The pros and cons of fake meat

Nicola Dennis examines the different categories of fake meat, including meat grown in a lab and plant based products that look like meat.

In Business19 Minutes

Nicola Dennis examines the different categories of fake meat, including meat grown in a lab and plant based products that look like meat.

I find the fake meat “revolution” fascinating. Not because I am scared that it is going to wipe out the animal agriculture industry and leave me living in a cardboard box. In the unlikely event that the very vocal vegan minority overthrows the other 97-99% of the population, I plan to land on my feet. You were open-minded enough to read one paragraph deep into an article that might say nice things about fake meat, so I think you will also do okay in the vegetable uprising.

No, this immense mash of science and marketing is interesting all on its own, regardless of the supposed threat to my occupation. Plus it’s not all bad news.

Let’s look at the three main categories of meat fakery and what they bring to the table.

The pros of lab-grown meat

Let’s start with the most impressive and least achievable type first; lab-grown or cultured meat. This involves taking cells from animals and growing them in a laboratory to create a meat substitute that is made of the same building blocks as the real stuff. There are two subcategories to the lab-grown meat. There are the companies that are producing animal cells in bioreactors and then adding them to plant based ingredients to create a meat-plant end product. Food company Eat Just already has a chicken bites product that has been approved for sale in Singapore while in Israel is handing out free samples of their crispy cultured chicken produced by similar means.

Then there are companies such as Memphis Meats that are aiming for the loftier goal of producing pure cellular constructions of steaks and fillets. This would involve coaxing the cells into a structure that resembles meat, possibly via 3D printing.

There are a lot of production challenges that need to be overcome before lab-grown meat hits the shelves in any meaningful way. For one, a kilogram of Memphis Meat’s cultured beef was costing US$40,000/kg to produce back in 2017 and they haven’t publicly celebrated a breakthrough moment yet.

There is also the issue of cultured cells requiring fetal serum to replicate. This is almost always harvested from calf fetuses removed during meat processing. Longterm, this is not a great strategy for cultured meat. It’s difficult to take the moral high ground when you are relying on the slaughter of pregnant cows to produce “no kill” meat. So, these companies are researching plant based alternatives to fetal serum. I am all for this.

Culturing cells is a key step for all kinds of basic scientific studies such as cancer research. If scientists are able to be more precise with the cell culture experiments (i.e. not rely on variable batches of fetal calf blood products) then there will be less background noise to the experiments that they run.

The other potential breakthrough will come from how these cultured cells are coerced into forming complex structures. Think of the implications for wider research if cells can be used to form functional tissues. This is particularly exciting for the future of organ transplants which currently require a matching donor to be taken off life support.

Also if you can print me a steak, you can also print me up a takahe drumstick or a slab of whale. I could munch on endangered animals with impunity. There is a small, but creepy, seam of wannabe cannibals on the internet who are also excited about this avenue.

Cons of lab-grown meat

In contrast to a whole animal, it is difficult to tell if a cell is infected. The cultured cell is alive and prone to picking up infections or mutations, just the same as its ancestors did when they were in a live animal. However, unlike its ancestors, the cultured cell doesn’t have the protection of the immune system and wider body to keep things in check.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, lab-grown meat is going to require some very careful oversight to maintain food safety. At least some of that heavy lifting will be in the form of antibiotics. However, infections aren’t the only invisible enemy that can lurk in a cell. Eating mutant misfolded proteins (prions) can cause diseases such as mad cow disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

There is also the issue of what you feed these cells, because they aren’t munching on grass. It will take a lot of medical grade glucose (sugar), metabolic precursors and growth hormones to keep these cells happy.

Precision fermented proteins

If we take a step down from growing whole cells, we can produce individual proteins instead. This can be done in the same way we produce medical proteins such as insulin and human growth hormone (HGH). Scientists call these recombinant proteins, but the food producers have understandably gone in a different direction with the term “fermented proteins”.

This involves splicing the gene for your protein of interest into a DNA vector that contains the necessary genetic switches (called operons) to control it and then introducing this DNA vector into host yeast or E.coli cells. The host cells are brewed in a broth until they get to a nice dense mix and then something, usually lactose, is added to the broth to trigger the genetic switch causing the cell to start producing the protein using the foreign gene. Often the protein gene will be altered to contain a biological tag and this tag can be ‘grabbed’ via a chemical reaction to simplify protein purification.

To recap, in case I just lost you with my nostalgic trip down “protein production” lane, the process is:

  • Genetically modify bacteria/yeast.
  • Grow them and trigger them.
  • Pulverise them and purify the protein.

All that is do-able. The challenge is then to take a bunch of recombinant meat proteins and make something edible out of them.

The pros of precision fermented proteins

Unlike growing whole mammalian cells, growing yeast or bacteria is fairly straightforward. Since these bugs can take care of themselves, you don’t have to undertake a series of questionable

compromises around hormones and antibiotics to get them to grow. They can get by with sugar and some basic nutrients.

Recombinant protein is mainstream and, in the right hands, it is considered safe provided that you are not weirded out by genetic modification. Perhaps, if this helps New Zealand get over its persistent bias against genetic engineering, then it’s a step in the right direction.

Cheap protein fermented wherever you can grow yeast or bacteria could be game changer for countries where traditional protein production is unreliable. There may also be some indirect benefits for medicine production if larger players get into the recombinant protein industry.

