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Considering the current national predilection for natural and minimally processed foods, high-tech is not the term one would first attribute to up and coming products. The tech world, however, aims to change that. Counter to the trend towards natural ingredients emerging in many product categories, new technologies have been driving the creation of more nutritious, better tasting meat and dairy analogues. Silicon Valley investors have turned their attention not only to enhancing the taste and texture of meat and dairy alternatives, but to creating products that mimic the chemical composition of meat and dairy products produced without animal husbandry.
The meat industry in the United States has received a lot of criticism in recent years for its pervasive adoption of inhumane and unsanitary practices, outbreaks of foodborne illness, and extreme environmental footprint. Due to widespread press in the form of news coverage and documentary filmmaking, Americans are increasingly aware that cows, for example, are not animals that tread lightly on the earth. Increasing public scrutiny of animal agriculture has also led to concerns about the nutritional value of certain meat products. This concern was only buoyed by the World Health Organization’s 2015 classification of processed red meat as a carcinogen.
As a result of consumers’ growing concerns about animal products, demand for meat and dairy alternatives has risen in recent years. In the United States now, it is possible to find chilled and frozen meat analogues which resemble a wide variety of meat products ranging from maple breakfast sausages to faux-shrimp. Such variety was unimaginable ten years ago. Retail producer Beyond Meat recently released a hyper-realistic burger that even bleeds when it cooks, similar to a beef burger. Instead of blood, however, it bleeds beet juice. Meat substitutes has grown at a compound annual growth rate of over 5% for the last five years, reaching US $660 million in 2016.
Non-dairy milk alternatives has been an all-star category for years. Other milk alternatives, which is comprised of almond, cashew, and coconut milks (not soy milk), has seen a compound annual growth rate of over 30% for the period 2011-2016, reaching US $1.7 billion this year. Other milk alternatives was dominated by almond milk in the early 2010’s, overtaking soy as the on-trend alternative to cow’s milk. In very recent years, however, producers have begun to realize the opportunity for milks produced from other nuts and legumes. Some niche companies are producing pistachio milk as well as milk from peas and pulses. Non-dairy milk alternatives are expected to be increasingly inventive as companies invest in new product development.
Soy and nut based meat and dairy analogues may satisfy the palettes of vegans and vegetarians, but what about meat eaters who want to indulge without contributing to the negative environmental impact that the meat industry creates? Many companies are working to address this question by creating products which are compositionally identical to meat and dairy, but do not involve animal husbandry at any point in their production.
The technical innovation and investment in these high-tech products, aptly, is being driven by the tech world. Google founder Sergey Brin and Paypal co-founder Peter Theil contributed significant funding to research for the company Modern Meadow’s cultured meat—real meat grown in a lab from bovine stem cells. Bill Gates also has a significant stake in meat analogue company Impossible Foods. San Francisco based brand’s Perfect Day products are created using fermented yeast to create the same proteins found in milk. The company aims to create a product that is equivalent to milk, but lactose and hormone free, and is completely vegan. From their milk, Perfect Day will create a variety of dairy products such as cheese, yoghurt, and ice cream.
As meat and dairy analogues made from soy and nuts improve in taste and quality, cultured meat and synthetic dairy will be creeping behind them. The fact that companies like Perfect Day and Modern Meadows are aiming to reinvent, not mimic, the “real thing” suggests that they’re not just looking to cater to vegans and vegetarians, as vegans and vegetarians are not necessarily interested in consuming animal products. These companies are looking to provide a sustainable alternative to ecologically degrading meat and dairy which appeals to the general population of omnivores.
Mark Post, a professor of physiology at Maastricht University and the inventor of cultured meat in 2013, predicts the following for the grocery store of the future: “Twenty years from now if you enter the supermarket you will have the choice between two products. One is made in an animal. It now has this label on it saying that animals have suffered or have been killed for this product and it has an eco-tax because it’s bad for the environment. And it’s exactly the same as an alternative product that is being made in a lab… From an ethical point of view [cultured meat] has only benefits.”
The satirical television series Silicon Valley recently featured a now-famous line that exemplifies the marriage of competition and delusions of grandeur that pervade the tech world, with one character stating, “I don’t want to live in a world where someone else is making the world a better place better than we are.” Although many Silicon Valley products, such as apps that make flattering filters for selfies, don’t necessarily make the world a better place, “real-fake” meat and dairy analogues will indisputably create tangible good. In the race to solve the problems of industrial animal agriculture, high-tech foods may wind up to be the best solution on the table.