Evolving plant-based meat to bridge the gap for meat lovers: with environmental concerns, global supply chain crises and food security risks taking centre stage worldwide – the pressure is on to create a sustainable alternative to meat that is enjoyed by all. However, convincing the bulk of the population – big meat eaters – to make any meaningful lifestyle shift seems like an insurmountable challenge.
Eshchar Ben-Shitrit, CEO and founder of Redefine Meat, which is developing 3D printed meat, explores the Alt-Meat movement and the new emerging technologies that will meet this challenge. How do we make Alt-Meat as enjoyable as meat, to create a new industry as big and diverse as animal meat?
A report by the IPCC (A UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) published in August 2019 highlights the adoption of a more plant-based diet as one of the major ways to actively combat climate change. This realization, along with growing societal interest in animal welfare and healthier eating habits, has led to a huge surge in vegetarians, vegans and, more recently, flexitarians over the past decade. While the popularity of alternative meat diets has grown, the reality is that these people form a small minority globally. The mass habitual consumption of meat still occurs on a daily basis – including red meat.
Making a dietary shift is certainly not always easy, especially given that for many eating habits are engrained in them since childhood. Meat isn’t just food; the act of eating meat is embedded in our culture, history, memories, and passions. As a result, the holy grail of the alternative meat movement is making that transition for consumers as seamless as possible – bridging the gap between the accustomed taste, texture ,and experience of meat and the current experience when consuming plant-based meat.
In recent years, alternative meat products have evolved to rectify this imbalance, which is essential to driving a change in the eating habits of the masses, whether that’s reducing weekly meat consumption or cutting it out entirely. So why exactly is there still hesitancy from meat-lovers to adopt alternative meats as a supplement to actual meat? And importantly, how does the “Alt-Meat” industry change pre-existing perceptions of its product being a considerable downgrade from the real thing? After all, the prize is a $1.5 Trillion meat industry, so what needs to happen to make Alt-Meat a main player and not just niche?
In pursuit of meatless meat
First introduced into the mainstream in 1985 by the likes of Quorn and Tivall, Alt-Meat is not a recent phenomenon. Their products were created to feed the growing population of vegetarians with the primary objective to deliver a tasty product that was high in protein. It was only in 2012 that Beyond Meat released a chicken-like substitute to target consumers previously missed by Alt-Meat companies – meat-lovers. This began a movement to create a convincing meat substitute, in both taste and texture. Following close behind, Impossible Foods arrived in the consumer market in 2016, with a burger that took further steps to understand the carnivorous consumer and recreate the composition of meat – cracking an integral missing part of the flavor profile of meat. For the first time in history, Alt-Meat started to feel really like actual meat.
These companies have all made waves in the food industry since their release, with products not only featuring in supermarkets across the globe, but also within the menus of chain restaurants such as Burger King, Subway and Dunkin Donuts. Despite the tremendous revolution of recent years, the nascent industry has huge gaps compared to the incumbent one. Several decent alternatives to chicken and hamburger products exist, but step into any meat aisle in your average supermarket and get a real picture. There will no doubt be a wide selection of meats available – beef, pork, and chicken to name a few – with a vast array of products for each whether it be minced, steaks, roasts, stews, and more – all at a range of price points. Alt-Meat has probably a hundredth of that. And, even more importantly, many still do not consider even the best Alt-Meat products a good alternative to below-average minced meat.
Perfecting the product
In order to bridge this gap, the technologies, production methods and supply chain of alt-meat need to evolve to directly address the real and complete needs of stakeholders across the value chain. But what exactly needs to happen to see this in our lifetime?
Firstly, the importance of working alongside the existing meat industry, instead of against them, is vital. After all, who knows more about meat than the ones who work with it on a daily basis. Butchers large and small know their customers, in some cases for many generations. They know chefs and the habit of families cooking meat 5 times a week. They know the farmers, the breed, the feed and the ageing process. Therefore, it’s essential that all this knowledge is fed into the Alt-Meat development process in order to create better products. Saying “it’s meat made from plants” doesn’t answer the real questions – what is meat and what is it that makes meat, meat?
