There’s never been a better time to be a vegetarian. Or a flexitarian, for that matter.
Gone are the days when the only veggie option at a barbecue was a dry disc of a bean burger. Companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have harnessed food science and culinary technology to essentially reverse engineer meat; taking the textures and flavors we crave and figuring out how to make them out of plants (and some genetically engineered yeast), skipping the animal entirely.
So far, they’ve done a pretty good job. When we tried Impossible’s new Recipe 2.0 at CES this January — where it won the Best of the Best award — we were blown away by how closely it replicated beef. It was almost uncanny. In the months leading up to its wildly successful IPO Beyond Meat also unveiled a tasty new recipe which has been roping in flexitarians at Carl’s Jr. and Del Taco.
We’re not the only ones impressed by these companies’ meat-like vegan offerings. Consumers have been flocking to plant-based meat as of late. Spurred by increased demand, meat alternatives have become more widely accessible (geographically and price-wise) as it heads onto menus of nationwide fast-food chains like Burger King.
Plant-based meat may be doing a good job at imitating the real thing, but some companies are trying to actually make the real thing by growing animal cells in a lab.
No cell-based meat product has hit the market yet, though companies are already doing taste tests of everything from cell-based sausages to shrimp. Food tech company JUST is claiming it’ll make the first public sale of cell-based meat by the end of this year, but most other companies are estimating 2020/2021 as the launch date.
It sounds great on the surface: real meat, minus the environmental and ethical costs! But cultured meat is actually quite polarizing. First of all, it’s expensive — as of now, it costs around $50 to make a single burger. There are also questions around whether or not it’s actually better for the environment than traditional animal agriculture, especially considering many companies rely on controversial (and non-vegan) fetal bovine serum. And the FDA and USDA haven’t exactly nailed down how they’re going to regulate this new foodstuff.
Lately I’ve been wondering: If plant-based meat tastes so good people can’t even tell it’s vegan, do we even need cell-based meat? After all — it’s expensive, polarizing, and it’s unclear when (or where) we’ll be able to taste it. So why bother?
I actually think there are a couple reasons that cell-based meat is still a relevant endeavor. First: taste. Sure, companies may make pretty good imitations of chicken nuggets or beef burgers out of plant proteins. But it’ll be a much bigger lift to make a vegan version of a white meat chicken breast, a T-bone steak, or fatty bacon that will fool the average carnivore.
There, cell-based meat has more of a chance. As of now it certainly has textural and taste hurdles of its own. However, at least it’s working with the same raw material that goes into an animal product (muscle cells, fat cells, etc). I’m optimistic that scientists will eventually crack the code — finding an affordable animal-free media, figuring out the right scaffolding to create texture — and be able to make cell-based meats that are pretty darn indistinguishable from the real thing.
The second reason that cell-based might have the upper hand over plant-based meat is psychological. Some people are just very stubborn carnivores (hi there, my entire Southern family!). Even if they couldn’t tell the difference between a plant-based and a cell-based burger in a blind taste test, I’m guessing that, given the choice, the majority of them would go for the latter — because at least it’s real meat.
In fact, a recent consumer study from Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems found that 24 percent of consumers were not at all likely to purchase cultured meat, while 26 percent said the same for plant-based meat. Going forward, cell-based meat companies will have to figure out effective branding strategies to win over those that are hesitant and convince them that meat grown in a lab is the same — if not better — than what comes from a pasture.
In the end, it’s not an either-or. Our protein future will likely feature both plant-based and cell-based meat. Heck, there might even be some insects thrown in there. Consumers will choose different options based off of dietary preferences, budgets, marketing, etc.
So while plant-based meat does indeed rule for now, the alternative protein landscape will likely change in the next decade or so when cultured meat enters the scene. Until then, dig into your Impossible Whopper and let its (lab-made) blood run down your chin with abandon.
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