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As the environmental impact of livestock is increasingly debated as a key obstacle in achieving sustainable lifestyles, sales of plant-based meat substitutes have made steady gains in developed markets, as they move away from being the preserve of vegetarians to becoming popular among the wider group of flexitarians seeking to reduce their meat intake. Could this shift be seen as a prelude to the rise of a next generation of meat alternatives that use technologies still in the realm of science fiction?
While so-called “lab meat” in-vitro meat and 3D–printed meat are still years away from being stacked on supermarket shelves next to steak trays, the growing appetite for meat substitutes is encouraging investors and research institutes to back projects to make these products commercially-viable options, in a bid to appeal to ethically–minded meat lovers.
The strong growth of plant-based meat alternatives, notably in Western Europe, was partly driven by ongoing improvements in mimicking the texture and taste qualities of real meat. A high profile new vegetarian burger that uses the genetic code from soybeans to imitate the blood infused properties of beef was launched in summer 2016 at the New York restaurant Momofuku Nishi. Its producer, Impossible Foods, a start-up set up in 2011 in California to reinvent the veggie burger, benefited from support from large investors including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Google Ventures. It seeks to be a game-changer by appealing to meat eaters who will not compromise on the “meatiness” taste, and therefore remove the main obstacle still standing in the way of meat substitutes being regularly eaten by a majority of adults in developed markets.
Some forward-looking companies seek to move beyond plant-based options in order to create the next breakthrough in the evolution of meat substitutes, since a team from Maastricht University in the Netherlands demonstrated the first cultured or in-vitro meat in 2013 by growing meat from cow cells. Among them, Memphis Meat, a start-up based in California, first produced a meatball using a bioreactor in 2016 and expects to commercialise its products within five years, while researchers in France, Israel and Japan are working on similar projects.
Although 3D printed meat cannot claim to break grounds in ethical terms in the same way as in-vitro meat does, its emergence could also contribute in shifting consumer acceptance towards alternative types of meat. The German company Biozoon, under the aegis of the EU-funded Performance Project, has been a pioneer in using 3D printing technology to create new shape and textures for food, including some meat-based products. The 3D printed dishes, which can combine several ingredients including chicken and pork, are well suited to create balanced meals which are easier to eat by reproducing each ingredient but with a softer texture, and as a result have already been adopted by some nursing homes in Germany.
While the ability to use 3D printers to reproduce muscle tissue is already assured, the obstacles remain to give the end product a taste and texture comparable to cooked meat. At the Australian research institute CSIRO, scientists plan to be able to demonstrate improvements in 3D printed meat properties in 2017 by combining starches with meat extract “ink”, although they still intend to create a soft, easy to chew type of meat that would cater for the needs of elderly people.
Due to its current limitations, 3D printed meat, in a similar way to in-vitro meat, is likely to initially take the shape of the most processed types of meat with other ingredients, such as burgers and sausages, rather than trying to replicate meat cuts with muscles. The opportunities for personalisation offered by 3D printed meat could be seized by foodservice outlets. Meanwhile, plant-based meat substitutes are likely to benefit from efforts to improve 3D printed technology to create more sophisticated meat-like textures.
While plant-based meat substitutes still have bright days ahead of them before being challenged by other types of meat alternatives still years away from being commercially competitive, the increased popularity of plant-based meat alternatives among consumers, fuelled by growing ethical concerns and improvements in mimicking meat, could herald the potential future acceptance of a wider range of alternatives to meat, once they become available.
Industrially-processed meat may be particularly vulnerable, potentially challenged by newer types of substitute products which can claim to score higher on ethical grounds, provided that their quest for achieving the holy grail of “meatless meat” tastes is not scuppered by a consumer backlash against over-engineered food or by legislation undermining their development.