As such, key to unlocking the true potential of Alt-Meat is understanding the composition of meat – not as just a biological artifact, but why and what exactly it is that people love about it. Replicating the color and taste is not enough. Alt-Meat products that are going to convert your longstanding meat lover need to create the ‘complete experience’ comprising a complex matrix of senses and attributes – taste, texture, visual appearance, cooking behaviour and smell to name a few. Just as a pool player doesn’t need to know physics to act upon a very complex equation to hit an 8-ball in the pocket, no-one is aware of the thousands of processes taking place when we bite through a juicy piece of meat – but our brain does. At the end of the day, for mass conversion to take place consumers need to actively incorporate Alt-Meat-meat products in their lifestyle and habits as opposed to just enjoying the taste as a novelty.
Tackling the challenge at a production process level is also essential to driving meaningful change. Today, many food companies approach development at the product or ingredient level, altering recipes to bring out newly enhanced products such as the next yogurt or chocolate bar. But if 100 companies each work on one product, if they all succeed you will only have 100 products. On the flipside, if you have ten companies working on new technologies or processes that can generate entirely new products, you can create thousands of products.
If we apply this directly to the Alt-Meat industry, today most companies are developing better burgers or improved chicken nuggets at the product-level. However, if we want to seriously change the make-up of your traditional supermarket meat aisle – which not only comprises many meats like beef, pork, chicken and lamb, but also various cuts, different ageing, cooking styles etc. – then new technologies and production processes need to emerge to significantly expand the plant-based meat product line.
Strategically, this is where we are placing our emphasis, but also leveraging innovative technologies to overcome the limitations of current Alt-Meat production techniques in order to significantly enhance the Alt-Meat experience for consumers. For example, Redefine Meat’s new 3D printing process enables the precise composition of meat layer by layer to bring every fiber of real meat to fruition in a way that conventional Alt-Meat processes cannot. This production method opens up a vast array of possibilities, offering new players across the food supply chain the ability to accurately control the characteristics of meat they require, such as the specific marbling of Wagyu beef from Japan or the texture of grass-fed Australian Angus prime beef. The emergence of new technologies capable of creating an Alt-Meat tasting experience that resembles the animal meat we are accustomed to will be vital to converting mass meat lovers to plant-based alternatives.
Adopting digital production methods, such as 3D printing, also open the door to advanced AI & machine learning technologies that can further optimize the Alt-Meat experience for consumers. With the ability to learn consumer habits, likes, dislikes and more, these learnings can be fed through into development and refinement of meat production – further enhancing the product to consumer requirements. This can drive a more modern ‘digitalized’ supply chain built to adopt innovation at a faster pace, delivering new alt-meat products faster based on consumer needs – so much so that you can customize meat offerings to different geographies.
An ethically carnivorous future
While on the surface it may seem that we’re still some way off from bridging the existing chasm for meat lovers, the reality is that companies such as ours are making rapid developments in the aforementioned areas. In fact, in the near future novel Alt-Meat production techniques, that for the first time have been built upon ‘understanding what makes meat, meat’, are set to come to market – heralding a new era of Alt-Meat that has the potential to drive real long term change amongst meat lovers.
Such a shift away from a heavily animal-based diet would have huge benefits both for the consumer and the food industry. With the ability to produce meat on-demand at or close to the point of sale, 3D printing reinvents the traditional supply chain and its centralized production models. Instead of depending on suppliers to deliver meat from the original source around the globe, 3D printing opens up a world of on-demand production at the site you need it, when you need it, in the exact quantity you need. Not only does this further increase sustainability in production by hugely reducing the pollution associated with logistics and waste, 3D printing meat can also play a major role in overcoming shortages derived from disrupted supply chains. You only have to look at what we’re facing right now with the Coronavirus, where cross-border logistics are being hugely impacted, or at geo-political issues such as Brexit or the US-China trade war that can directly impact the supply chain. With on-demand production enabled directly at the site that needs product, these supply chain bottlenecks can be overcome.
Consumers will enjoy more optionality regarding the source of meat they consume – animal-based, plant-based, fungi-based and in the future products coming from cultured meat. This will enable conscious carnivores to actively make changes to reduce their food environmental impact – just like they do with their transportation habits. More affordable protein sources will become a viable option, allowing the Alt-Meat industry economies of scale it lacks today. We will have fewer hormones, cholesterol and animal-related pathogens in our food system, and this will have an overwhelmingly positive impact on our lives.