Food scarcity. The obesity epidemic. Chronic disease. Greenhouse emissions. Rising food prices. What do these things have in common? Each is one of the myriad reasons that companies and researchers are looking to alternative food products to address growing concerns about the health and welfare of the human population and our planet.
Why the concern? According the The Scientist, population growth and human consumption are beginning to threaten the earth’s resources. With the U.N. projecting the global population will reach more than 9 billion by 2050 and issues such as climate change, overfishing, drought, pollution and reduced agricultural productivity, there are some that fear the planet may not be able to support that population growth, forcing more people into poverty and hunger crises.
As such, food technologists are beginning to look at alternative food sources that can help provide healthy alternatives to feed the population and save the planet. And with the advances in genomics now enabled by high performance computing, it’s easier than ever for technologists to use a variety of methods to create new food sources that have “natural” origins—from recreating meat-like substances using plant compounds to cellular regeneration and “synbio,” or synthetic biology (which creates new organisms using existing DNA sequences).
Tofu. Seitan. Veggie burgers. Chances are most people have at least tried some kind of meat substitute even if they’re not a vegan or vegetarian. With chronic obesity and health problems becoming an epidemic in Western countries, many people are taking it upon themselves to eat a healthier diet, which may mean incorporating more plant-based proteins into their diet or following a “Meatless Monday” rule. And a number of companies are trying to make faux meat more flavorful and realistic than what’s previously been available to consumers.
For instance, Beyond Meat says it has taken the elements that comprise meat—amino acids, fats, carbohydrates, trace minerals and water—from plants and has applied processes of heating, cooling and pressure to give plant matter the consistency and texture of animal meat. The company’s products include “beef” crumbles made from pea protein and grilled “chicken” strings made from non-GMO soy and pea protein. Not only does the company have strong backing (investors include Bill Gates, Twitter co-founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone, and VC firms such as Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers) but the company was also named one of Fast Company’s “Most Innovative Companies” last year. Their product is said to have even fooled The New York Times’ food writer Mark Bittman into believing it was real.
Seattle-based Field Roast makes what it calls “grain meat,” which the company claims can be traced back to Buddhist monks who wanted a meat alternative in 7th Century China. Field Roast products are similar in tradition to seitan, but their grain-based products were created by founder and chef David Lee in the tradition of European charcuterie and sausage making. As such, the company makes a variety of grain-based meat substitutes that range from breakfast sausage, frankfurters, burgers and deli slices to meatloaf. The company also makes a line of vegan cheese called Chao made from coconut and tofu. Also tackling plant-based meats and cheeses is Impossible Foods, whose website is very hush-hush about what the company is doing other than to say it’s using specific proteins and nutrients from plants to develop milk, meat and eggs.
Hampton Creek has focused on making a substitute for eggs. Rather than sell the egg product as is, at this time the company is focused on creating healthy substitutes for staples like mayonnaise (Just Mayo) and cookies (Just Cookies). Also billed as a health-oriented option, Soylent is a powdered drink mix that, when combined with water, can be used as a complete meal substitute. Utilizing microalgae, Solazyme is developing vegetable oil and animal fat substitutes. The company has already developed a vegan flour that can replace oils, egg yolks or dairy fat and a gluten-free protein substitute.
Academia is even getting in on the faux meat action. Cultured Beef, a project of Maastricht University in The Netherlands, uses muscle cells harvested from cows to create new meat tissue. According to their website, a normal-sized hamburger can be formed from approximately 20,000 cell strands. The company believes that by “growing” beef in a lab, not only will it be easier to meet growing demand for meat due to population growth but it will have less of the environmental impact that raising beef can have on emissions and land.
Lest you think that synbio need be limited to food products, Brooklyn-based Modern Meadow is taking cellular science even further to produce cultured leather. Using techniques first developed to grow human tissue for drug testing and development, the company is combining tissue engineering (also known as biofabrication) and 3D bioprinting techniques to create “leather.” Once they’ve conquered the leather-making process, the company plans to develop a meat product using similar methods.
In Boston, a startup called Gingko Bioworks has taken on the challenge of engineering new organisms. In one project, the company is working with DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) to manufacture probiotic bacteria similar to microbes that protect the body from infection or aid in digestion. In addition, Gingko scientists are working on cultured food and fragrance ingredients. According to Perfumer and Flavorist magazine, the company has already developed six as-yet unknown cultured ingredients.
Harvard bioengineer David Edwards is in the process of developing edible packaging for food to help reduce waste. His company, called Wikicells, is said to be working on products such as ice cream and frozen yogurt products wrapped in flavored “skins” designed to help consumers move beyond plastic wrappings.
Whether eaters will get on board with these discoveries remains to be seen. According to a Pew Research Poll, only two of 10 Americans are willing to give lab meat a try. But that’s probably what your grandparents once said about tofu, too.
Find out more at our Expanding the Pie panel on alternative foods at Bon Appétech, April 10-12, 2015. Modern Meadow will be among the participating companies presenting the latest challenges and solutions to alternative food issues.
If you’re a technology based food product start-up, we’d love to hear from you. Bon Appétech Conference will be a great way to connect with industry stakeholders, large brands and influential decision makers. We are hosting a startup expo where entrepreneurs can showcase and launch new products, including new food products. More information available at www.bonappetech.com
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