Header illustration credit: Jim Cooke/Gizmodo
In the past year, Hong Kong has seen a influx of alternative-meat choices. As discussions about the environment, our health and animal welfare intensify, we look to the future to see what is here and what is coming.
What is plant-based meat?
Plant-based meat is a food made entirely from plants that serves to replace or replicate traditional meat. Common plant-based meats include burgers and sausages. Whilst a vegetable dumpling is plant based, it is generally accepted in its own right and not as a meat replacement.
The most well-known example of plant-based meat in Hong Kong is vegan Beyond Meat. Their burger has been available around Hong Kong for some time now, both in restaurants and to take home and cook yourself, and the feedback for the Beyond Burger has been very good. It’s soy, gluten and GMO free, and the primary source of protein is from peas.
Beyond Meat also produce Beyond Chicken (which has had mixed reviews; you can try it at Pizza Express) and Beyond Chorizo (which is apparently amazing but not available in Hong Kong just yet).
Omnipork is made with a proprietary blend of plant-based proteins including peas, non-GMO soy, shiitake mushrooms and rice and is completely vegan. And depending on which supermarket you go, to there are a number of other plant-based burger patties and vegetarian and vegan sausages to choose from.
JUST (formerly known as Hampton Creek) uses a mung-bean protein isolate as its core ingredient in JUST Egg. It’s all-natural and non-GMO, so even though the protein isolate may have been refined in a laboratory, it is still categorised as plant based (but not a meat).
JUST Egg ingredients:
Water, mung-bean protein isolate, expeller-pressed canola oil, less than 2% of calcium citrate, gellan gum, natural carrot extractives (colour), natural flavours, natural turmeric extractives (colour), onion purée, salt, soy lecithin, sugar, tetrasodium pyrophosphate, preservatives (nisin, potassium sorbate)
Genetically modified plant-based meat
Genetically modified plant-based meat is an alternative-meat product, also produced entirely from plants. If the ingredients used were genetically modified, they are considered GMO.
The most famous example is Impossible Foods. The Impossible Burger is nearly indistinguishable from meat, and they do a pretty good job of explaining their process in creating the meat in their FAQ page.
Impossible Meat is made from ingredients such as wheat and potato proteins, coconut oil, soy and GMO heme. But what does that actually mean? In a nutshell, Impossible isolates the heme from the root of the soy plant because it is most like the heme from meat. They add it to a yeast strain that has been genetically modified to grow this type of protein and, once grown, the protein is isolated back again afterwards.
Is Impossible vegan? Well, it depends on who you talk to. There is a good deal of controversy surrounding this question owing to the animal testing that Impossible Meat underwent in order to get its full certification, but it is not made from any meat products.
Impossible Meat ingredients:
water, textured wheat protein, coconut oil, potato protein, natural flavours, 2% or less of: leghemoglobin (soy), yeast extract, salt, konjac gum, xanthan gum, soy-protein isolate, vitamin E, vitamin C, thiamine (vitamin B1), zinc, niacin, vitamin B6, riboflavin (vitamin B2), vitamin B12
Genetically modified non-plant-based non-meat. Waaaaat?
Genetically modified non-plant-based food items use genetically modified yeast to grow proteins that originally came for non-plant-based origins – for example, using yeast repurposed for growing eggs or making milk where the proteins are not mimicking eggs or milk – they are from eggs or milk.
Clara Foods is a start-up looking to selectively cultivate the perfect strain of GMO yeast and then add the protein of choice to replicate egg whites. However, the original egg-white protein does come from an egg, so it is not plant based. Perfect Day is “growing” milk.
The end result is made using genetic engineering but is not considered a genetically modified organism since scientists remove the altered yeast. – Fortune.com
Whilst GMO cells are used in the production of these foods, the genetically modified yeast (the fancy name is transgenic yeast) is removed for the final products (the isolation of the grown protein), so they are not considered to have used genetically modified ingredients – another potential grey area for labelling.
If GMO proteins make you feel a little queasy, consider the cheese industry, which has been taking advantage of GMO cheesemaking enzymes for some time rather than using rennet, which is traditionally taken from a baby cow’s stomach.
