This week, diners at a fancy restaurant in Israel were served an elegantly plated kebab, garnished with an eye-catching swipe of crimson sauce and thin slices of red onion.
What they didn’t know is that the kebab wasn’t actually made of meat. Instead, it was a 3D-printed plant-based creation from Israeli food tech company Redefine Meat (formerly Jet-Eat).
“We are hijacking the dinner,” explained Redefine Meat CEO and founder Eschchar Ben-Shitrit. According to him, this marked the first time in the world that 3D printed plant-based meat was served in a restaurant.
Redefine Meat’s “meat” is made with relatively simple ingredients: three plant protein sources, fat, and water. The secret is in the printing production method. Instead of extrusion or pressing, Redefine Meat uses 3D printing to give their products a more realistic texture and mouthfeel. “We can not only mimic the fibers of the meat, but also the way that fat and water is trapped in the meat matrix,” explained Ben-Shitrit.
Serving the meat at a restaurant — with no preface or explanation — was the ultimate test for Redefine Meat. If diners liked it in and of itself, and not just because it’s plant-based, then it was a win. “We don’t want to [make] a better vegan product,” Ben-Shitrit explained. “We want to attract people who are eating meat.”
They’re not alone. Lots of companies are developing plant-based products targeted not at vegetarians and vegans, but at the growing number of flexitarians. That includes young startups like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods as well as veteran meat alternative companies like Tofurky and Lightlife. Even major food corporations and leaders in packaged meat goods like Nestlé and Tyson Foods are pivoting to develop products aimed at people who eat meat, but are looking to eat less of it.
Redefine Meat plans to launch their first product, likely some sort of 3D printed vegan “beef,” through a French butcher that distributes meat wholesale to European restaurants. They plan to have their product on menus in Europe by 2020.
Down the road, they also plan to sell their meat directly to the consumer. Ben-Shitrit told me that he expected that their meat would retail for around €30 to€35 per kilo (just under $20 per pound). That’s pretty eye-poppingly expensive, at least for the U.S. consumer. However, Ben-Shitrit expects that price to go down as they scale up the technology and get more, higher-producing machines. As of now, the company only has one small machine that makes around two pounds of meat per hour. They’re in the midst of building a bigger “alpha” machine that will make roughly ten times that. While he didn’t disclose details, Ben-Shitrit said that the company has an undisclosed amount of funding from Israeli investors.
We haven’t had the chance to try Redefine Meat’s 3D printed meat ourselves. According to Ben-Shitrit, the aforementioned diners liked the product. When they were told it was actually made of plants, “85 percent of them ranked it as meat-like.” Obviously we have to take this review with a grain of salt, but texture is kind of the final frontier of meat alternatives. Companies have figured out ways to emulate the protein, umami and even bloodiness of meat — but beyond burgers, there’s a lot of work still to be done.
Sure, a few companies are making strides in the meat-free texture department: Vivera sells plant-based steaks; Sophie’s Kitchen and Good Catch make fishless tuna, and several players are making vegan sushi. But there’s still a long way to go. If successful, Redefine Meat’s technology could help develop plant-based meats and fish with a mouthfeel closer to the real thing.
At the end of the day, there won’t be any wide-reaching dietary shifts towards plant-based eating unless those plant-based options taste really good. Which is a fact that Ben-Shitrit is very aware of. “If we have amazing technology and it’s not tasty, then we didn’t do anything,” he told me.
Hopefully Redefine Meat brings their 3D printed “meat” stateside soon so we can see (and taste) for ourselves.