How Cancer Researchers Are 'Rebuilding Meat' out of Plants
"Our goal is to have a product that’s indistinguishable from animal protein." Here, an inside look at Beyond Meat.
“It’s one thing to create a sausage with a homogeneous bite,” Beyond Meat founder and CEO Ethan Brown says. “It’s another thing to create the varied texture of muscle, tendon, fat, sometimes even a little bit of bone. It took a really long time to get that right.” About nine years, actually—that’s how long the company’s been around.
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Specifically, he’s talking about the sausage that his company just released, which is currently available at one Whole Foods in Boulder, Colorado, though it’s scheduled to roll out to other regions this spring. Beyond Meat, famous for their pink-when-raw, brown-when-cooked vegetarian burger sold in the meat case, is backed by the likes of Bill Gates, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tyson (yes, the chicken company) and a former McDonald’s CEO. It just raised 55 million dollars in its latest round of funding to build a futuristic new R&D facility at their Los Angeles headquarters, about twenty miles south of Venice Beach. It’ll feature, among other things, a tasting lab with red lights where focus groups can taste test without being seduced by color. We stopped by to take a sneak peek.
Our conversation with Ethan Brown centered around meat: what it looks like, bleeds like, smells like, tastes like. Brown actually takes bites of meat in side-by-side taste tests, though he spits it out after, sommelier-style. “I need to be able to compare it exactly,” he says, explaining that 80/20 beef—which contains a namesake 20% fat—is the company’s "north star."
“Our goal is to have a product that’s indistinguishable from animal protein. That’s when we will have succeeded, and we’re not there yet,” he says.
And, it turns out, replicating meat is something that’s never seriously been attempted before—even though the American natural foods industry has been obsessed with alternate proteins since its inception in the ‘60s. But we’ve put men on the moon; we’ve cloned sheep. Brown is confident that, eventually, we can truly replicate meat—and use plants to do it.
Here’s the thing, though: We’re going to have to work outside of the food industry to get there. “I had a breakthrough four or five years ago when I started realizing that we can’t keep just working with food scientists,” Brown says, “because they all bring the same tool kit. We worked with some incredibly bright food scientists, for sure, but they just didn’t have the training to understand the composition of meat. We’re not trying to make a piece of soy taste like meat. We’re trying to actually rebuild meat.” He’s talking about the product on a structural level, one step up from the molecular level—stitching together proteins and fibers to actually mimic the microscopic composition of animal protein.
This is somewhere no company had ever gone before. Most category heavyweights of the ‘90s—Tofurkey, Boca Burger, Morningstar—stuck pretty closely to a more or less straightforward recipe of soy and gluten, and they were industry trailblazers that drove veggie burgers from eccentric hippie indulgences to multi-million dollar mainstream offerings. But, from a food innovation standpoint, they weren’t furthering research to better mimic meat—not the way that Beyond Meat or its competitor, Impossible Foods, has. Despite the lab-obsessed stereotype of the food industry, vegan food companies were technologically behind.
To help turn that tide, Brown brought on a team of cancer researchers and biophysicists. One of those people is Dariush Ajami, VP of R&D at Beyond Meat—with a Ph.D in organic chemistry, studying the functions of various proteins in cancer.
Protein molecules in food, it turns out, also have a lot to do with controlling texture, color and a whole host of other properties. In order to make something be pink at room temperature—just like raw meat—and then make it turn brown when cooked (it’s actually gray brown, Brown says), thermal-activated proteins are involved.
“Plant-based colorants that have previously been developed in the food industry have been developed to have a very long shelf life and be stable,” Ajami says. “To have something that’s stable at room temperature, and then changes when you cook it—that’s been challenging. And it’s something that hasn’t been done before.”
Aroma, too, has been hard to nail down: Raw meat doesn’t really have any. “It’s a bit of a blood note,” he says. “But when you cook it, sugars and fact react with amino acids to create 4,000 new molecules that weren’t there before. That’s why you smell your neighbor barbecuing.”
And that plump curvature of sausages—if you notice, they’re never perfectly straight—well, that’s due to the elasticity of animal intestines which are traditionally used for casing. (Beyond Meat uses rounded molds to mimic the shape.) Intestines are biologically amazing things, it turns out. Their semi-permeable membranes don’t allow fat to leak through at room temperature, but only when heat is applied—the result is that drool-worthy sizzle and sputter from grease released in the cooking process.
Slice a Beyond Meat brat or hot Italian sausage open, and you’ll see varied texture—denser pieces of muscle-like protein, chewy tendon-like bits, even little white globules of fat. (They’re stabilized coconut oil.) While the semantics of meat aren’t very appetizing, the sensory result is. And it’s an irony, then, that Beyond Meat’s anti-meat position is so centered around imitating the thing they’re against.
For some, the company’s technological prowess adds to its cool factor—in a sea of VC-backed food companies like Soylent and aforementioned Impossible foods, it’s establishing its relevance. To others, it’s a stark example of frankenfood amidst a counter-trend of artisanal everything. But the actual process of creating Beyond Meat sausage, Brown insists, is not that sterile. Complicated, yes, but fake, no.
“We’re literally just separating protein from plants,” he says. “You change the pH level of water, you put flour in it from peas or lentils or mustard seeds, or whatever, and that pH level separates the fiber from the protein. Then you just take the protein out and dry it, and you run it through a heating, cooling and pressure process. We’re just taking protein and re-stitching it until it creates [the structure of] muscle and fiber.”
For anyone who’s still weirded out? Well, Brown says, “We could go meet the farmer that grew your peas, we can show you how the protein was separated. We could also go see the farmer that raised the cow you consumed, and go see that slaughterhouse. You can’t tell me that process is better than our process,” he says.
However you feel about innovation, it’s the very thing that enables Brown to refer to his products as “meat.” This isn’t an aspirational term; at a structural level, Beyond Meat’s burgers and sausages have a fiber and protein composition groundbreakingly similar to animal flesh. And that likeness is increasing year over year.
Right now, the company is working on releasing a new version of their Beyond Burger. We actually had a chance to try it, and let’s just say: It’s even more meat-like than its predecessor. The texture’s more toothsome, varied and dense, in a good way—you have to chew it for a little longer than its previous version, just like when you bite into a good burger (vs. say, a sweet potato).
Is it indistinguishable from meat? No. Is it closer? Yes.
The company has its sights set on other meats as well: bacon, even steak. Steak wouldn’t actually be all that hard to replicate, according to Ajami. The more interesting challenge to him is ground meat—the company already has a product of ground meat crumbles, but he’s talking about the kind of meat you can shape into meatballs, or crumble into a sauce. “That textural versatility is challenging,” he says. “Being able to work with it in that way. We’re working on it.”