me that Ecovative will sell its mycelium foam to other businesses. He wouldn’t give specifics on pricing or when exactly they would head to market, but told me that the company will have “stuff to taste by this year.”
Sure, right now we’ve got vegan burgers that have a texture pretty close to the real thing. But what about bacon, or beef tenderloin, or steak? Until there are indistinguishable plant-based (or, down the road, cell-based) options for all cuts of meat, not just burgers, it’ll be hard to get carnivores on board with meat alternatives. Hopefully Ecovative’s mycelium can help crack the texture code.