Artificial food is taking over the world – scientists already know how to grow products that are very similar to the usual, and by 2032 they promise to make them available to everyone. So researchers want to stop exploiting animals and contribute to the preservation of the planet. Elena Shifrina, founder and CEO of BioFoodLab and the Bite brand, talks about products made from herbal ingredients and the most promising technologies.
The absurdity of raising a whole chicken
Now widely known are the prophetic words of Winston Churchill that it is absurd to raise a chicken in order to eat its wing or breast. An article by the Prime Minister of Great Britain appeared in 1931 and was titled “Fifty Years Later”. And the first attempts to get artificial meat were made in 1971 – the future came even earlier than Churchill expected. True, it was not a chicken, but a guinea pig, whose smooth muscle was grown in a test tube by a scientist from the United States Russell Ross.
The first burger patty appeared later, in 2013, by scientists from the Netherlands. And the American company Eat Just began to produce artificial nuggets made from minced chicken, obtained in vitro from animal cells, last year it introduced the product in Singapore.
Meat production begins with taking material from the animal and selecting cells with a high growth rate, such as stem cells. Then these cells are placed in a special solution – a growth medium. Serum from bovine blood or its artificial alternative is often used as a medium. Also, for the development of muscle fibers, special compounds are needed – growth factors, some of which are synthesized naturally. The tissue is grown in a bioreactor using a scaffold, which can be a collagen mesh. So in the nutrient medium, muscle fibers are formed, which gradually increase, and ultimately “meat” is obtained.
In addition to meat from a test tube, today they are trying to use protein from insects. Insect protein flour is common in Asia, primarily in China. It is obtained from crickets, flies, mealworms, cockroaches. Protein flour is used to feed animals and fish that are raised on farms. The next step is the cultivation of “meat” from insects: such developments are being carried out, for example, by a group of researchers from Tufts University (USA).
Diet for a small planet
Eating less meat so as not to harm the planet is not a new idea. One of the first 50 years ago, the American writer Francis Moore Lappé spoke about this in the book “Diet for a Small Planet”. The book has become a bestseller that has made many people think about the importance of everyday choices and how everyone’s actions matter. One of the fans of Diet for a Small Planet ideas was environmentalist Seth Tibbott. After reading the book, he became a vegetarian and, in 1980, launched one of the first soy protein alternative meats called tempeh. Later, Seth Tibbott made Tofurkey – “turkey” from wheat protein and tofu.
The fact that you don’t need an animal to cook meat was the main driver behind the creation of Beyond Meat, which has taken steps to develop and scale up production of alternative meat based on pea protein. This is how the story of the growth of the vegetable meat market began, including in Russia.
How is meat made from plants? This involves three main steps: first, you need to grow the source of raw materials. The crops are then processed to separate the parts of the plants that are not needed for the future burger. The manufacturer then assembles a meaty flavor and aroma mixture that is processed to acquire a meaty texture. Various manufacturers add rapeseed, coconut and sunflower oil, flavors, thickener, dietary fiber, and spices to the “meat”.
Vegetable protein meat. These include plant-based foods with a meat-like texture and flavor made from soy, wheat, peas, rice, potatoes, canola, seaweed, and hemp. For the meat to acquire the required texture, the extrusion method is most often used. Raw materials for future meat are squeezed, then kneaded and heated by friction. The result is a product with an elastic structure reminiscent of animal meat. Then vegetable fat is added to the artificial meat, and beet or carrot juice can be used as “blood”.
Fermented protein. Fermentation is a chemical process, the transformation of a raw material into a final product using isolated cells or microorganisms. Fermentation is used to grow cultures of both plant and animal cells. Under the influence of fermentation, it is possible to obtain meat with a high concentration of protein, prebiotics and beneficial bacteria with an optimal amount of essential amino acids.
For the production of meat, you can use biomass from whole cells of any microculture. These can be microalgae, fungi, yeast, or bacteria. Another method of obtaining fermented plant-based meats is using refined protein. This is the so-called functional protein, which is produced by colonies of microorganisms, bacteria, microalgae, fungi, yeast. These two methods have not yet become widespread.
The most in demand products modified with the help of microorganisms have a nutrient profile and texture, which are distinguished by unique taste. Most often, legumes or soybeans are used for fermentation.
For example, BioFoodTech has developed an innovative and sophisticated two-step fermentation method for pea protein. The R&D center specialists have been working on its creation for two years. The essence of the method is that under the influence of enzymes and probiotics, pea protein acquires the smell, taste and texture of meat, namely, marbled beef. Blind testing on 600 people found that 8 out of 10 could not tell the difference between Bite cutlets and beef steak. The resulting technology will make it possible by 2023 to equalize prices for vegetable and regular meat in Russia, and will also become the basis for other alternative products with chicken, pork and crab flavors.
Almond and hemp milk
Plant-based milk is the first product to open up the world of alternative foods and the path to a vegan future. Plant-based blends have been around for a very long time. For example, almond milk, one of the first drinks designed to replace cow’s milk during fasting, appeared in the Middle Ages. In Russia, in the 17th century, they began to prepare nut drinks.
And if back in 2008 the alternative to traditional milk was mainly soy drinks, which were produced by Alpro (Great Britain) and Silk (USA), today the choice is huge. For the manufacture of vegetable milk, you can use nuts (almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, pistachios, walnuts), cereals (barley, corn, oats, rice, rye, wheat), pseudo-cereals (buckwheat, quinoa), seeds (chia, sunflower seeds, flax , hemp), legumes (soy, peas, peanuts) or coconut. Plant-based milk in color, consistency and partly in taste resembles ordinary milk.
Plant-based drinks are highly digestible and rich in protein, vitamins, minerals and complex carbohydrates, while being free of casein and lactose. Plant-based milk can be an alternative to animal milk for vegans, people with lactose intolerance, or those looking to diversify their diet.
About 30% of the Earth’s surface is occupied by animal pastures and only 4% is used to grow the plants that will end up on our table. Estimates of global greenhouse gas emissions from livestock production range from 8 to 51%. The planet’s population is increasing, and if we do not start to consume less animal protein, the consequences can be catastrophic: the ozone layer of the planet will suffer. In addition, we do not have enough resources to produce huge amounts of food.
The main consumers of plant foods are Generation Z, for whom not only health, but also the state of the environment, the conservation of natural resources and the welfare of animals are of great importance.
In order for vegetable meat and milk to become the same common products for us as products of animal origin, two conditions must be met: they must be of equal taste and the same price. The taste of artificial meat is already approaching natural, but this cannot be said about prices yet. High cost is one of the main consumer complaints about alternative products.
But it won’t always be that way. According to forecasts by the Boston Consulting Group and Blue Horizon Corporation, alternative vegetable proteins, including meat and dairy products from soybeans, peas and other proteins, will equalize in value with natural ones in 2023. Proteins from microorganisms, fungi, yeast and unicellular algae will be available by 2025, and animal cell products by 2032.