The cons of fermented protein

Fermented protein sounds all well and good until you realise the scale that would be required to create meaningful amounts of meat. Like cultured cells we are talking huge amounts of refined sugar and metabolic precursors.

The material costs for producing the recombinant insulin needed by diabetics sits around US$110,000/kg, which isn’t too big a hurdle because diabetics use miniscule amounts of insulin. However, if you are wanting to dial up a 200g steak, then it’s getting a bit pricey. The taste and texture of isolated muscle proteins might also be a let down, but I will reserve judgement.

Processed plant products

This brings us to the here and now of processed plant material that is manufactured to mimic meat. These usually start out as peas or soybeans, but rice and wheat and a few grains are also giving it a go. The starting crop, say, peas is milled into a flour and then reconstituted in water. There are a few filtration and centrifugation steps to remove the cellulose and starches etc. The pH of the mixture is changed a few times and then it goes through a spray drier to yield a powered protein isolate. The most common one is the pea protein isolate which is said to be the most digestible protein that the plant kingdom has to offer. Even the most ardent vegan will admit that it tastes like chalk on its own.

However, when mixed in with refined coconut oil and combined with a decent amount of flavourings, these can get pretty close to tasting like ground meat.

The Impossible burger takes things a little further by incorporating recombinant soy leghemoglobin (produced in yeast as per ‘precision fermented proteins’ above) so that their burgers contain higher concentrations of iron and do a convincing job of bleeding. This genetically modified ingredient has recently been approved for use in NZ after passing all the necessary genotoxicity tests, so you can now find this at a Burger Fuel restaurant near you.

The pros of processed plant products

In contrast to the other two types of meat analogues mentioned above, processed plant products are already a commercial reality. This is perfect for catering to vegetarian visitors and teenagers who are flexing their independence. There is also a small subset of people out there who have to avoid meat for genuine health reasons such as allergies or iron disorders. In much the same way that the insufferable self-diagnosed gluten intolerances are the rising tide for coeliacs, the “hey should we go vegan this year?” navel gazing probably lifts the boats for people who can’t eat meat.

Research wise, I couldn’t find anything to be particularly excited about. But not being native to the enthralling world of extruded food and expeller oil extraction, I can’t say for sure that there haven’t been some major breakthroughs. Since these products are mostly confined to mimicking ground meat at the moment, there must be a few breakthroughs on the horizon if they are to break into steaks and roasts.

Compared to the other two fake meat options, the operational scale of processed plant products isn’t wildly off the charts either. Straight off the vine, peas contain about 7% protein. So looking at NZ’s pea production credentials (62,000t of peas from 8200 hectares planted) we would expect somewhere about 530kg of pea protein per hectare. Assuming perfect efficiency, this would be enough to make about 3t of Impossible Burger patties provided we can get our hands on a further half a hectare or so of coconuts to turn this into something palatable. Three tonnes of retail product from 1.5ish hectares of land isn’t shabby at all. Of course, there is a lot of land that won’t be suitable for this type of cropping. Take a look around the mountainous islands of NZ, this isn’t exactly the land of peas and coconuts.

The cons of processed plant products

Eating concentrated pea protein in the only form that a human being with functional taste buds would consume it (i.e. with refined oils and additives) is nothing like eating a healthy serving of inoffensive peas.

Burgers and sausages have never rated highly as health foods, so it is little surprise that highly processed plant mush is doing nothing to shift the dial on this. However, consumers want to believe that processed plant products will boost their health and marketers are happy to keep the dream alive as much as the Food Standards Code will let them.

Nutritionists shudder at the use of refined coconut oil in these formulations. While refined coconut oil might sound like something that is lovingly pressed out of the flesh of a coconut, it is actually extracted from the coconut husk (copra) with the help of a solvent called hexane. If you think that sounds like something that belongs in crude oil, you are not wrong.

Solvent aside, refined coconut oil is 90% saturated fat. There has been quite a bit of back and forth in the science community lately about whether saturated fat is as bad as previously thought. Butter has spent decades in nutritional purgatory because it contains somewhere around 50% saturated fat. But refined coconut oil is right up there by anyone’s estimate – it’s twice as potent as animal fat (tallow) which sits at 42% saturated fat.

We’re still standing

You’ve made it this far, so let’s address the elephant in the room. The anti-farmer sentiment that the fake meat producers foster. It’s not enough to launch a plant product that tastes acceptable, but it almost always comes with an unfriendly catch-cry about killing animal agriculture. Can you imagine NZ meat producers launching their next product as the definitive end to broccoli?

It is easy to ignore the far-fetched plant processors claims as publicity stunts. They have, after all, been claiming to put an end to animal farming within the next five years for, ahem, more than five years. But, the “meat vs veggies” stance is depressingly divisive considering that plants and animals are two pieces of the same food system. Anyone in food production could tell you that ruminants play an important role in the NZ cropping cycle. However, the microphone very rarely gets passed to anyone who knows.

I could have written an article that highlighted the irrigation needs of pea vines and coconut palms. Or, questioned the welfare of the pig-tailed macaque monkeys used to pick coconuts in Thailand. Or, dug into the seedy underbelly of sugar production. But, isn’t pitting farmers against farmers in abstract moral arguments a bit ugly? Besides which, I’d better keep my career options open in case of emergency.

  • Nicola Dennis is an agricultural analyst and scientist.