Friends of the Earth do not extend large food corporations any benefit of the doubt and want better labelling and testing for GMO-assisted food items.
What is clean meat cell-based meat?
Cell-based meat (formally clean meat), or cultured meat, is meat grown in a lab, outside the animal. It is produced by taking a small sample of animal cells and replicating them in a culture.
This technology is brand new, and the terminology is yet to be finalised. The Good Food Institute prefers to refer to meat produced via cell replication as “clean meat” rather than “cultured meat” because of the imagery attached to growing cultures – Petri dishes in a laboratory of white-coated scientists. They believe that growing meat at scale will be more akin to a greenhouse or brewery.
In addition, the term “cultured” is generally associated with fermented foods, adding to the confusion, especially when GMO plant-based food involves cultivating yeast to combine with proteins.
Other terms floating around are “in-vitro meat”, “cell-cultured meat” and “cell-based protein product”. Perhaps the industry will end up with a “mylk”-like term - “mete”?
It may be inevitable – the debate has begun. Tofurky is one company currently suing the state of Missouri for the recent bill that prohibits companies from calling their product meat if it is not “derived from harvested production livestock or poultry”.
Many of the companies developing clean meat are doing so through IndieBio, an accelerator programme based in San Fransisco (of course) looking for “companies with deep scientific insights aimed at solving intractable or difficult problems that will impact 1B+ members of humanity”. Look for New Age Meats, Memphis Meats and Finless Foods, all making their moves towards clean meat.
San Francisco start-up Memphis Meats is now producing clean meat for US$40 per gram, which is less than one-50th of the cost from just a few years ago. And Dr Mark Post’s company, Mosa Meat, plans to sell its clean-meat hamburgers for US$10 a patty by 2020. – Cleanmeat.org
JUST is also working on a clean meat called JUST Meat – they hope to have KFC-style chicken nuggets on the market by the end of this year (streaks ahead of any other company’s projected time to market). JUST compares the manufacturing process to brewing beer.
JUST Meat is made in a process similar to brewing beer, yeast grown for bread making, rennet used to make cheese and other foods made by large-scale cell culture. The main inputs in the process are the nutrients the cells need in order to grow, including water, sugar, amino acids, lipids, vitamins and minerals. – Justforall.com
The enormous cost to produce clean meat is the current hurdle, with the high price said to be due to the inability to find a suitable cellular medium. The most successful medium to date is called fetal bovine serum (FBS), but this is obviously unsuitable to building clean meat, using the bone marrow of slaughtered calves. Memphis Meats claim to have found an alternative, but they are keeping it under wraps.
There are some who have turned to plants (rather than yeast) as the scaffold for growing clean meat. For instance, the veins in a spinach leaf are akin to blood vessels and serve the same purpose of supplying nutrients to the growing protein.
Is clean meat vegan? No. The first set of cells needs to be taken from an animal, even if the animal lives happily ever after post-biopsy. Further, this brand-new class of food will need to pass regulatory testing (which will probably involve animal harm). This is not futuristic technology – this is here now, and steps are being taken to prepare the certification process that will be necessary once the cost and scale problems are solved.
These are big problems, though, and not everyone is convinced they are not insurmountable. “Cultured meat will not be realistic anytime soon”, according to biohacker Josiah Zayner.
Memphis Meats have teamed with the North American Meat Industry (NAMI) to pen a recent letter to the US President seeking clarity on the regulations for this new class of meat, requesting “a combined meeting between the White House, USDA, FDA and both conventional and cell-based meat and poultry industry stakeholders”. Several days earlier, the President received a letter from the “Barnyard” group of industry players regarding the same issue but with different regulation preferences.
What does the future look like?
Imagine for a moment that, in 20 years’ time, your “clean mete” fermentation tank (located next to your yoghurt brewer and hydroponics system in your kitchen) is set to start in the evening before bed. You select your packet of protein starter – chicken – and the appropriate yeast and put them into the machine, ready and waiting for you the next morning.
The future of meat.
For a more in-depth exploration of the future of food, visit www.foods-future.com