Meat, Make Room for Mushrooms


By Kayla Sargent

Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have dominated the new plant-based protein markets.  Now, the race is on to create plant-based “meats” that go ‘beyond’ the old ground products and replace whole muscle cuts like the beef industry’s prized possession — steak.

While research has been taking place overseas to “grow” cells on structures in a lab that resembles meat, the process has thus far only resulted in a ridiculously pricey “steak” that is not ready for the marketplace.  However a Boulder, Colorado “brewer” claims they are close to bringing a product forward that will change the market, and contrary to the process name, it is not beer.

Emery Foods is set to debut their “Meatless Cuts” in 2020.  The new brand “Meati” will feature a product list that includes plant-based steak and chicken.  The two products have just five ingredients, are a complete protein source and are rich in fiber, vitamins and minerals commonly contained in vegetables, according to the company website.  They also boast that the products are allergen and GMO-free and minimally processed.

“Carnivores rejoice!  Meati plant-based steaks are tasty, tender and guaranteed not to crush your spirit,” the steak promotion reads.  “They’re not real meat — even though they grill and sear just like it — so you can enjoy them without guilt any night of the week.”

The chicken promotion says the plant-based product can be baked, shredded, seared or grilled.  The Meati “chicken breasts do the job of real chicken, but cook in half the time.”

 

Fermented Fungi…

So, if the new products aren’t meat, what are they?  Fungi.

Using a process similar to beer brewers and cheese makers, the developers combined old techniques with modern technology to brew up a “nutrient-rich, sustainable meat alternative,”  according to the website.  The process starts with fermenting fungi called mycelium in a tank using water, sugar and nutrients.  The mycelium “eat up all the sugar” and grow.  After fermentation, the fungi are harvested.  Next the harvested fungi head to the “in-house culinary experts who add a handful of natural ingredients to create a delicious meat-like product.”

“Since fungi tastes and looks so much like real meat, we don’t have to do much more to it.”

Emery Foods cofounder Tyler Huggins told New Food Economy reporter Joe Fassler the “great” thing about mycelium “is it has a fibrous nature that mimics muscle structure.”  This has allowed Emery Foods to produce an alternative protein unlike the companies already in the space because the texture resembles that of a steak.  However, Fassler said the taste may still need some work.

According to an Emery Foods spokesperson, mycelium is void of any natural flavors.  So some vegetables and spices are added for taste.  Meati claims the final product only has five functional ingredients and Fassler said it is 90 percent mycelium and 10 percent other.

 

Time for a Taste Test…

To find out for himself if the taste and texture of steak was truly replicated, Fassler was invited to the company headquarters where he was served six pieces of “steak” with a side of green beans and mashed potatoes.  The particular piece he was served began growing around 5:30 p.m. the night before — an approximate 20 hour time from tank to plate.  Here is how he described the taste testing experience:

“The first thing I noticed was the way the outside of the meat managed to singe and crisp much like a real steak would, with a feel on the teeth and tongue like muscle seared on a grill.  The steak’s flesh — I should say “flesh” — had a mild, savory flavor that was not unpleasant.  It did not especially call to mind the taste of steer or, for that matter, mushrooms.  It was slightly reminiscent of a soy nugget, with a subtle hint of malt.

“More interesting was the texture.  The cuts weren’t bouncy, like a portabella mushroom, or spongy like soy protein.  Yet they definitely lacked the layers of connective tissue that makes steak break into tender strings across the palate.  The protein felt dense and tender and juicy, though it was hard not to miss the unmistakable blast of salty flavor that comes from biting into something pink and medium-rare.  The overall affect was enjoyable, if subtle.  But I never felt like I stepped into the uncanny valley.

“That allowed doubt to creep in.  The more I thought about it, the more I struggled to classify my experience, scribbling phrases in my notebook, reaching for descriptions that made sense.  That strangely unsettled feeling helps explain why Emergy used the term “plant-based” in its press release, even knowing the label doesn’t quite fit.  It wants to provide customers with a comforting reference point, a way to make its product not feel quite so unfamiliar and new.”

 

Capitalizing on Critics…

Clinging to the ‘familiar’ term of “plant-based” may or may not be advantageous.  While companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are sneaking into a new restaurant each day, critics are taking issue with the ultra-processed and complex ingredient lists these products drag along.  To add to that, the main ingredients in these products are typically soy or pea protein, which still uses land, water, and potentially herbicides, fertilizers, and genetically-modified organisms to produce.

Meati’s website, mission and founder statements insinuate that the concerns were all carefully considered in the making of the new product.  “Minimally processed” and “minimal ingredients” are listed as the first two product benefits on the website.  It also adds that the products are “lower sodium” and “non-GMO.”

The website claims “Meati produces 20 times more protein per acre than soy.”  The products are produced in an “urban environment” so the only land usage is that needed to grow enough sugar to feed the fungi.

The founders hope to further hone the process to be “full circle.”  Huggins told Fassler that the mycelium could live on byproducts of other food production systems like beer brewing.

