Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Problem with Fake Meat

It might be possible to create a burger that helps the environment and improves your health. But will it taste good enough to win over the masses?
People want burgers. It seems hardwired. You can read Richard Wrangham’s Catching Fire to learn how man evolved into a thinking primate by learning to cook the animals he killed. You can talk to the stylish proprietor of a leading cooking school in Japan, who co-owns an artful Manhattan sushi restaurant. What does he find the most efficient fuel for his triathlon training? A couple of McDonald’s quarter-pounders a day.
Vegetarian and vegans want burgers. Walter Robb, co-CEO of Whole Foods, says that from the time he started a health-food store in the Northern California of the late 1970s, he had to sell tofu, seitan, and anything else that could be made to look like meat but wasn’t. “The stuff sells,” he says simply. Entire books are dedicated to veggie burgers, even if they all taste like overseasoned, underhydrated corrugated cardboard.
Of course, there are rational reasons not to eat meat. You can probably recite them along with Ethan Brown, a strapping 6-foot-5 vegan who sold his house in Washington, D.C., and raided his family’s savings accounts to fund a startup called Beyond Meat. Because raising livestock is such an inefficient use of land and water, he thought that making soy “chicken” strips and vegetable-protein “Beast” patties would be an even better way to improve the environment than creating fuel cells, the career he abandoned. Along the way he signed up Bill Gates and Twitter founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams as investors. It’s hard, in fact, to find a tech billionaire who hasn’t invested in a protein alternative that aims to stamp out factory farming. They all recognize the realities of the market: everybody buys burgers. “Meat is such a macho thing,” Williams says..
Beyond Meat can count itself a tech company, in that it began when Brown plowed through scientific papers to find the university researchers who were doing the work likeliest to advance the T in TVP—textured vegetable protein, which has generally had a consistency somewhere between modeling clay and latex sponge. Texture, Brown thought, was the key to a better meat substitute. He also wanted to vary the V: most TVP means soy, in a world where many people want to avoid genetically modified organisms and almost all soy is a GMO. His assumption was that the flavor challenge had been cracked by chemists working from the late 1960s through the ’80s—a golden era for experimentation in processed food, when instruments to measure flavor were being invented and refined, multinational flavoring companies were racing to develop new molecules, and cranks hadn’t started talking about eating only what your grandmother ate...
I’m impressed by the “lightly seasoned” strips, insofar as they bear a strong similarity to my Hungarian grandmother’s Saturday lunch of re-boiled chicken from her Friday-night chicken soup. She used garlic and onion in everything, too much salt, and usually some dried or fresh parsley. So does Anderson. What took her hours of simmering for a particular waterlogged yet dry, chewy texture, Beyond Meat achieves by tossing pieces of extruded soy protein into a flavored brine under a vacuum, so the liquid and flavor will penetrate better. The chicken strips out of a bag from Tyson or a similar mass-market supermarket brand—the standard Anderson says he is aiming for—do have a meatier flavor. But only slightly. Their chewy-fibrous texture is more unmistakably meaty than that of the Beyond Meat strips, though the strips are pretty close and getting closer. Tim Geistlinger, who’s in charge of R&D, lets me sample a new batch of “chicken” strips extruded from the Steer, which have a more variegated and branching striation than the current version. With better hydration, the newly configured strips will be possible to confuse with something out of a Tyson bag. I went through the better part of a bag of Beyond Meat strips without really thinking about it. And I’d certainly rather eat what Beyond Meat extrudes than what Tyson packages...the masses? By Corby Kummer (technologyreview.com)

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