Jan 15 9:00 PM

Need to Know: Tastes like chicken, made in a lab

When the average meat-eater hears the words "vegetarian alternative" or "meat substitute," they might conjure up images of slimy tofu and cardboard-like veggie burgers. 

Beyond Meat is one company that's striving to change that perception.

“We’re taking protein from plants, and instead of running it through the industrial livestock system, we’re creating a fiber structure that is truly reminiscent of meat,” explains CEO Ethan Brown. 

Motivated by a love for animals and a discomfort with how they are treated in the factory farm system, Brown set out to create a meat alternative created from plant proteins that looked and tasted just like chicken.

“It’s the beauty of that fibrous structure that is indistinguishable from meat," he says. "I’m not saying that we’re there yet, we’re probably 70 to 80 percent of the way there. But we’re definitely not going to stop until you can look at a chicken breast and looks at our product and say ‘I can’t tell the difference.’”

Making fajitas with Beyond Meat's Chicken-Free Strips.
Making fajitas with Beyond Meat's Chicken-Free Strips.
(TechKnow/Al Jazeera America)

MAKING THE "MEAT"

When he decided to go into the faux meat business, Brown contacted some experts: two University of Missouri professors who had already been refining their chicken-like meatless protein for years. Fu-hung Hsieh and Harold Huff spent almost a decade experimenting with different temperatures and pressures to get their mixture of soybean and pea proteins as close to the look and feel of real chicken as possible.

Beyond Meat's chicken-free strips tear like the real protein.
Beyond Meat's chicken-free strips tear like the real protein.
(TechKnow/Al Jazeera America)

At the Beyond Meat factory in Columbia, Mo., dry ingredients—soybean and pea protein powder, combined with fiber—are mixed with wet ingredients to form a slurry. This mixture is subjected to temperature and pressure changes and extruded into long strips. 

Raw strips of Beyond Meat's chicken-free protein before they are cut and grilled.
Raw strips of Beyond Meat's chicken-free protein before they are cut and grilled.

The long protein strips are then cut to the size of a normal chicken breast, mixed with spices and flavorings, and grilled to give them recognizable char marks.

Beyond Meat's Chicken-Free Strips

CHEAPER AND FASTER

From beginning to end, Beyond Meat's chicken-free strips take about 90 minutes to produce. This is substantially less time than the weeks or months it can take to raise and process real chicken what Brown refers to as the "industrial livestock system." 

It's also cheaper. To create just one pound of chicken meat, factory farms use 468 gallons of water, two pounds of grain and eight times the amount of fossil fuels it takes to grow the plants needed for Beyond Meat's protein product.

Costs to produce one pound of real chicken.
Costs to produce one pound of real chicken.

WHERE'S THE BEEF?

There’s no sizzle of the grill but the first laboratory-grown in vitro burger might eventually satisfy our hunger for real meat.

A team of Dutch researchers at Maastricht University developed the meat from the muscle cells of two organic cows that were extracted during a biopsy. The project was funded by Google founder Sergey Brin. The burger was cooked up and eaten at a news conference in London WHEN. One food expert concluded it was close to meat but not juicy.

This might someday be a viable alternative to livestock meat, but cultured beef is quite a long way off. It most likely won’t be available commercially for the next 10 to 20 years. The Food and Agriculture Organization predicts that global meat consumption will double by 2050.

Vegan rally
2009 AFP

In the meantime, other companies continue to refine their approach. Beyond Meat’s chicken alternatives are already available, and their beef substitute is hitting Whole Foods shelves in February. (Beyond Meat also has backing from tech investors—Bill Gates and Twitter founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams.) “I was much more drawn to something I thought could be accomplished in a nearer term,” CEO Ethan Brown says, “so that's why I started focusing more on plants.”

Beyond Meat’s EVP of product development, Bob Prusha, explains that both chicken and beef alternatives start out the same. “We take dry ingredients, we mix them with wet ingredients and [put them through] our first process,” Prushsa says. “The chicken comes out in a format that resembles a small piece of chicken. Our beef comes out in what I'd say is more like a crumble, like cooked ground beef might be for a taco or lasagna.”

 

Watch "TechKnow," Sunday 7:30ET/4:30PT, on Al Jazeera America to learn more abou Beyond Meat and other meat alternatives.

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