“Basically we just need a sugar source,” Huggins said to Fassler.  “That’s true whether we buy that at a grocery store or, ultimately down the road, partner with another food or beverage processing company and use their residual sugar that goes to waste.  That’s still food grade and very nutritious.  We could use that as feedstock and create a truly circular-based protein production process.  That would be a game changer in this space.”

 

 

A Beef with Meat…

And of course, current plant-based proteins aren’t the only industry Meati is making proud comparisons against.  Meati claims to use 50 percent less water than chicken, emit 75 percent less greenhouse gas than beef, and be a faster more efficient protein source when built to scale.  In fact, the website claims that if Meati’s facility were the size of the Coors Brewery in Greeley, it could produce 351,000 tons of Meati products a year — enough to meet the protein needs of the “greater Denver/Boulder area for a year.”  On average, the company claims that operating at scale, it could produce the meat equivalent of 4,200 cows per day.

Huggins told Fast Company reporter Adele Peters that the strain of mycelium used in Meati products is “one of the fastest-growing organisms on the planet.  That’s very beneficial for overall production efficiency.  Meat demand is very high, so we have to be able to produce large volumes, and time is very important when it comes to overall cost.”

 

Coming to a Restaurant Near You…

 

While not available on the retail market, Meati products are expected to debut in several Colorado restaurants in early 2020.  The selected restaurants are reportedly “steakhouses and farm-to-table” models.

“We’re setting our standards very high when it comes to quality, taste and texture,” Huggins told Fast Company.  “We want it to be a truly drop-in replacement to animal-based meat products and getting that validation from restaurants that pride themselves on animal-based meat products that say ‘listen, we like it, it’s on par with animal protein, and we’re proud to serve it on our menu.’  That’s what we’re going for.”

Meati hopes to use its restaurant introduction to grow acceptance in the market before building to scale and hitting retail shelves.

Huggins founded the company with a University of Colorado classmate and fellow PhD student Justin Whiteley.  The pair started the company in 2016 and worked on the development of Meati products for over two years.  In July, Emery Foods raised $4.8 million in venture capital from eight investors, according to New Food Economy.

 

 

An illustration of the Future Meat Technologies production facility.  Future Meat Technologies photo.

Lab-Grown.  The Other Fake Meat.

by Kayla Sargent

The same week Emery Foods announced the launch of “Meati” — fungi-based protein intended to mimic steak and chicken breast, Harvard scientists announced a “breakthrough” in lab-grown meat.

Researchers have been working on creating “scaffolds” or structures for animal cells to grow on in order to form shape and texture like whole muscle cuts of meat.  Recently the Harvard team was able to grow cow and rabbit muscle cells on edible gelatin scaffolds that give the product a “mouth-feel” like meat, according to The Harvard Crimson.  Research leader Luke MacQueen said the scaffolds were inspired by a cotton candy machine.

“We’re making something that you could consider a bit to be like protein fibers — so protein candy, or protein fluff,” MacQueen told The Crimson.  “In this paper, we use gelatin because it’s a natural part of tissues.  And when we make scaffolds based on it, the cells love it and they crawl inside and organize into tissue that looks and feels a lot like meat.”

The study’s coauthor, Christophe Chantre said he believes lab-grown meat will be a “a big part of our market of meat as we move forward in the next couple decades.”  Chantre told The Harvard Crimson that among the benefits of lab-grown meat are less resource usage and the elimination of animal cruelty.

The new scaffold has many possibilities, MacQueen added.  It is able to “accept any type of cell” so it could make “chicken breast, a piece of shrimp, steak or liver,” MacQueen said to the The Crimson.

The Harvard study was simply a “proof of concept” and did not take into account the feasibility or price of the product, according to the article.  Chantre said cost will be a major concern if the product were on the market.

In the meantime, Israeli startup is focused primarily on bringing that cost down into an acceptable market-entry price.  Israel’s Future Meat Technologies announced a plan to build the world’s first pilot production facility for lab-grown meat.  The announcement came after a Series A funding round led by S2G Ventures that gathered $14 million for the project.  The new facility is expected to begin operations sometime in 2020.

“With this investment, we’re thrilled to bring cultured meat from the lab to the factory floor and begin working with our industrial partners to bring our product to the market,” Future Meat Technologies CEO Rom Kshuk said.  “We’re not only developing a global network of investors and advisors with expertise across the meat and ingredient supply chain, but also providing the company with sufficient runway to achieve commercially viable production costs within the next two years.”

The current small-scale production costs are about $150 per pound of chicken and $200 per pound of beef.  By 2022, Future Meat Technologies hopes to have the cost down to less than $10 per pound.

Tyson Ventures, the venture capital arm of Tyson Foods, has provided funding to Future Meat Technologies in the past.  The most recent round of funding was the second best in its class, beat only by a $17 million Series A funding round for Memphis Meats which was led by Bill Gates, Richard Branson and Cargill.

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