4 April 2014, 11:34

Fake meat: growing healthy trend or hoax?

Fake meat: growing healthy trend or hoax?

These days demand for meat alternatives is growing, triggered by healthy trends, increased vegetarianism and concerns over the impact of industrial-scale animal husbandry on the environment. Advances in food technology have made meat substitutes tasting more like the real thing than ever before, but is it possible to make a faux chicken that actually tastes like chicken?

The New York Times recently took a closer look at the products and people who invest in them, including Biz Stone and Evan Williams of Twitter. And it appeared that things in the industry are developing pretty fast. Thus, last May, Whole Foods recalled two types of curried chicken salad that had been sold in some of its stores in the Northeast. The retailer’s kitchens had accidentally confused a batch of "chick’n" salad made with a plant protein substitute with one made from real chicken, and reversed the labels, NYT reports.

Consumers buying the version labeled as having been made from actual chicken were instead eating vegetarian chicken salad.

"None of the customers apparently noticed the difference," said Ethan Brown, founder and chief executive of Beyond Meat, which made the substitute.

The error demonstrates just how far "fake" meat — producers hate the term but have not come up with an alternative to "plant-based protein" — has come from the days when desiccated and flavorless veggie burgers were virtually the only option for noncarnivores, NYT says. Today, some investors look at the development of meat alternatives as a serious issue.

"Frankly, we’ve never said we’re interested in food," said Randy Komisar, a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caulfield Byers, a venture capital firm that has backed Google and Facebook — and Beyond Meat. "We’re interested, because they represent big potential markets and strong opportunities for building great returns."

Investors also regard it as sustainability issue. Among the problems Komisar listed that his firm’s investment in Beyond Meat are intended to address are land and water use, stress on global supply chains and the world’s growing population. "These are venture-scale problems with venture-scale returns," he said.

So the desire to replace meat proteins with proteins derived from plants is spreading, although the market is still tiny. Mintel, a market research firm, reports that sales of meat alternatives grew 8 percent from 2010 to 2012, when sales hit $553 million.

The biggest player is MorningStar Farms that accounts for more than 60 percent of the market, according to Mintel, while new competitors like Beyond Meat and Hampton Creek have sprung up in the last five years. "Much of the new growth in the segment is coming from younger consumers who seek foods that fit an overall lifestyle, be it for health reasons or personal ethics," experts write. "They are not just seeking foods that mimic meat. Instead they specifically want vegetarian foods with distinctive flavors and visible, recognizable ingredients."

"Not that long ago, electrical cars were considered nonperformers, and when Prius came out, a lot of people didn’t think there was a market for it," said Yves Potvin, founder and chief executive of Gardein Protein International, which makes the Gardein line of meatless products. "Now people are willing to pay $70,000 for a Tesla, and more than one million Prius cars are sold each year."

Gardein, founded a little more than five years ago, is the granddaddy of new companies making meat substitutes. Its products, sold by conventional retailers include "chicken" wings, "fish" fillets, "beef" tips and breakfast patties.

"The category was stuck between the bun for many years," Mr. Potvin said. "We came along and developed a new process that creates fibers that are very meaty from a plant base, and now we’re in 20,000 supermarkets and responsible for 75 percent of the category growth year over year."

Creating from plant proteins something that will pass as meat is complicated. Companies must first identify the right plant and extract its proteins, then figure out how to reassemble them to taste like meat and develop the technology to do it.

Hampton Creek Foods, a start-up working to develop egg substitutes from plant proteins, tested thousands of varieties of Canadian yellow peas before it identified what would mimic the functions of eggs, including emulsification to make mayo that was nutritionally equivalent to one made with eggs.

And Beyond Meat’s proteins come from yellow peas, mustard seeds camelina, and yeast.

A 55-gram serving of Beyond Meat’s "beef" Crumbles contains 4.5 grams of total fat and no saturated fat, in contrast to the same amount of 80 percent lean ground beef, which has 11 grams of total fat, 4 of which are saturated fat. The Beyond Meat product contains the same amount of protein as the ground beef.

Mr. Brown is most proud of Beyond Meat’s "chicken breast" products, which are sold in strips that look like real chicken and can be pulled into shreds for chicken salad. "That was kind of the holy grail," he said.

While for some, the goal of fake meat is to create an exact taste replica of real meat. Other companies are trying to pave their own path as a protein substitute with a distinctly non-meat-like taste. But ultimately, it comes down to one question: Do they taste good? The Wire has surveyed the assessments of some of the most popular fake-meat brands to figure out which fake chicken is the Best Fake Chicken.

They began with Beyond Meat made of yellow peas, mustard seeds, camelina, and yeast. "It has to be just as good as, just as convenient as, and maybe even cheaper than ... chicken," Beyond Meat founder Ethan Brown told The New York Times.

The Times food critic Mark Bittman tasted the thing and wrote. " It doesn’t taste much like chicken, but since most white meat chicken doesn’t taste like much anyway, that’s hardly a problem; both are about texture, chew and the ingredients you put on them or combine with them," he writes. Just cut it up and combine it with a salad or wrap, and " you won’t know the difference between that and chicken. I didn’t, at least."

Then come MorningStar Farms Chik Patties – a mix of wheat and soy.

"The look and the texture are fantastic. They freeze well. But the taste is just plain nasty," The Examiner writes, giving the product a low score.

Slate's Sara Dickerman loved Quorn Mushroom-based product called Mycoprotein. "The chicken patty has a great crisp crust and a pleasant chew and avoids the telltale bounce of soy and gluten meat substitutes," she wrote in 2005 .

And the winner appeared to be Gardein made of "fibers that are very meaty from a plant base," Gardein founder Yves Potvin told The Times, including soy and wheat.

TV host and comedian Ellen DeGeneres is a big fan of those. "[My personal chef] made this for us the other night, and it was so delicious I didn't realize how much I miss chicken pot pies," she said on her show . "It tastes just like chicken."

The verdict is the emerging fake meat market is at its early stage of development but competition is already tough. So Mr. Brown of Beyond Meat put it right "Our business is to create something better than meat; otherwise we are not going to move the needle."

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