Thu, Jan 07, 2016 - Page 12 News List

End of meat?

Startups in the US are seeking healthier alternatives for meat lovers

By Candice Choi  /  AP, New York

A burger meal is pictured at a McDonald’s in New York earlier this month. Startups focused on healthy eating are experimenting with alternatives to meat.

Photo: AP

Patrick Brown is on an improbable mission: Make a burger Americans love, minus the meat.

Veggie patties have been around for decades, but Brown and others want to make foods without animal products that look, cook and taste like the real thing — and can finally appeal to the masses.

“We are not making a veggie burger. We’re creating meat without using animals,” said Brown, a former Stanford scientist who has been scanning plants in search of compounds that can help recreate meat.

Brown’s company, Impossible Foods, is part of a wave of startups aiming to wean Americans off foods like burgers and eggs, and their efforts are attracting tens of millions of dollars from investors. The goal is to lessen the dependence on livestock for food, which they say isn’t as healthy, affordable or environmentally friendly as plant-based alternatives.

The challenge is that most Americans happily eat meat and eggs. That means that, without a breakthrough, those seeking to upend factory farming risk becoming footnotes in the history of startups.

To understand the difficulty of their task, consider the transformation raw chicken undergoes when cooked. It starts as a slimy, unappetizing blob, then turns into a tender piece of meat.

Learning to mimic nature

In its office in Southern California, Beyond Meat works on “chicken” strips made with pea and soy proteins that have been sold at places like Whole Foods since 2012. But founder Ethan Brown concedes the product needs work.

To give the “meat” its fat, for instance, canola oil is evenly mixed throughout the product.

“That’s not really how it works in an animal,” said Brown, a vegan. “The fat can be a sheath on tendons.”

To form the strips, a mixture is pressed through a machine that forms and sets the product’s texture with heating and cooling chambers. The method isn’t new in the world of fake meats, but the company says it fine-tuned the process to deliver a more realistic offering.

Brown dismisses the idea that fake meat might weird people out and says it’s a “desirable evolution.”

“It’s like moving from the horse-drawn carriage to the automobile, or the landline to the iPhone,” he said.

But Beyond Meat isn’t quite there yet; the Huffington Post described the strips as having an “unpleasant” taste that inhabits a “strange territory between meat and vegetable.”

At Impossible Foods, the patty is made by extracting proteins from foods like spinach and beans, then combining them with other ingredients. The company, which has about 100 employees, expects the product to be available in the latter half of next year, initially through a food-service operator.

Few have tasted it, but the vision continues to gain traction. In October, Impossible Foods said it raised US$108 million in funding, on top of its previous US$74 million. Among its investors are Bill Gates, Google Ventures and Horizons Ventures.

Culturing meat, just like yogurt

Another startup isn’t totally ditching the cow.

With US$15.5 million in funding, Modern Meadow in New York City takes cells from a cow through a biopsy and cultures them to grow into meat. At a conference in February last year, company founder Andras Forgacs likened the process to culturing yogurt or brewing beer.

“This is an extension of that,” he said.

Modern Meadow doesn’t have a product on the market yet either. The company says it doesn’t necessarily want to replicate steaks and burgers, and gave a hint of the type of foods it might make by presenting “steak chips” for attendees at a small conference last year.

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